POW preserves promise, resilience during adversity

Air Force photograph by Staff Sgt. Nick Wilson

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Barry Bridger, former 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron F-4 Phantom aircraft commander, bows his head in prayer during the invocation of a POW/MIA closing ceremony at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., Sept. 15, 2016. Bridger is a highly decorated veteran and survivor of six years in Vietnam’s infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp.

Imagine flying an F-4 Phantom with a copilot over North Vietnam during wartime in 1967. Now picture getting shot down by a surface-to-air missile, having to eject and parachute into downtown Hanoi, Vietnam, before being swarmed by a crowd.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. (Ret.) Barry Bridger, former 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron F-4 Phantom aircraft commander, did just that. He shared his story with Airmen and civilians from Team Langley as part of Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Recognition Day here, Sept. 16.

Bridger was shot down and captured during his 1967 deployment to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, for a combat tour with the 497th Fighter Squadron to fly night-missions. He was imprisoned for 2,232 days in the “Hanoi Hilton” camp in North Vietnam.

“I was finally given the opportunity to fly a daylight mission, which is when you might have the chance to shoot down a big and hairy fighter pilot that wants to shoot down a [Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17] aircraft,” Bridger chuckled. “I didn’t dodge very well that day.”

Their parachutes brought Bridger and his copilot right beside the prison. They plummeted into the heart of a 100-strong group of North Vietnamese soldiers, police forces and civilians.

All of this took place within about 10 minutes of descending less than 200 yards from the prison camp. They were also mocked and taunted before being taken into the POW camp, Bridger explained.

“[After landing], we got hit a lot with shoes and bricks and mess like that, so it was probably a pretty good idea to get inside the prison,” Bridger said, with a laugh. “They didn’t have too far for [us] to walk.”

Bridger became a prisoner of war on Jan. 23, 1967.

“That’s a bad day,” said Clifford B. Weddington, First Command Financial Services principal and district advisor, who has known and worked alongside Bridger for more than 20 years. “Bridger holds the record for the shortest distance ever between landing, being captured and being taken as a prisoner of war.”

Bridger’s first instincts were to run after hitting the ground.

“But there was no place to run — no place to go,” he said. “Haha! If I would’ve landed in a jungle, I think I would’ve had a shot at it!”
Knowing there was no place to escape without being killed, Bridger and his copilot were taken into custody.

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Barry Bridger, former 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron F-4 Phantom aircraft commander, shares his story during a POW/MIA closing ceremony at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., Sept. 16, 2016. Bridger was shot down, captured and imprisoned for 2,232 days (six years) during the Vietnam War. The third Friday in September has been observed as POW/MIA Recognition Day since 1986. Since World War I, more than 150,000 Americans have been held as prisoners of war and more than 83,400 service members are still unaccounted for.

“They usually got you into an [interrogation room] very quickly – within minutes or hours,” Bridger explained. “In my case, [I arrived] there instantly, so I was questioned within a couple of hours.”

The case was different for Bridger’s copilot, who the Vietnamese soldiers had originally mistaken as the mission commander.

“He was the big guy; he was 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed about 210 pounds,” Bridger said. “I was a little 5 foot 9 guy, weighing in at about 148 pounds. So [according to them], I couldn’t possibly be the commander of that aircraft.”

Bridger’s copilot was taken in by captors to be interviewed first.

“Two hours later, they realized, ‘Oops we got the wrong guy!’” Bridger jested. “So they came and got me, took me into the interrogation room and we [played games] for the next five to six days.”

“Playing games” meant he and his copilot were constantly tortured back and forth, Bridger said.

“When they took you to the interrogation center, they would basically say to you, ‘You need to cooperate with us or go to the torture chamber. Which do you prefer?” Bridger explained. “Now it’s interesting to me that out of 500 POWs, they all said, ‘We’ll take the torture chamber.’”

When the captors weren’t being tortured, they were each isolated (either alone or with a roommate) in concrete cells.

“The most difficult part, without any doubt, was listening to my fellow Americans scream in agony because we [could not save] them from the torture they were having to endure,” Bridger said. “The number one torture tactic they had, among many others, was to put your arms behind your back and place them in manacles.”

Manacles are metal shackles used for fastening someone’s hands or ankles.

“They would run a nylon strap from your wrists to between your shoulders, and pull your shoulders out of the sockets, ripping out the tendons,” Bridger explained. “Then it would take nine months to be able to pick your hand back up to your nose again.”

The Vietnamese captors used the torture chambers on Bridger and his comrades as part of an effort to destroy their cultural bonds, heritage and loyalty to the United States.

“They tried to get us to become anti-war [by] saying that our government had lied to us about things,” Bridger said. “They wanted us to get on the [prison’s] radio system and demoralize the other Americans that were in the system that weren’t having any part of it.”

They Vietnamese captors wanted their U.S. prisoners to help them convert the entire group of Americans against their own country, Bridger said.
“They would offer to give us good food, exercise and privileges if we would cooperate with the Vietnamese interrogation group, and nobody did,” Bridger said. “The diet we had over a seven year period went all over the place.

Bridger and the other U.S. captives were fed a green meal they collectively named, “ditchweed” or “mongue.”

“It had the consistency of [and smelled worse than] saliva,” Bridger said. “I’ll never forget the time they brought a bowl of that into my room.”
Bridger and his first roommate in the prison sat and picked at their meal for about 45 minutes, he said.

“I looked at my roommate and said, ‘Bill would you like seconds?’” Bridger laughed. “I’ll never forget his response. He said, ‘Barry, we’re all going to die!’”

“Hahaha! You’ve got to be able to laugh if you’re going to be in that mess,” Bridger jested. “But we all had a morbid sense of humor and were determined to help each other out. We would laugh at anything.”

The group of American captives were so determined to survive that they started a competition amongst themselves, Bridger said.

“[We wanted] to see who could stay in the torcher chamber the longest,” Bridger said. “I held the record; I had six days in the torcher chamber until it was broken a month later.”

Another POW beat Bridger by staying in the torcher chamber for eight days.

“I said, ‘The next time I get a chance, I’m going [back in to] beat that record,’” Bridger said. “We made a competition out of taking pain! Only an American would be able to do that.”

Bridger and his fellow comrades never gave up hope.

“The only thing that’s going to get you through tough times is what you value about life, [living and being.] We carried, in common, a set of themes we valued as Americans,” Bridger said. “We called them inalienable rights … to the pursuit of happiness.”

Through unsuccessful torture and persuasion tactics, the Hanoi Hilton POWs endured until being released and able to return home on March 3, 1973.
Bridger continued to serve the U.S. Air Force for 11 more years until he retired in October 1984, culminating with 22 total years of active duty service.

“Barry is not only a hero, but also a great man,” Weddington said. “He is a true leader [because] he is inspirational. He loves speaking to Airmen and developing leaders.”

He received the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal with V device, Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster, Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters and Prisoner of War Medal throughout his career.

“I think I speak for a lot of the POWs when I say this: we didn’t join the Armed Forces to be recognized and receive medals,” Bridger said. “We wanted to do our part to preserve the promise of America.”