August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
The Story Behind the Picture That Shocked America
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.’ ”
Stratton then refused to have anything to do with the “confession.” He would not read it. Yes, he was told, he would read it. He would be stood up before a political rally at the stadium filled with the citizenry, and he would tell what he had done; and then he would repeat it before a group of intellectuals. He refused. They badgered him all morning, apparently wanting him willing; he still refused. Finally they compromised. He could taperecord it.
Yes, there was a way, the frustrated Rabbit stormed. Stratton’s cell door was opened, and through it stepped an old acquaintance. Vegetable Vie, the torture expert, stood before them dramatically, silently, wearing his silly hat. In his hands were lengths of cargo strap and sets of manacle cuffs. Now you have a choice, Stratton was told. He knew with sinking heart and disgust that he had been seriously outfoxed again. In a last defiant gesture out of fear and anger, he told his captors they could make him tape, but they could not make him read any “confession” in public nor could they make him appear in public. He was fluent, he blustered, in French and Spanish and English. He would tell whatever audience they put him in front of exactly what had been done to him. They could kill him afterward, they could kill him on the spot where he spoke, but he would tell of his torture and that the “confession” was false.
Taping was scheduled for March 4.
“Here are three military types that I never saw before [or since] sitting there with a tape recorder with earplugs on so they hear at the head what you’re saying on the tape, and then they start taping it. I realize we’ve got real English speakers here now, not the clowns I’ve been used to working with. So what’s my choice? My choice was [to record the whole thing in a complete monotone]. And that was, to a certain measure, a success because those who heard it, my friends, … my own family, were convinced that that was not my voice, that that was not me. And I tried to make it absolutely without any inflection whatsoever.
“…And at that point was the germ of [the idea that] I will appear to have been doped or under the influence of something. That was the germ right there, sitting there taping, realizing these guys were listening to it, that they spoke perfect English, because they would correct me, every mistake that I made, and erase the tape and start over. It took all afternoon to tape it.
“The night we finished taping, they said, okay, you are going to see a group of intellectuals downtown, and in the Orient, it is the custom that you will bow. In the prison system the definition of a salute was a ninety-degree bow to the ducks, to the chickens, the VC and everybody else.
“So, they said, now we will practice bowing. They said, ‘Bow!’ And I bowed at ninety degrees.
“‘Oh, no! You do a fifteen-degree bow. Now, bow prettily, bow prettily,ᰱ and this went on for about a half-hour. And this is where the germ of this thing starts growing, sitting there talking in a monotone, and then the bowing practice.”
On March 6 Lee Lockwood had taken breakfast and was walking through the lobby of his hotel ”… and in through the door came the foreign press aide. …” ‘Oh, Mr. Lockwood,’ he said, ‘I have some wonderful news for you!’ And I said I was certainly ready for some wonderful news because until then I hadn’t had much. And he said: ‘Today you are going to be able to interview American prisoners of war as you have requested. I can’t give you any further details right now, but you must stay in your hotel…where we can reach you.’
“That’s the way he put it. ‘Today you are going to be able to interview American prisoners of war’—plural—‘as you have requested.’”
Lockwood passed the time in his room. Bobby Salas, a Cuban photographer, knocked and entered.
“Hey, did you hear about the press conference?” Salas asked.
“What press conference?”
“They’re going to have a press conference this afternoon. You’d better come. Rumor is they’re going to have an American POW there.”
Lockwood found that confusing. Why would they have a press conference like that the same day he was to do his interviewing? Perhaps, somehow, they were connected.
He mulled this over awhile. Then came the word, by telephone, that he was to get ready; a car would be sent for him. He loaded his cameras with film and cleaned and checked the lenses. He put a new cassette in his tape recorder, and he waited.
At the Zoo, Stratton’s morning had been routine, not that there was ever much variation in solitary confinement. But at lunchtime a trio of turnkeys entered his cell carrying a basin of water and a razor.
“Now you shave.”
“I said, Tm not going to shave.’ And they said, well, you must shave and all this routine. They slapped me around a little bit, and said, ‘Shave!’ And finally two guys held me by the hair and one of the gooks started to shave me.
“Well, first of all, it’s an old razor and the blade must have been invented in 1890 and in use ever since, you know? But the guy did a beautiful job and left me with a complete razor burn all over my face which added to my physical appearance. They suited me up; said I looked thin so they got me a double set of sweaters, which was beautiful, put the set of pajamas over me, got me a set of socks from somewhere and put them on me (and I never saw them again after that day) and put a pair of go-aheads [sandals] on my feet.
