A Defiant Hymn Penned In Secrecy
One night in mid-1966, in a satellite prison we called the “Zoo” on the outskirts of Hanoi, North Vietnam, I was in solitary (as were most of us there). I was awakened by an American voice somewhere in the same building calling out “Bao cao, bao cao!” — which means loosely in Vietnamese, “I need to report something,” and were the only words we were allowed to say that could be heard outside of our cells and generally were used only for an emergency. The man’s calls seemed to become more insistent, but with no results. So I joined in: “Bao cao, bao cao!” I’m thinking maybe the guy’s in pain from appendicitis or is bleeding.
Then I hear a guard running toward my door; “Kip Shilent! Kip Shilent!” He was kicking the outside of my metal door, BAM, BAM. Then he runs back to the other guy, who is now yelling “bao cao” louder, and I hear the guard cussing out the other guy. I called out again, “Bao cao!” The guard comes stomping back and cusses me out again, shoving the bayonet on his AK-47 through the mid-crack in my steel door as he kicked it again, BAM, BAM.
Finally, we both gave up on the bao cao and the night became quiet again.
The next day, the man in the next cell tapped to me (we tapped out our coded messages to each other) that the other guy who was calling out last night was Air Force Maj. Quincy Collins from North Carolina, but he didn’t know what his problem was.
Flash forward to 1971 in downtown Hanoi in Camp Unity. I’m in a large cell bay with about 30 other guys, one of whom was Collins, who ended up close to me on the cement sleeping platform.
“Hey, Quincy, remember that night in the Zoo in ’66, you were yelling your head off, ‘Bao cao, bao cao!’ What were you yelling about?”
“Well, I heard this other guy yelling ‘bao cao‘ but to no avail, so I ended up yelling for him. I never knew what his problem was, but I think we about drove that little guard crazy that night.”
Anyway, before flying Air Force fighter bombers (F-105s), Quincy was a music major at University of North Carolina and drum major in its marching band. (He was destined to wear a uniform). While we were together there in Unity, he nabbed four of us to be his piano — lead (melody), tenor, baritone and bass — whereupon he composed the official POW Hymn. He wrote the music on crude toilet paper with a bamboo stylus using ink made with Kool-Aid, and had us sing the parts in harmony, listen and tweak it, and tweak a little more until it was right. We had to sing it all very softly so it couldn’t be heard outside the cell block, and so it wouldn’t disturb our cellmates. Then he gradually added the words to each verse and had us sing them as well — like doing a line drawing, then adding the color between the lines.
Oh God, to thee we raise this prayer and sing From within these foreign prison walls.
We’re men who wear the Gold and Silver wings
And proudly heed our nation’s call.
Give us strength to withstand all the harm that the hand of our enemy captors can do
To inflict pain and strife and deprive every life of the rights they know well we are due
We pledge unswerving faith and loyalty
to our cause, America, and Thee … and Thee … and THEE … Amen!
A choir of about 25 of us sang this hymn for President and Mrs. Nixon at the formal White House banquet they held for us a couple of months after our repatriation in April 1973, and again at the closing formal banquet at our 50th anniversary reunion a few years ago in Newport Beach, Calif.
But, as you might imagine, it has a very special meaning for those of us who were lucky enough to sing those first parts of harmony in Hanoi so Quincy could get it right.