David Everson got zapped on March 10, 1967. He fired a missile at his target then two seconds later heard a crack on the left side of his Thunderchief F-105. The shell didn’t explode, but it ripped into the main structural spur of his left wing, nearly flaying it from the fuselage. The plane started gyrating, and Everson had a long argument with himself about whether to eject over enemy territory, where he risked breaking himself in the fall — or worse — becoming a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, or to go down in a blaze.
“I knew that if I bailed out, I might get hurt real bad,” says Everson. He thought he might just make it easy on himself and go down with his bird, a comparatively quick and easy death. Everson decided that was the thing to do. But then his mind quieted to a hush, and the seconds seemed to slow and crystallize, like a lazily developing Polaroid. In his mind’s eye, he saw the silhouette of a woman flanked by two children. He didn’t know who this backlit woman was or what she wanted with him, but he felt that, even as his plane wobbled perilously in the sky, he wasn’t supposed to die that day.
A beat later, almost without thinking, Everson reached behind his seat and armed the trigger on his rocket seat. He squeezed and was blasted away from his plane, his chute blowing out behind him. It took a full minute for Everson to drift into enemy territory. A thousand feet above the ground, he could see the gun nests that took down his Thud were now firing rhythmically at his parachute.
“Flak makes a soft sound,” says Everson. “It goes ‘shhhhh-pop shhhhh-pop shhhhh-pop.’ It’s not as loud or angry as it sounds in the movies.”
He felt like vomiting. “The situation was horrible, horrible,” he says. But there were no more visions; Everson was in trained-soldier mode now. He slipped his chute and completed a perfect fall, even sticking his landing thanks to a bed of crushed rock and the tractor-tread soles on his combat boots.
Everson surveyed the terrain; he was in a courtyard of some kind. On three sides, he could see open-air shops, the villa-style architecture testifying to France’s cultural influence during its long dominion over Vietnam. On the fourth side, he saw rail cars on a track, loaded with ore, presumably headed to the nearby Thai Nguyen steel plant. Everson took out his escape radio and transmitted, “This is Buckshot 2 Bravo. I’m on the ground. Uninjured.” Then he smashed his radio to pieces on the wheel of a train car.
In that moment, he saw a flood of people streaming toward him. Everson thinks maybe there were 20 to 30 people, and he remembers at least three of them had rifles with fixed bayonets. They started screaming at him in Vietnamese, and Everson said, “OK, OK, OK” and held up his hands. “My thought then, was, ‘This is it. I bailed out for nothing. I should have just died with my plane,’” he recalls.
Methodically, the villagers started plundering his clothes. They took his combat boots, by far the best prize. They cut off his survival vest, his G-suit, his flight suit, even his plain, white undershirt. Then, just as he was down to his jockey shorts and white tube socks, Everson felt a stiff blow to back of his skull. He had one ringingly conscious thought: “You’re not supposed to feel that much pain and stay awake.”
Wobbly and dazed, Everson tried to shake the stars. His eyes focused just in time to see the butt of a rifle careening toward his forehead. He tipped his face down to take the crack right on the crown. “That was when I dropped to the ground in a little ball, with one hand on the back of my neck and my other hand on my crotch,” he says.
Everson thinks the villagers might have just beaten him senseless, maybe even killed him outright, if some Vietnamese soldiers hadn’t shown up. They tied some rags around his head to stem the gushing blood. They secured his hands behind his back, blindfolded him and drove him seven hours to Hanoi, his home for the next 2,184 days.
Torture at the Hanoi Hilton
It was never a cakewalk at the Hanoi Hilton, the downtown French-built bastille. Hoả Lò means “fiery furnace” in Vietnamese, and the place was built to intimidate: 15-foot-high concrete walls wrapped in electrocution wire and studded with shards of broken glass. The prison earned its first ghosts at the turn of the last century, when French captors held and tortured Vietnamese people. By the time Everson arrived, the Vietnamese had replaced their colonial overlords but kept the culture of pain and punishment. The Vietnamese were savvy torturers. They sought out and perfected techniques that maximized pain but minimized disfigurement. “They wanted to hurt you, but they didn’t want you to look bad in front of a camera,” says Everson. “If they messed you up so much that you couldn’t go in front of a camera, you pretty much disappeared.”
They invented several variations of strappado, a rope-based nerve torture that dates back to the medieval inquisition. By the time Everson arrived, the Vietnamese had begun updating their ropes with nylon straps from downed pilots’ parachutes for extra durability.
