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Orson Swindle: Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton – Vietnam prisoner to Asst. Commerce Secretary (interview)

Written By | Feb 2, 2014

DALLAS, TX, February 2, 2014 – In the cockpit of his F-8 fighter jet twenty-nine year old Marine Corps Captain Orson Swindle wiped his brow. It was November 11,1966, and on the runway of Da Nang Air Base, Swindle’s F-8 “Crusader” hummed awaiting its climb into the skies above Vietnam. The tropical climate of Southeast Asia was unforgiving even at this time of year with an average humidity of 80%, making movement extremely uncomfortable.

In the cockpit Orson Swindle’s thoughts drifted back home as this would be his 205th combat mission during the Vietnam conflict and was scheduled to be his last.” I was thinking about my wife and my four year-old son Kevin back home in the U.S. and about that moment when I would hold them both in my arms again. It would only be then that I would really be home again,” Swindle remembers.

He was a long way from his boyhood home in Camilla, Georgia, where his grandmother and great-aunt raised him. After high school he graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in Industrial Management before entering the United States Marine Corps officer-training course called “The Basic School” or TBS in Quantico, Virginia. Orson Swindle graduated from TBS and went on to Pensacola, Florida, to earn his Marine Corps aviator wings in 1964. In February of 1966 he deployed with his squadron to Da Nang Air Base in Vietnam.

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Orson Swindle was a member of Marine (All Weather) Fighter Squadron 235 (VMF (AW) 235), one of the first Marine F-8 squadrons to be deployed to Vietnam. By the end of the war the VMFA-235 “Death Angels” as they were called would fly over 6000 combat missions. In Vietnam the F-8 began to prove itself in the role of close air support. Providing assistance to troops on the ground pinned down under enemy fire was the “bread and butter” of a Marine Corps Aviator. It was also one of the most dangerous roles an aviator could assume due to the low level flying required to deliver explosive ordinance to enemy positions. It was dangerous to both aviators and friendly troops alike because of the close proximity of friend and foe and the immense power of the explosives carried.

There have been amazing acts of heroism on the part of pilots supporting ground troops, one even crashing his plane during a relentless effort to save troops mercilessly outnumbered. Orson Swindle loved flying and in a country constantly at war, above the clouds was another world and sometimes you could almost feel the peaceful serenity of God’s hand.

Over the radio he received his clearance to take off and the roar of the engine became deafening as his hand eased the throttle forward. Then came the moment Orson Swindle’s life would change.

“It was around 2PM as I recall and we were over Quang Binh Province. I was flying in formation with another pilot, and we both maneuvered to make our runs on the target. The other pilot couldn’t see the target, he said he couldn’t find it but I searched for a moment and found it. Then I rolled in on the target and dropped my bombs. I pulled off and then I got hit somewhere in the belly of the aircraft and all of the hydraulic controls in the airplane stopped working. It really just doesn’t fly very well that way,” Swindle recalls.

His F-8 badly damaged, Swindle frantically worked to keep the crippled aircraft aloft.

“I tried to read my instruments, but couldn’t and I estimated I was at about 2,000 feet and going down fast. I knew I had to just get out of the airplane and there was nothing I could do to keep from going down. I made the one mistake every pilot tries to avoid and I ejected right after dropping on a target,” Swindle remembers.

Orson Swindle was traveling at over 450 knots (518 MPH) and heading nose down toward the ground as he pulled the lever for the ejection seat. He heard the sound of explosive bolts as they sent the canopy of the F-8 cartwheeling away. Suddenly he was thrust skyward as the rockets propelled him into the blue expanse of sky that loomed above him. The force at which pilots are launched upon ejection from an aircraft is a danger in itself. Serious back injury is not uncommon when a pilot pulls the “yellow lever” to “punch out” as pilots refer to it. When a pilot makes the decision to escape a damaged aircraft and eject it is without fail a struggle that involves a heroic effort to keep airborne and the options have all “run out.”

In the age of jet fighters gravity is a highly unforgiving force and a beautifully engineered aircraft turns into a “flying brick” when hydraulics fail and engines stop working.

As the silk mushroom of his parachute expanded above him he felt his heart sink in his chest. Bullets began to whiz by him as small arms fire from the ground began targeting him. “ I remember asking God to take care of my wife and son because I did not think I was going to make it home,” Orson Swindle says.

