You've probably seen the bumper sticker somewhere
along the road. It depicts an American Flag, accompanied by the words "these
colors don't run." I'm always glad to see this, because it reminds me of an
incident from my confinement in North Vietnam at the Hao Lo POW Camp, or the
"Hanoi Hilton" as it became know. Then a Major in the US Air Force, I had been
captured and imprisoned from 1967-1973.
Our treatment had been frequently brutal. After three years, however, the beatings and
torture became less frequent. During the last year, we were allowed outside most
days for a couple of minutes to bathe. We showered by drawing water from a concrete tank
with a homemade bucket. On day as we all stood by the tank, stripped of our clothes, a
young Naval pilot named Mike Christian found remnants of a handkerchief in the gutter that
run under the prison wall. Mike managed to sneak the grimy rag into our cell and began
fashioning a flag.
Over time we all loaned him a little soap, and he spent days cleaning the material. We
helped by scrounging and stealing bits and pieces of anything he could use. At night,
under his mosquito net, Mike worked on the flag. He made red and blue from ground-up roof
tiles and tiny amounts of ink and painted the colors onto the cloth with watery rice glue.
Using thread from his own blanket and a homemade bamboo needle, he sewed on stars.
Early in the morning a few days later, when the guards were not alert, he whispered
loudly from the back of our cell, "Hey gang, look here." He proudly held up this
tattered piece of cloth waving it as if in a breeze. If you used your imagination, you
could tell it was supposed to be an American Flag. When he raised that smudgy fabric, we
automatically stood straight and saluted our chests puffing out, and more than a few eyes
About once a week the guards would strip us, run us outside and go through our
clothing. During one of those shakedowns, they found Mike's flag. We all knew what would
happen. That night they came for him.
Night interrogations were always the worst. They opened the cell door and pulled Mike
out. We could hear the beginning of the torture before they even had him in the torture
cell. They beat him most of the night.
About daylight they pushed what was left of him back through the cell door. He was
badly broken; even his voice was gone. Within two weeks, despite the danger, Mike
scrounged another piece of cloth and began another flag. The Stars and Stripes, our
national symbol, was worth the sacrifice to him. Now, whenever I see the flag, I think of
Mike and the morning he first waved that tattered emblem of a nation.
It was then, thousands of miles from home in a lonely prison cell, that he showed me
what it is to be truly free.