“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.”
“One of the officers spoke a command in the microphone. I think the officer was Major Bui [North Vietnam’s commandant of military prisons]. He was never identified so I am just assuming. But he was a very ugly, nerd-looking officer. He looked like the prototypical brutal, no-nonsense prison commander … interchangeable with prison types anywhere.”
“The tape stops and they mutter something in Vietnamese and push me out into this room which has 150 to 200 people in it—the obvious press conference. As I walk out, there’s a whole mess of photographers running up the aisle toward me.”
“A moment later the curtain was yanked back, and flanked by two Vietnamese soldiers, in came the pilot. Movie lights went on and he stood still, more or less at attention. He was a big guy, perhaps six-three. He was dressed in striped prisoner pajamas, alternating purple and cream stripes, socks and sandals.”
“Now the beauty of this situation is I’m still ill. All my bandages are covered, but every day at three o’clock, I hit a high fever. I also have a boil in each nostril—just glorious. So my nose is red and about yea-big anyway; I’ve got this red [razor] burn over me, plus I’m in my late-afternoon fever.”
“He was not emaciated or infirm looking. The only thing physically wrong with him (that I could see) was his nose, which was swollen and was colored extremely red, almost as purple as the stripes of his pajamas, as though he’d been hit with a blueberry pie. But his eyes and entire face were completely devoid of expression. He seemed to be unaware of anything. He seemed not to be there at all.”
“Some obviously were Caucasians, but my assessment was there were no friends here at all; and so, okay, Manchurian candidate. I will pretend I’m drugged, and how does one do that? One stares at the back of the ceiling with a fixed, glassy-eyed stare, acts mechanical in all his motions. I’ll do the ninety-degree bow. I’ll box the compass.”
“His eyes remained blank, his face without expression as the photographers snapped away on all sides. His arms hung limply at his sides. After perhaps sixty seconds of this during which the prisoner did not move, one of the officers, Bui perhaps, gave a command in Vietnamese. Immediately, the prisoner, still without the slightest change of expression or any indication he was awake, bowed deeply from the waist to the audience. He straightened up, did a quarter-turn to the left and bowed again deeply and slowly, his head almost reaching the level of his thighs. Then he… repeated the process.”
“I bow to the cameramen rushing toward me, bow to the head table over here, I bow to the door I just came through, I bow to the wall over there, and I stand up straight again.”
“After four bows he stopped. The photographers kept on taking pictures. Again, the officer barked a command in Vietnamese and again, suddenly, the pilot began bowing as before.”
“And then Dum Dum makes the mistake of yelling out at the top of his voice, ‘Bow!’ So I box the compass again the exact same way.”
“Again the officer barked a command and again, suddenly, the pilot began bowing as before. The process was repeated three times. Finally, perhaps after four or five minutes had passed total, the officer gave a fourth command and the pilot did an about-face and abruptly disappeared through the curtain.”
“Major Bui, who was sitting at the head table, realized what I had done and, whoosh, get him out of here, get him out of here. And that was it!”
“I was stunned by his appearance. I was practically unable to take pictures, to function. I tried to catch his eye while he was doing all this bowing and to show, somehow that… I was… an American. … I didn’t say anything to him. I didn’t and I probably should have. I didn’t know what to do … because I might screw things up for him.
“And maybe, well, I thought I was going to do interviews, and this was just a prelude to the important thing that was going to happen later.… And when he was finishing the bowing, standing there again, I got between him and the curtains so he would have to go right by me in order to leave. I could look right into his face, you know? [It would] give him a chance to see I was an American, to get some kind of response from him, because he was giving nothing. And so he walked right by me, even brushed my arm. There was nothing in his face.
“I was so shocked. The event was like some sort of Oriental pageant. The prisoner had acted like a robot. It was impossible for me to connect the man who had walked out, bowed, and then disappeared, with the firm, intelligent … voice supposedly recorded just two days earlier. As the shock wore off, I started getting mad.