On the ground things turned from bad to worse as North Vietnamese troops captured him. “I was taken to a local village where I was beaten with sticks and rocks by the people there. I was thinking this cannot be true, and then the reality set in and I was in shock, “Swindle remembers.

The next day he stood before a group of interrogators, and relentless questioning turned to torture as Swindle stuck to his training and recited only his name, rank and serial number. “They used parachute cord to apply tourniquets around my arms above the elbows and it was so tight I lost feeling in my arms,” he remembers.

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Orson Swindle’s ordeal was just beginning and he would soon learn of his captor’s skill at torture and find new depths to the level of pain he would endure. Parachute cord was tied around Orson Swindle’s thumbs and he was lifted off the ground. “I could feel my shoulders pop out of their sockets,” he said. The intense pain gripping Swindle’s body began taking its toll.

“At that point you start to think you’re insane because the pain becomes so unbearable and in the solitude of your mind you begin to realize just how alone you are,” he remembers.

It was at that point that Swindle did something so foreign to him he amazed even himself. He began to lie and gave his interrogators a list of the players on his high school football team as the pilots in his squadron. Orson Swindle had hit upon a strategy that would be used time and again by those imprisoned and pushed to the edge of sanity in torture chambers throughout Southeast Asia. Prisoners were subjected to relentless physical and mental torture that left them barely clinging to life and in giving them false information, they allowed themselves to retain not only their lives but also their honor.

In December of 1966 Orson Swindle was transferred to Hoa Lo prison also known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”

Built in the 1800’s, Hoa Lo prison was used by the French to house political prisoners. The name translates into “Hell’s Hole” or “Fiery Furnace” and came from the use of wood stoves on the street where the prison was built. At the Hanoi Hilton, Swindle found himself in the company of many courageous men including Arizona Senator John McCain, Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running mate during his presidential campaign in 1992, Bud Day, the recipient of both the Medal of Honor and an Air Force Cross, and many other heroic men.

Imprisonment in the Hanoi Hilton was a test of a man’s spirit, and the relentless battle between captor and prisoner would find new levels of strength from inside the depths of every man trapped there. Orson Swindle remembers John McCain.

“I knew of John McCain as a POW long before we were imprisoned together at Hoa Lo and actually met face to face. There was always something about him that inspired the human spirit. He was gregarious and outgoing, and he would not let one man give up on himself. John is one of the many people I have to thank for surviving six years in that hell hole.”

He also credits Admiral James Stockdale, who was one of the highest-ranking POWs at the Hanoi Hilton, often our senior ranking officer, for his leadership and for developing a system that motivated the men there to survive and reach their goal to return home with honor. Orson Swindle was himself an inspiration to many. He also has a sense of humor. Swindle remembers fooling his jailers into believing in a fake American Holiday. “I invented a holiday called National Donut Day and it occurred on November 10.” Swindle said.

While imprisoned at Son Tay Camp in 1969, Swindle’s North Vietnamese captors, on rare occasions, would take stale and moldy bread, fry it and sprinkle it with sugar and give it to the prisoners. The POWs called this a “sticky bun.” Swindle convinced his captors, during an interrogation, that the “treat” was similar to donuts and that on National Donut Day everyone should receive one. The POW’s had a communication system called the “tap code.” Carlyle “Smitty” Harris had learned the “tap code” from an instructor at Air Force survival school and taught the other prisoners how to tap out letters using a five by five matrix of the alphabet.

As soon as Orson Swindle returned to his cell he used the “tap code” to let everyone know about “National Donut Day.” “On November 10 we all feasted on sticky buns and I had fooled our North Vietnamese jailers into celebrating the Marine Corps birthday,” Swindle remembers.

In November of 1966, Orson Swindle became a prisoner of war and was 6’2” and 195 pounds and he estimates that at the worst point of his imprisonment in 1969 he weighed roughly 120 pounds, a mere shadow of his former self. When Orson Swindle walked out of the Hanoi Hilton on March 4, 1973 he weighed just 150 pounds. There were 650 POW’s in Southeast Asia and the vast majority were tortured and imprisoned in North Vietnam. On February 12, 1973, the first American POWs were released and began their journey home during Operation Homecoming. What is amazing about Orson Swindle and many of the others imprisoned by the North Vietnamese is that, with few exceptions, they have not borne the psychological effects of their harsh imprisonment.