On the first day, Everson was taken to Room 18 in a part of the prison that other POWs had dubbed “Heartbreak Hotel.” About 25 feet by 30 feet, the soundproofed room had an array of frightening contraptions, including a giant hook suspended from the ceiling.
He met one of the most loathed characters at the Hanoi Hilton, a commander and interrogator Everson later learned was called “The Lump” by the other POWs because he had a large, fatty tumor growing out of the middle of his forehead. The Lump pulled Everson’s wrists behind him and clasped them in a pair of cast metal manacles left from the French colonial government. Tight on Vietnamese men, the cuffs were downright lacerating on corn-fed Americans.
Everson was sitting on a small milking stool, and the Lump demanded to know the next air-force target. He responded that he didn’t know. The Lump kicked the stool out from under him and went to work on a “rope trick.” He looped a rope around Everson’s arms just above the elbows. Then the Lump braced himself against Everson’s arms with his boot and pulled the rope. He screamed, and his elbows moved closer together. “I tell you, your elbows are not supposed to touch in the back,” says Everson.
The Lump worked steadily, pulling hard until his elbows smashed together unnaturally. Then he lifted the mass of conjoined limbs up behind Everson’s head, nearly ripping his shoulders from the joints. “The Vietnamese were very skilled at this,” he says. “They knew exactly how far they could go before they completely ripped a limb out of its socket.”
With his legs stretched out in front of him and his head pushed down hard toward his knees, Everson felt his interrogator add another rope to the “trick,” this time connecting his ankles to his manacled cuffs to keep his arms stiff and high behind his head. To make it even more dreadful, the Lump looped a rope around Everson’s neck, so if he let his arms droop down behind him even a bit, the force of the rope on his neck would choke him back into submission.
Everson felt his hands and arms go completely numb, the flesh fully deadened of all sensation. For a moment, it was a relief. His interrogators left him to stew, but then they returned in just 15 minutes. To his great surprise, they undid all the ropes, and Everson felt a wave of gratitude, as if this might be the end of it. But then he felt the method in their madness. As the nerves in his arms were reconnected to his body and the blood rushed into his tortured limbs, he felt a pain more severe than anything he’d ever felt, an extreme form of paresthesia. Everson likens it to the prickly burning and tingling feeling you get when a foot falls asleep and then must “wake up.” Imagine that, he says, but amplify it beyond the point of agony: “When the nerves are constricted like that, it’s pain, real pain. Like all your nerves are burning. Worse than anything.”
That was the first round. When Everson finally got blood circulating in his hands and arms, his captors would smash his elbows together again, lacing and pulling the ropes for maximum agony. His nerves and veins would fall dead under the strain, then the ropes would come off again, only to provide the second wave of pain, the nerves fizzing angrily underneath his skin.
After nearly 24 hours, Everson started passing out from the pain. When he could barely stay conscious for more than a few minutes, the Vietnamese decided he was worthless at that point and hauled him into a dark cell where he slept heavy and long on a cement slab bed. When he woke nearly a day later, Everson was shocked to find himself in prison, wearing the red striped pajamas of the Hanoi Hilton. “It was like I had forgotten all about it,” he says. “That’s how hard I slept.”
The Vietnamese left Everson alone for several days after his first taste of the ropes. But then, during the second week, they came calling again. They hauled him back into interrogation, what the other POWs called “quizzes.” They wanted him to write a confession of his crimes against the Vietnamese people. He was to apologize for being an “air pirate.” Everson responded, “Yeah, I’m sorry — sorry I got caught.” For that wisecrack, he was hauled back into his cell and thrown down on his cement bed.
His feet were clamped into half-inch steel stocks designed for slim Vietnamese ankles. They took his left wrist and locked it to his right ankle. Then they left him — for five days and nights. “You couldn’t lay down; you couldn’t even lean back,” Everson says. “I really don’t think I slept the whole five days.” The worst was trying to use the chamber pot while chained and restrained on his bed — “you get diarrhea real quick in that environment.”
After five days, the Vietnamese quizzed Everson again and still he wouldn’t write the apology. So they put him back in his ankle restraints for another 15 days. Sometime in that long stretch, he started getting visits from Ed Sullivan. “He would stand over by the wall and say, ‘We have a really big show tonight,’” he says. “But then he would never go ahead and do a show. He just said over and over, ‘We have a really big show tonight.’”
