With his hands bound in manacles, an imprisoned Air Force pilot watched from his bamboo holding cell as North Vietnamese soldiers moved a wounded American prisoner into the cell across from his.
The pilot was shocked at the man’s appearance; his fingers were raw and his body was emaciated. His whole body was covered in wounds; he had been pushing through the jungle for 45 days without food. The pilot did not recognize the new prisoner.
The next morning, the guards had the pilot and his cell mate pick up the new prisoner to take him to the bathroom. The withered man looked over at his fellow prisoner and said, “Aren’t you Guy Gruters?”
“Yea, who are you?” Gruters responded.
Oh no. Not Lance … not Lance, thought Gruters.
Air Force veteran and Vietnam War prisoner of war, retired Capt. Guy Gruters, spoke of his tragic yet inspiring experience in captivity to airmen and civilians assembled in Sijan Hall at the 128th Air Refueling Wing April 25.
Gruters told the audience, which also included members of the 128th’s Community Council and distinguished guests including: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker; Maj. Gen. Donald P. Dunbar, the Adjutant General of Wisconsin; and Janine Sijan Rozina, Sijan’s sister, that he and Sijan were in the same squadron at the U.S. Air Force Academy for three years. Sijan, a Milwaukee native, was solid as a rock at 210 pounds and had played football for the Academy.
“To see him hurt so bad was really difficult,” Gruters said. “They would torture him, and we would scream in our cells to get them to lay off him and they’d come beat us.”
Gruters continued to specify the harsh treatment they received where they were moved to at Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. Their manacles were on 24 hours a day. They were beaten constantly on their wounds. They were only allowed to wash themselves once a week. Parasites, malnutrition and heat rash deteriorated the prisoners’ health.
Though Sijan’s wounds and health worsened, Gruters said he was always asking what the escape plan was and what he could do to help.
“He was always ready to escape,” Gruters said. “We’d always come up with plans just so Lance was satisfied.”
Sijan succumbed to the harsh treatment and died of pneumonia January 22, 1968.
“Lance’s leadership of resistance was perfect,” Gruters said. “He fought them until he died. His story was spread throughout the camps over and over again, and I think that’s what was responsible for a lot of the resistance in the camps.”
In the more than five years Gruters spent in captivity, he and his fellow prisoners devised a way to communicate to keep their faith alive. The tap code, which is now taught in military intelligence schools, is based off of the alphabet in a grid system. One person would kneel on the floor to ensure the guards were nowhere nearby while two would tap on the wall to send messages back and forth.
“We did texting,” Gruters said. “You know how all the kids do texting now. Every night we tapped GNGBU. Good night, God bless you.”
The punishment for communicating was three days and three nights of torture, but the prisoners communicated for hours using the tap code to raise their morale and hold on to their faith.
“The North Vietnamese couldn’t conceive of how we did this,” Gruters said.
Gruters told his audience that he had the best leadership in that prison camp. The higher ranking officers often took the brunt of the beatings for their men. They encouraged subtle resistance and mandated that they take part in church services within their cells. Their primary order was to return with honor.
After Gruters and 590 POWs were released during Operation Homecoming in 1973, Gruters was instrumental to officials posthumously awarding the Medal of Honor to Sijan in 1976.
Gruters’ message to the Milwaukee audience was that leadership and teamwork will prevail. Communication was a key component in the prisoners’ survival and in Gruters’ presentation.
After much applause, Walker, the Wisconsin governor, stood up and thanked Gruters for his great contribution and commitment to his country and his faith. Then he addressed the audience.
“Freedom. It’s a simple word. It’s endowed by our creator,” Walker said. “Defined by our constitution more than 225 years ago, but it’s defended by men and women like you.”