They have in fact been strengthened by it and become courageous and inspiring leaders. In “Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton,” authors Peter Fretwell and Taylor Kiland use expansive interviews and studies with the residents of the Hanoi Hilton to distill the qualities that allowed these men to survive the depths of hell in a Vietnamese prison. Orson is one of the many POW’s featured in this well written analysis of the inner workings of a hero. Swindle is an inspiration for the courage and resourcefulness he exhibited as a prisoner of war.

He returned home from his imprisonment to earn a Masters of Business Administration from Florida State University in 1975. He earned more than twenty awards for valor during the Vietnam War including two Silver Stars and two Legion of Merit awards. He retired from the Marine Corps in 1979 as a lieutenant colonel. He would be chosen by President Ronald Reagan to be an Assistant Secretary of Commerce and served as an U.S. Department of Agriculture executive in Georgia. He was Executive Director of Ross Perot’s citizen action organization, United We Stand America, formed after Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign.

He would also run unsuccessfully for Congress in 1994 and 1996 for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District. From 1997 to 2005 he was a Commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington DC.

Orson Swindle is a breed of hero that will inspire future generations to understand that sacrifice for your country, duty and honor are some of the most important qualities anyone can possess. He has lived by these principles his entire life and his message to us all is,

“If there is some lesson that we must learn from this ordeal it should be this. We have seen the weakness of a divided country and people; we have seen the encouragement this has given our enemy. We have also seen the great strength of unity as so wonderfully directed to the plight of the POWs, MlAs, and their families. We must someday comprehend how fantastically blessed we have been to be Americans, what our responsibilities are, and most important of all – we are one thing above all else – We are Americans! Let that day be today. Let us unite now and forever to meet every challenge. Semper Fidelis!”

Orson Swindle lives in Alexandria, VA with his second wife, Angela Williams, and spends time with his son Kevin in Georgia as often as possible. He continues to gather with not only his fellow inmates from the Hanoi Hilton, but with others who endured the test of the human spirit in wartime that only the few encounter. He also says, “I never miss a chance to thank our men and women in uniform, often stopping in airports to shake the hands of the young men and women who serve this great country.”

Thank you, Orson Swindle, for your courage and determination to survive six years in the Hanoi Hilton and for the inspiration you provide those whose lives you have touched.

2013: @JElam


Jerome Elam

Jerome Elam is President and CEO of Trafficking in America Task Force. Raised in a broken home by an alcoholic parent, he is a survivor of child abuse/domestic violence, child sex trafficking, and child pornography. Brought up in the South, Jerome enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at the age of seventeen. The decision to serve was made, in part, as an effort to escape the tragic circumstances he was trapped in. Through the experience of serving his country, Jerome found a new beginning and embarked upon a journey that showed him the world. This opened his eyes to the strength of the human spirit. After his completion of eight years in the United States Marine Corps, Mr. Elam attended the University of Florida, earning a Bachelor of Science degree. He went on to spend several years working in the Biotechnology sector. Motivated by the painful memories of his past, Jerome found his inner strength and began to speak out about his abuse. Through this journey, he found the healing force of God's unconditional love and discovered the joy of starting his own family. Today, Mr. Elam is a fierce Advocate for all children deprived of their voice. He is a public speaker, a staff writer, and known columnist for Communities Digital News. Recently featured as one of New York's New Abolitionists, he remains dedicated to the protection and empowerment of trafficked people. Staying true to values he learned in the Marine Corps continues to provide a safe harbor for all, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual identity, or immigration status. When asked to describe his life experiences Mr. Elam stated, "I have struggled against many things in my life and somehow I found a way to survive. Writing is my passion and it keeps me in touch with the wealth everyone holds deep inside their hearts and minds. I share my experiences in the hope that those suffering in silence will find the courage to speak out and share their voices. I have been blessed to have God reveal His purpose to me in saving innocent children from predators." Jerome has received the Award for Courage presented by the National Council of Jewish Women for his work in the advocacy arena and has been appointed a Special Advisor to the Attorney General of Utah.