Occasionally, Everson got visits from the Gingerbread Man. “He had two eyes, a nose, a little mouth and three buttons down his chest,” he says. “He never said anything. He just sat on the cot across from my bed and looked kind of sad.”
Going to the Zoo
Fifty days passed in the quiet until Everson got some good news: He was being transferred out of Hoả Lò. His new home was an abandoned French site, perhaps once a movie studio or an art colony on the outskirts of Hanoi near the village of Cu Loc. The POWs called it “The Zoo” because cows and chickens roamed the lot and the prison guards raised fish in the fetid swimming pool.
At the Zoo, Everson didn’t even have a concrete slab to sleep on — there was just a floor and a waste bucket — but it was better, because he had people. He was housed in the same cell as his back-seater, Jose Luna, who was riding in the plane when they were shot out of the sky. They met another fighter pilot, Loren Torkelson, “a kid from North Dakota” who Everson liked a lot. The reunion lasted just two weeks before the Vietnamese figured out that Everson was the senior ranking officer at the Zoo. He whispered through the walls that the soldiers should resist, and that cost him.
Everson was banished to solitary confinement, where he stayed for the next year and a half. The Vietnamese kept the cells around him empty, too, to ensure he wasn’t using a tap code or talking into his prison-issued tin cup, pressed hard against the concrete. To pass the long days, he went deep into his mind. What he didn’t do was think about his wife, Karlene, or his three kids, DeAnn, Davy and Daniel. “It was too painful to even think about,” says Everson. “I knew my kids were growing up, and I wasn’t there.”
Changing of the Guard
Life got significantly better after Ho Chi Minh died in September 1969. The POWs got more food and six cigarettes a day instead of three. The quizzes and torture sessions stopped. Most importantly for Everson, the inmates at the Zoo were transported back to Hoả Lò and housed in “Unity Camp” with more than 340 POWs. This is where Everson got to know John McCain, James Stockdale and Robinson Risner. The squalor was the same. The summers were still oppressively humid. The winters still chilled him to the bone. The pumpkin soup was still watery, the cooked greens still as nondescript as ever (“I think they were maybe serving us chopped-up water lilies”).
But it was a major culture shift to be in the same big room with 60 other POWs instead of crammed into a tiny cell with two men or — worst of all — in solitary confinement. The POWs paced, they prayed, they set up a kind of in-prison university where anyone who knew anything could teach a class. Everson took a “lecture course” from a Nevada fighter pilot with a deep interest in classic literature.
He started having retribution fantasies. “I had this wonderful vision of a U.S. tank rolling through the front gate of the Hanoi Hilton,” Everson recalls. He vividly remembers the Christmas bombing campaign of 1972, when American B-52s dropped bombs all day and all night, rattling the bars at the Hanoi Hilton and driving the POWs into a frenzy of nerves and excitement. “We wanted to beat them,” says Everson. “I would have gladly stayed another year or two if it meant we could’ve beaten them.”
The United States repatriated its POWs the next spring. When Everson got off the plane at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, Illinois, he felt “like one of those Civil War soldiers in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They come racing off the spaceship with their musket rifles and bayonets. But they are frozen in time, and the world is completely different.” Everson watched TV shows, but they seemed duller than they used to be. He marveled at all the young men with long hair. Plus everyone seemed to be talking about sex — proudly, openly, loudly.
His wife “didn’t seem to like me as much as she did before I left.” DeAnn, a girl of 12 when he left for Vietnam, was now a sophisticated college student. His son Danny, just 6 years old when he was captured, chafed at being parented by this strange, returned father. Everson got a brand-new red mustang but gave it to his daughter after only a month.
It wasn’t as fun as he thought it would be. Seven years after he returned to the United States, Karlene had a sudden and severe reaction to her blood-pressure medication. She developed bleeding in her brain and died at the age of 47. Even counting the worst days in Hanoi, Everson says it was unequivocally “the worst day of my life.”
Now 82, Everson has trained himself to think about Vietnam as little as possible. Still, there are constant reminders: chronic pain in his shoulders, elbows and knees. The fact that he still, to this day, has to get regular calcium booster shots or his nails will just shred like paper (“You can’t be malnourished that long without some big problems,” he says).
It’s especially hard to think about wasting those years in a dank cell, when his wife had only a few years left. “Two months after I got back, I told some newspaper reporter that I was pretty well-adjusted to being back, but that didn’t end up being true at all,” says Everson. “If you want to know the plain truth, I still haven’t adjusted.”