Douglas Hegdahl served as a former petty officer second class (E-5) in the United States Navy. He endured the harrowing experience of being held captive as a prisoner of war throughout the duration of the Vietnam War.
Following his fortunate early release, he remarkably furnished a comprehensive record encompassing the identities and personal particulars of approximately 256 fellow POWs while also shedding light on the prevailing circumstances within the confinement facility in Vietnam. He memorized the names of his comrades who were trapped using the tune of “Old McDonald Had a Farm.”
The Bizarre Adventures of Douglas Hegdahl
On April 6, 1967, Hegdahl, a young 20-year-old at the time, was unexpectedly propelled into the sea due to the forceful discharge of a 5-inch gun mount from the USS Canberra, which occurred three miles off the coast in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Displaying resilience, he swam until Vietnamese fishermen, who treated him kindly, rescued him several hours later. Concealing his absence, his fellow crewmates refrained from reporting his disappearance for a span of two days, resulting in the commanding officer’s failure to initiate a search effort.
Hegdahl was eventually handed over to Vietnamese militiamen, who subjected him to repeated rifle strikes before transferring him to the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison.
Initially, the interrogators suspected Hegdahl to be a commando or agent, finding his account of being blown overboard implausible. Realizing that feigning intellectual limitations might work in his favor, Hegdahl intentionally portrayed himself as lacking in intelligence.
For a few days, he endured physical abuse until he managed to convince his captors of his negligible value in their propaganda endeavors. His country demeanor and youthful appearance played a pivotal role in persuading them that he posed no threat.
Hegdahl skillfully diverted attention by drawing a comparison between farms in North Vietnam and South Dakota, unaware that the Communist captors were analyzing his statements to assess his potential usefulness for their cause.
Hegdahl’s father owned numerous motel units, a fleet of vehicles, and extensive land, but he lacked water buffalo—an essential element in Vietnamese culture. According to Vietnamese conventions, the absence of water buffalo indicated that he belonged to the category of “poor peasants.”
This turned out to be advantageous for Hegdahl, as the Communist regime had executed more than 20 million individuals labeled as “rich peasants” during their revolutionary movements, owing to their association with capitalism.
Although initially taken aback, Hegdahl quickly grasped the situation. Demonstrating his aptitude for learning, he recognized that it was in his best interest to fully embrace the persona of a destitute peasant until the very end.
Hegdahl acquiesced when pressured to provide statements against the United States but cunningly pretended to be illiterate, a ruse that appeared credible to his Vietnamese captors. Believing they had acquired someone easily swayed to their cause, they assigned a tutor to educate Hegdahl.
However, his captors eventually abandoned their efforts when it became apparent that he exhibited no aptitude for reading and writing. Consequently, he became known among the Vietnamese as “The Incredibly Stupid One” and was granted significant freedom within the confines of the prison camp.
What is Douglas Hegdahl Known For?
Doug was constantly shuffled around as his captors struggled to determine how he would fit into their propaganda strategies. One of their missteps was placing him with Joe Crecca, an Air Force officer who had developed an exceptional method for organizing a comprehensive database of the names of pilots shot down and imprisoned in Vietnam.
Recognizing Doug’s potential, Joe took on the arduous task of teaching him not only the 256 names but also the techniques of memorization, cross-referencing, and retrieval involved. It was challenging, as Doug did not immediately grasp the inherent value of such mental exercises.
According to Crecca, “On a scorching summer day, I had my initial encounter with Doug. I found myself in solitary confinement once again, and the Communists held little regard for my presence, which suited me just fine since I held no affection for them either.
The door to my cell swung open, revealing a towering figure clad only in his skivvies—the prison uniform of the day. He introduced himself, stating, “My name is Seaman Douglas Brent Hegdahl, Sir. What’s yours?”
Maintaining dignity when you’re standing in your underwear, with knock-knees, splayed feet, a protruding belly, unkempt and unshaven after a hundred days. Without thinking, I mechanically responded, “Dick Stratton, Lieutenant Commander, USS Ticonderoga.”
In an instant, I could discern from Doug’s reaction that I might have made an error as his eyes rolled back, reflecting his thoughts: “Oh no, another officer!” However, it was crucial to note that instinctively he asked the vital and fundamental question for survival: “Who is senior?”
We abided by the rule that dictated, “If I am senior, I will assume command; if junior, I will obey.” To aid in this remarkable feat, they utilized the familiar melody of the nursery rhyme “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Hegdahl’s resourcefulness extended further as he convinced his captors of his need for new eyeglasses, allowing him to memorize the route from the prison to the city of Hanoi, where he was taken for the purpose of acquiring the spectacles.”
While incarcerated, Hegdahl ingeniously rendered five trucks inoperable by contaminating their fuel tanks with dirt.
In a propaganda maneuver orchestrated by the North Vietnamese, Hegdahl and Navy Lieutenant Robert Frishman and Air Force Captain Wesley Rumble were released on August 5, 1969. Despite their agreement not to accept early repatriation, an exception was made for Hegdahl, as authorized by Stratton, his senior officer, and cellmate.
What Did Douglas Hegdahl learn about the Camp?
Douglas Hegdahl soon revealed that a significant number of the prisoners of war experienced the most severe mistreatment shortly after their capture. Several endured prolonged periods of sitting on stools until they reached the point of collapse, while others, as Frishman recounted, were subjected to being suspended by their arms from the ceiling.
Frishman further speculated that the presence of higher-ranking officials from North Vietnam seemed to improve living conditions within the camp, leading him to consider the possibility that these senior individuals may not be fully aware of the true extent of the prisoners’ mistreatment.
This hypothesis holds credibility, considering the North Vietnamese authorities’ heightened sensitivity towards the perception of the war by the U.S. public. The government has a dedicated division responsible for meticulously examining coverage in the American press, reflecting their careful monitoring of the situation.
Stratton instructed Hegdahl to seize the opportunity for early release in order to provide crucial information about the imprisoned POWs held by the North Vietnamese and expose the harsh conditions they endured.
Following his liberation, Hegdahl was assigned to the Paris Peace Talks in 1970, where he fearlessly confronted the North Vietnamese officials with firsthand evidence of the mistreatment inflicted upon the prisoners.
The presence of individuals like Doug ensures the preservation of our country’s freedoms.
RIP Victims of the Vietnam War.
Next, read about the Story of the Helios Flight 522 that Crashed Due to a Minor Error. Then, learn Why Thomas Edison is a Proven Killer!
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