News

‘Captured: Shot Down in Vietnam’: Former POW Shares His Story at Nixon Museum

‘Captured: Shot Down in Vietnam’: Former POW Shares His Story at Nixon Museum

Air Force Lt. Colonel Tom Hanton giving his POW talk at Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2023. (Carol Cassis/The Epoch Times)

Carol Cassis

Carol Cassis

8/30/2023

Updated: 8/31/2023

Air Force Lt. Colonel Tom Hanton had much to say to his small Yorba Linda, California, audience Aug. 29 as he recalled being shot down over North Vietnam in 1972.
Over 50 people came to hear Mr. Hanton’s story at the Nixon Library’s Cabinet Room, a talk which coincided with the museum’s 50 year anniversary marking when the last U.S. troops left Vietnam following the end of the war.
The retired colonel’s talk was part of the museum’s lecture series accompanying their new exhibit: “Captured: Shot Down In Vietnam,” which showcases stories and paraphernalia from Vietnam War soldiers captured as prisoners of war.
The veteran relayed his story with surprising humor, describing practical jokes he and his fellow U.S. Air Force inmates pulled on North Vietnamese prison guards during their capture from 1972 to early 1973.
“I just pretended I was in school [during imprisonment], and acted either like a teacher’s pet or their worst nightmare,” Mr. Hanton said with a laugh during his lecture.
His capture and subsequent imprisonment, however, was dangerous.
When he was taken, Mr. Hanton was flying over North Vietnam near Da Nang, where his squadron was stationed. During his flight, however, he was shot down by the North Viet Cong and was forced to eject from his plane to avoid death. He was on his 135th flight at the time of his capture.
Though he was not seriously injured, he and his pilot were “severely beaten” by their captors before being stripped down to their underwear and boots and forced on a two-day trek to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, known as ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ which was used to house U.S. military captives during the war.
“That’s the worst I was treated at the time, being captured,” Mr. Hanton told the crowd. “The beating was brutal.”
Once there, Mr. Hanton was blindfolded and placed in solitary confinement for 30 days.
Despite his harsh capture, Mr. Hanton said his experience was better than many of his fellow inmates, who he said were treated “far worse” prior to North Vietnamese forces adopting regulations from the Geneva Conventions outlawing torture of POWs.
A poster of the ‘Captured: Shot Down In Vietnam’ exhibit is displayed at Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2023. (Carol Cassis/The Epoch Times)

A poster of the ‘Captured: Shot Down In Vietnam’ exhibit is displayed at Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2023. (Carol Cassis/The Epoch Times)

“There were guys that were tortured and put in solitary confinement for 7 to 8 years. I can’t even wrap my mind around that,” he said. “I knew I could make it when I thought about those guys. I thought if they could make it through all that, I could make it one more day.”
After solitary confinement, Mr. Hanton was placed in a small cell with two other inmates where all three helped care and look out for one another prior to being freed, a grouping he said helped “tremendously.”
In addition to caring for each other’s injuries and illnesses, Mr. Hanton and his cellmates also began playing practical jokes on the prison guards overseeing their bloc. Such jokes included pretending his cellmate’s afro was on fire by smoking a cigarette directly behind his head to portray a growing flame.
“The guard walked by and went nuts,” Mr. Hanton said as the audience laughed. “We did pranks like that.”
By the time the guard came back with an officer to address the “flame,” Mr. Hanton’s cellmate had pinned his afro back while Mr. Hanton and their other cellmate sat by “like nothing happened.”
“We just sat there all fat, dumb, and happy,” Mr. Hanton said as he laughed with the audience.
Despite the grueling conditions during his imprisonment, the veteran kept his patriotism alive throughout his stay, he said, by using a discarded nail to meticulously carve an American flag onto his aluminum drinking cup, and using the blood from his mosquito bites to paint the flag onto his prison cell’s white wall.
Air Force Lt. Colonel Tom Hanton at Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2023. (Carol Cassis/The Epoch Times)

Air Force Lt. Colonel Tom Hanton at Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2023. (Carol Cassis/The Epoch Times)

Unfortunately, Mr. Hanton said, a guard realized what the veteran was painting and sponged the wall down before he could finish it. Mr. Hanton immediately began painting the wall again but was liberated by American forces before he could finish his latter attempt.
Overall, the veteran expressed gratitude for his life while stating his desire to focus on the positives from his experience.
“I don’t dwell on what happened. I’m just blessed to be alive,” he said. “I like to focus on what I learned and got out of [imprisonment].”
Such examples, he said, include the importance of people in his life like his fellow inmates and family who he was able to turn to for support; his sense of humor; and his sense of trust in himself and others to help him make it through Hanoi Hilton.
Others in the audience also expressed their gratitude to Mr. Hanton for his service, including multiple other Vietnam war vets.
“For those of us that were stationed on the ground down there, thank you. You [and the Air Force] saved a lot of lives,” one veteran said during the event’s question and answer segment.
The ‘Captured: Shot Down In Vietnam’ exhibit at Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2023. (Carol Cassis/The Epoch Times)

The ‘Captured: Shot Down In Vietnam’ exhibit at Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2023. (Carol Cassis/The Epoch Times)

Mr. Hanton expressed his own gratitude for his fellow soldiers.
“The heroes in my life are the 58,000 men and women who lost their lives in Vietnam,” he said. “Vietnam troops were not welcomed home like their predecessors, which is a huge embarrassment that I’ll never understand.”
According to Mr. Hanton and Nixon Museum historians, many other troops and prisoners of war faced grueling conditions far beyond what the public understood at the time, including torture often resulting in death.
Such torture was often physical and psychological, designed to extract military information from the POWs, get them to participate in anti-American propaganda, force them to confess to being war criminals, and break their will to resist their captors.
Such methods included forcibly dislocating a soldier’s limbs and leaving them in such condition for weeks, long periods of interrogation and indoctrination where inmates were forced to stand for hours on end, brutal beatings, and much more.
The museum’s POW exhibit memorializing such troops is available for public viewing until mid-September. Those wanting to hear more about Mr. Hanton’s and other Vietnam POW stories can do so on the Nixon Library podcast.
Copy
facebooktwitterlinkedintelegram
Carol Cassis

Carol Cassis

Author

California Insider
Sign up here for our email newsletter!
©2024 California Insider All Rights Reserved. California Insider is a part of Epoch Media Group.