- Historic Sites
The Obsequious Bow
The Story Behind the Picture That Shocked America
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
“About 4:30, they put me in the back of a truck and drove me off—blindfolded—somewhere downtown.”
Lockwood was taken into a large room: “It was like a long dining room, or a hall, and rectangular, maybe seventy-five feet by twenty-five. Along one side were French doors opening up onto an interior garden. In this room were many tables, small tables with chairs around them, and the tables had been set.… There were cigarettes and matches on them, ashtrays and glasses.… There were people coming in. It was clear this was a press conference.
“Up front, was a big loudspeaker.… On the right-hand side was a curtained entryway. The curtain was drawn. There was a blackboard or a big map in the middle and there was a portable rostrum and a table, as I remember.
“Already, my heart had dropped a bit, you know, because I was really excited. I’d been working on this for a long time and I knew how important it was going to be back home if I could bring it off. So the room starts filling up. The press presence in Hanoi was not that large, so there was much more than press there: embassy officials, press attachés from all the different embassies were milling around, and there was a Japanese television crew. As far as I know, I was the only American there … and I think it was set up for me. … I think a policy decision was made to really use this prisoner of war in the context of a big, American magazine and that I was to be the instrument. That’s the way I look back on it now. I can’t prove it. Anyway, I’m astounded at all the people who have come into this room. We are told to sit down. So I’m sitting down at a front table with Bobby Salas and some other photographers.”
“And they bring me in through the side door of this meeting hall, take the blindfold off, and sit me down in the midst of the wreckage of Bullpups [air-toground missiles], a CBU canister, a napalm canister, junk and fragments. So they’ve got some cat speaking in Vietnamese [in the main room where Lockwood was] and they’ve got all this rubbish here and obviously I’m part of a dog and pony show and the pieces are starting to fit together now.”
“The whole thing was really in three parts,” Lockwood reported. “The first part was before [Stratton’s] tape recording was played, and that was a long lecture where they showed ordnance and they used the map. They handed out a press release on it; I believe it had to do with [a bombing raid] into another area which the Americans had said they would not bomb. It didn’t seem terribly important to me.…”
“Now somebody gets up and starts speaking in English about CBU’s, bombing of places, and all of a sudden it fits. It’s part of a press conference, although I can’t see out there, somebody’s having a press conference and they are going to use [my ‘confession’] as fact; here’s one of the guys who has done the things we claim, [bomb] the hospitals, the lepersariums, and all of the rest of the stuff that they run out!’
”‘And now said the short, bald North Vietnamese officer, ‘we are going to listen to the confession of an American pilot shot down while infringing on the territorial air space of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.’ And at this point all of [us] photographers rushed forward because we knew there was going to be an American prisoner—I thought prisoners—of war and when he said ‘listen to the confession,’ everybody assumed [a prisoner] was going to come in at any second and read or speak his confession.
“So, there is a surge forward, and the officer is shouting, ‘No, no, no, no! Return to your tables! Return to your tables! First, we are going to listen to the confession of the American prisoner of war, and then we will see the American prisoner of war.’ ”
“Then, they start playing my confession. I realize I am going to have to go out and bow. In some way I had to discredit it.”
“Then this loudspeaker I have described shrieked with a lot of feedback and leveled down, and this voice came through it, saying: ‘I am Richard Allen Stratton, a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy attached to VA-192, CAW 19, U.S.S. Ticonderoga . The following are statements concerning my crimes committed on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam during November and December, 1966.…’
“And he read it in a very flat, robotlike voice, automatic, almost dreamlike. Flat, a voice that was obviously American, (and to me, then) calm and patently sincere. As he spoke, mimeographed [transcripts] in different languages were being passed out to the audience. Except for one or two points where the tape seemed obviously patched (and that’s why I assumed it was a tape and not somebody reading over a mike) he read the entire [five-page] document without stopping. There was complete silence in the room during the broadcast. The voice changed very little in inflection. When it was over, the photographers leaped up and formed an expectant semicircle around the curtained entrance.”
“I listened to my own words in the light of the new day, and it doesn’t sound as stupid as I thought it sounded when I made it. Now I’ve got to find some additional way to discredit that thing. They have said, you will not speak, you will just simply bow. You will bow and you will leave. They have got a guard behind the curtain with his AK 47 and they’ve got Dum Dum [a guard] with his pistol and they’ve got another guard.”