“What had they done to him? Why had they done it? And why, above all, had they chosen this man to show the world an example of how they treat their prisoners? Everybody I had talked to before … on the status of prisoners had said the same thing to me: that prisoners were well treated, considering their status. They were given double the normal Vietnamese rations of food; medical care; reading matter and recreation. In sum, they were given considerably better treatment than Viet Gong prisoners were accorded by the South Vietnamese and Americans.
“[The French Delegate General’s attaché] was there and he was appalled, really taken aback. The Canadians were cynical about the whole war, cynical about both sides, and I never really could trust what they had to say. They didn’t have much to say about this when I talked with them. The Cubans were divided. They all thought it was a terrible scene but some of them were trying to find explanations which would, you know, square it somehow. And the others, particularly my friend Bobby Salas, couldn’t find any way to explain it. It stunk, and they knew it.”
“Well, Dum Dum says to me as he pushes me back into my cell, you did not bow prettily as I asked you to. And I figured, well, I’m going to have a session on that one so Fd better figure out what happened. I think it over, and sure enough, they call me in about 19:30 [7:30 P.M. ] and sit me down and say, uh, why did you bow the way you bowed? Major Bui wants to know. The best thing I could come up with, which they bought, was I’m afraid of cameras. ‘You told me it was going to be a group of intellectuals—a small group of intellectuals. It obviously was a press conference. I don’t like the press. There were cameras there rushing up the aisle, and in my fright I must have reverted back to my ancient Catholic custom of bowing ninety-degrees.’ They all knew about Catholics and allowed as how they’d told me it would be a small group. So, they bought it. They said, okay, the guy was just scared.”
Stratton’s day was not over. Someone who had attended the press conference that afternoon requested a copy of his “confession” in the pilot’s own handwriting. (The transcripts passed out by the Vietnamese were typewritten.) Stratton refused to write it all out.
“They brought in two armed guards and they ‘thumped’ me, beat on me to write the ‘confession’ down in my own handwriting.
“[The Rabbit was] very careful. There were a couple of grammatical and technical errors they had made and they were very careful to make sure those mistakes were exactly duplicated in my handwriting.… [The copying] took all night, what with all the delaying tactics, thumpings, fooling around to screw it up somehow, and the recopying. So it was about six o’clock the next morning before there was a copy … in my own handwriting.”
That he could write at all was a wonder. His wrists were not strong enough to carry anything, and still hurt severely. Writing itself was hard, but he made a last attempt to discredit the “confession” by changing the shape of certain letters on the theory that anyone comparing the script with his normal handwriting would notice something amiss.
The humiliation of Richard Allen Stratton was a quintessential blunder. The American’s performance shocked the diplomatic and press communities in Hanoi, and correspondents wasted no time in filing dispatches about his “confession.”
Lee Lockwood was appalled. Nothing has prepared him for what he had witnessed. Few persons or organizations in early 1967 seemed aware that North Vietnam was brutalizing its American captives. If such was suspected, it was a suspicion kept silent. American Naval Intelligence knew, however. In April, 1966, a Japanese television reporter had interviewed then-Commander Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr. Even as Major Bui, the Rabbit, and others monitored his performance, Denton’s eyes continually blinked T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse Code. The videotape had left Hanoi virtually unedited, had been purchased by American network news and broadcast nationally. An intelligence officer had picked up the message. But Washington did not go public with the information. That was the policy then.
The full impact of Stratton’s performance hit with the publication of Lockwood’s photographs and article in Life . Lockwood’s chilling description of the incident and full-page photograph of the seemingly mesmerized flier created an international furor. Life also included an emotional reaction to the Stratton incident from then-Ambassador-at-Large Averell Harriman: “Prom the photographs, videotapes and descriptions by eyewitnesses that I have seen of the so-called ‘news’ conference at which Commmander Stratton was exhibited, it would appear that the North Vietnamese authorities are using mental or physical pressure on American prisoners of war. We all remember the ugly record of ‘brainwashing’ during the Korean War. It would be a matter of grave concern if North Vietnam were using similar means against the prisoners.
“Hanoi has said its policy is to treat prisoners humanely. However, it has refused to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross … to visit the prisoners, a right required by the Geneva Convention to which Hanoi has adhered. Without such independent verification, North Vietnam’s professions of ‘humane treatment’ cannot be accepted.”
Stratton had accomplished his goal, though in March, 1967, he was not immediately aware of it; in hindsight he conceded he probably saved his own life. When the war was over, Hanoi had to produce him no matter how battered he was, no matter how many scars he bore.