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The Obsequious Bow
The Story Behind the Picture That Shocked America
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
COPYRIGHT © 1978 BY SCOTT BLAKEY
In April of 1967 Life magazine published the photograph at left. It puzzled and alarmed Americans. The picture shows an American POW, held by the North Vietnamese, bowing deeply, woodenly, to his captors. His face is expressionless, his movements robotlike. The picture occasioned angry charges of brainwashing, drugging, or torture.
The full story behind this shattering photograph is now told for the first time in a book about the prisoner who did the bowing—Lieutenant Commander Richard A. Stratton. Stratton was a Navy flier, based on the U.S.S. Ticonderoga . He was brought down in North Vietnam—by the malfunctioning of his own rockets—in January, 1967, and was then tortured and forced to make a “confession. ”
The Life photographer who took the picture was Lee Lockwood, who had been in North Vietnam for almost a month, trying vainly to get permission to photograph and interview American POWs. In the following excerpt from Prisoner at War: The Survival of Commander Richard A. Stratton , author Scott Blakey tells exactly what happened, from the points of view of both the suffering pilot and the dismayed photographer. The book will be published later this month by Doubleday & Co., Inc.
Within reasonable walking distance of Lee Lockwood’s room at the Hotel Metropole, Richard Stratton sat in solitary confinement at the Zoo (Cu Loc Prison in Hanoi). He was confused. He was convinced his captors knew he had not participated in any raids on Hanoi. One area raid he had been scheduled to fly, the December 13 attack on the truck-repair facility at Vandien, had not come to pass. The nose gear on his A-4 would not retract. He had had to dump his ordnance at sea and return to the Ticonderoga . He was sure they knew this from other captured pilots who had been tortured.
Still, his interrogators kept pressing, making impossible statements, demanding insane things and seeking his confirmation, “thumping” on him to keep his responses coming along. At one point, he was told, he had carried on his lone aircraft Shrike missiles, CBU antipersonnel canisters, napalm, other antipersonnel weapons, and phosphorus bombs. It was nonsense.
Then that idea was abandoned, probably after North Vietnamese air force intelligence informed army intelligence, who informed the prison cadre, that no one aircraft could carry and drop that variety of ordnance in one raid.
The routine of interrogation and conversation continued. It kept him from being physically tortured, at least, kept him in a new issue of clothing, gave his still-painful injuries a chance to continue healing.
On the first of March, the interrogating officer with the large ears and buck teeth, the Rabbit, as he was called, presented Stratton—with all the pride of authorship—the “confession.” Then Stratton knew what all the questions, all the writing, was about. He could not believe what he read; he could not believe the Vietnamese actually were going to release this.
What the Rabbit (and presumably other coauthors) had done was to take the December 13 raid against Vandien, southwest of the capital, and move it into the northeast section of Hanoi where, indeed, some American bombs had fallen. The single raid had been expanded into several, and Stratton found himself leading strikes to terrorbomb the civilian population.
“The [Rabbit’s] ‘confession’ ended up with one airplane carrying napalm, one airplane carrying CBU’s, one airplane had this, one airplane had that, all in the same strike … I led a section of aircraft that had an airplane full of each of these delights, which is asinine, because they are incompatible in an attack mode.… Each one is delivered in a different way.
“That didn’t bother them. They, in their minds, simply had to get the [bombs] from the ordnance locker on the Ticonderoga … and provide the delivery mode … no matter how illogical it was. And I was elected to be it. I was the chosen vehicle.
“They knew better: … they had tortured enough pilots to get that information. They knew, basically, what we carried, but they were intent, once again, on molding world public opinion against the Americans for using these types of weapons.
“I didn’t even know about the new CBU, had only heard they were working on it; and at that time there was a stricture against the use of napalm north of the 17th parallel; phosphorus bombs and rockets were being used as markers for forward air controllers down south because the smoke would come up out of the trees … but we were not using it on our ship; I do not think we had any [aboard]. But that didn’t make any difference to them, because they weren’t interested in truth; they were interested in fabricating a story that would be believed.…”
Stratton was frantic. He had talked himself into a box. In the presence of the camp commander, he bravely allowed as how the “confession” was absurd and risked beating by telling the man that his government stood to make a fool out of itself by presenting such nonsense.
“And the [camp commander] said, ‘I know that. It doesn’t make any difference. Some American pilot did it and you might as well take the credit for it because you are an American pilot.’ ”