At that instant of spiritual and psychological checkmate, I experienced something so powerful that it still affects my life to this day.
I was lashed to a wooden stool in an unheated interrogation room at what we POWs ruefully called the Hanoi Hilton. The ropes binding my hands behind me cut deep into my wrists. On the floor a few feet in front of me was a bowl of watery gruel in a rusted, lopsided tin. This was day ten of another period of torture and interrogation.
By then I had been a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for two and a half years after being shot down during my ninety-seventh combat mission. After I ejected from my crippled Navy Skyhawk attack bomber, an enemy bullet had caught me in the neck while I dangled helplessly from my parachute. Captured, I had been forced to march for twelve days to the prison in Hanoi. There the process of breaking me down began, as it did for all POWs, with trying to force me to sign a written confession of my ‘war crimes’. I was brutally beaten and psychologically tortured. Still, like most of my compatriots, I refused to sign.
I eyed the battered tin, as did the rats in the grimy, freezing room. To eat, I had to rock my stool until it fell forward. Then, like a starving animal, I would lap up my one daily ration of gruel, hoping the guard outside wouldn’t wait too long before coming in and pulling me upright again, lest the rats eat the dribbles of food off my chin. But this was a respite. Sooner or later another torture session would begin.
Torture could last hours at a time to twist my limbs into pretzel-like restraints until the agony was beyond unbearable and the only reality was the stupefying pain. When my mind drifted my captors shouts and slaps penetrated the haze, bringing me back.
Worse, in some ways was the time between interrogations. Dragged back to my dingy cell, I languished in cramped isolation for months. I was forbidden to speak with my fellow prisoners. communicating only sporadically by whispering and surreptitious tapping in code on the walls. The days passed most in silence. I spent long, solitary hours trying to keep myself sane by formulating to the minutest detail all the grand business schemes I planned to carry out after the war. Sometimes I watched what we called Hanoi racing spiders, big furry things that could actually rout the rats and devour lizards that sped over the rough, clammy walls.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the gruel. I knew I needed its paltry nourishment to endure another round of barbarous punishment in the interrogation room, but I could not bring myself to fall over and lap it up. I tried to pray for strength. Dear Lord ..
Even quasi-religious types like me turned to praye regularly in the Hanoi Hilton. I was the son of a highly decorated Army colonel and had attended ecumenical chapels at bases all over the world most of my life. But faith had never meant much to me. I was more interested in the hard-living, girl-chasing image the fighter pilots cultivated. I toned that down when I married Phyllis, but religion was still pretty much a Sunday morning kind of thing
On Sunday mornings at the Hanoi Hilton, though, I at last made a deep connection with faith. None of us could afford to turn his back on God. Three deliberate, commanding thumps on the wall were the signal for all of us to stand for services. Alone in our cells, we said the Lord’s Prayer, our voices mingling in the narrow passageway outside.
Now, awaiting the return of my tormentors and trying to gather an appetite for the cold slop in the dirty pan, I felt I couldn’t go on even with God’s help. I was too weak, too broken. I would never sign a confession, but I couldn’t endure much more of this agony. What was the sense of eating? I was dying anyway, dying from the inside out, not just from the pain but also from the utter senselessness of it. I was at a point where it seemed almost a crime to go on living. I decided I wouldn’t eat. I would die instead.
Slumped on my stool at that instant of spiritual and psychological checkmate, I experienced something so powerful that it still affects my life to this day. With complete clarity I realized I was not alone in that desolate room. The veil of suffering lifted and I clearly saw a figure standing near me. He wore a white robe more vivid than any earthly garment I have ever seen. Though I could not make out his features, I listened to his voice with my whole being, as he told me, ‘Paul, you are going to be all right. I am always with you.’
I was still bound, but suddenly I felt free, the flames of my despair smothered by comfort and reassurance. Those words, I knew, were the words of Jesus, delivered by an angel. It was God alone who had command over life, and He was telling me that with him all suffering could be endured, all pain soothed.
Suddenly my companion was no longer visible, and I was alone again with my pitiful meal. Yet it beckoned me like a feast. I tipped over the stool and ate gratefully.
I survived two more weeks of intermittent torture with the interrogators, and for four more years I was a captive in the Hanoi Hilton. In 1973 I was finally able to come home and get started on some of those business plans I had dreamed up in my prison cell. That day when the angel delivered the words that saved me, I did make a confession — a confession of faith. My life was saved, not just once but for ever.