Monday, May 19, 2008

Ed Elias, 1972 POW

Some of you may remember Ed when he was a Navigator in the 39th ATS in the early 60s. This is the bizarre story of his POW experience in 1972:


Name: Edward Knight Elias
Rank/Branch: 04/US Air Force
Date of Birth:
Home City of Record:
Date of Loss: 20 April 1972
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 172400N 1063400E
Status (in 1973): Released POW
Aircraft: RF4C

Other Personnel in Incident: None missing

Source: Compiled by P.O.W. NETWORK 06 September 1996 from one or more of the following: Raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews.

REMARKS: Released Hanoi 720925

VIETNAM [magazine]: June 1996


In a bizarre incident, Air Force POW Ed Elias was freed through the
propaganda efforts of American collaborators.

By Carole Hack

Major Ed Elias was captured three days after he and his backseater ejected from their burning McDonnell F-4C fighter over North Vietnam. Although Elias evaded one surface-to-air missile (SAM), a second hit them.

Elias saw no one the first day. The second day, searchers came very close to him. On the third day, he decidded to leave his secure hiding place and move across the river, to get away from the populated area and establish communications. He was captured near the river later that afternoon by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops. "If you're going to be captured," Elias said, "you're better off with regular army that understands the importance of an American prisoner."

After the NVA soldiers stripped and searched him, they gave him back his flight suit, but not his boots. They marched Elias out with tied wrists. After they were out of the jungle, they blindfolded him. He lay down in a truck and rode about 30 minutes to a holding area, where they interrogated him.

At one place, the captors stopped and displayed their prisoner to the local people. Some of the locals poked at him with sticks. One guard tried to push them away, but they persisted. To Elias' relief the soldiers reappeared and left with him in tow.

At one point on the journey, Elias' captors stopped on the road and told him to dig a hole. A car pulled up bearing an officer and a civilian with a camera, who took a picture of Elias. The photo was later published in a newspaper with a caption saying this was an American digging a foxhole to protect himself from American bombing attacks. Elias was told he was digging his own grave.

His guards were singing Ho Chi Minh songs and Hanoi was ablaze with lights as Elias entered the city in the evening, 3 1/2 days after his capture. That was a low point for him. He could not believe the city was lit up, rather than hiding in fearful darkness.

Elias was taken to Hao Lao, the old French prison known to its inhabitants as the "Hanoi Hilton." First stop was "New Guy City."

The people most likely to have current military information were "the new guys," the new prisoners, said Elias. The American military knew U.S. fliers could be shot down, so they changed military information all the time. While new prisoners were subjected to intense interrogation, the captors eventually moved on to things that could be used for propaganda purposes.

For the first week, Elias was interrogated day and night. They tied him up, threatened him, said they would release evidence to show he had been killed, kept him awake, and generally wore down his endurance. Since his capture, he had been interrogated by Russians, Eastern Europeans, a Cuban, and a Vietnamese with a French accent.

New Guy City was all solitary confinement. Elias was first confined to a big room, about 20 by 20 feet. On the high ceiling was a loudspeaker and a light that was always on. The walls were plaster over lath. The floors were stone. In the center was a concrete pedestal two feet off the floor that served as a bed. There was a door with bars on the window. After a week, Elias' captors left him alone for awhile. He was then moved to a smaller room in New Guy City. After four months, he was taken to another camp, name CuLoc, "The Zoo." It was a former French movie studio converted to a prison. There, rooms were about 10 by 5 feet with a concrete pedestal in the middle and a bamboo mat. A mosquito net was a welcome addition because it protected him from rats as well as from mosquitos.

Prisoners at the Zoo were fed twice a day. In the morning they got a cup of powdered milk and a piece of bread. The bread was dotted with pink spots, with a weevil in the center of each pink spot. Some prisoners picked out the weeils, but Elias ate the bread, weevels and all, because it supplied more protein. The second meal was served around 4 p.m. It was soup made from local vegetables in season. This could be turnip greens, pumpkins, potatoes, or squash. Sometimes there was pig fat in it, with the hair still on the skin side of the pig.

The prisoners wore clothing that was either maroon or gray striped. Shoes were thong sandals made from old tires. Toilet facilities were a bucket. The sandals could be set on the rim to serve as a seat.

Although the prisoners could not see one another, their routines were such that when one prisoner was led off to a weekly four-minute bath at a well, another prisoner would empty the absent prisoner's bucketl. Sometimes this routine offered an opportunity to leave a message scratched on a piece of soap or paper. The prisoners called them "drops."

Another form of communication was tap code. Prisoners memorized the alphabet in the form of a grid, with each letter having a number equivalent that was determined by its position on the grid. Then they tapped out a message. The Vietnamese knew the code too, but they couldn't have someone listening in every cell all the time.

The best time to communicate was in the midst of confusion. The guards were frightened by bombing raids and would hide until the all-clear. During such times, the prisoners would yell to one another.

Elias kept his eye on the piece of sky in his window at The Zoo. One dahy he saw an airplane shot down. He established the date. (Guards who spoke English were willing to tell prisoners the date.) Years later, he learned the downed pilot had escaped. Unless another pilot was shot down on the same date, the pilot was Bud Breckner, who later would be Elias' wing commander at Williams Air Force Base.

One day Elias was blindfolded and put in a vehicle with another blindfolded American, Jim Padgett. They were taken into a room and seated at a table; their blindfolds removed. They saw five or six other prisoners sitting there, Minutes later, in walked Jane Fonda.

She talked 30 to 45 minutes about why she came to North Vietnam. She stood in front of the men and lectured them about committing genocide, destroying civilian targets and committing other atrocities. Fonda said she would be broadcasting a message asking their fellow American fliers to refuse to fly sorties against North Vietnam. She dwelt on how much the people of the United States were against the war.

Later, Elias listened to what he thinks was a tape of the same speech broadcast over the loudspeaker in his cell.

Elias was not taken to hear former Attorney General Ramsey Clark speak, but once again tapes were played over the loudspeaker in his cell. Clark said how wrong the United States' actions were in the eyes of international law.

Those experiences were a low point in Elias' entire POW experience. He threw his sandals at the loudspeaker again and again in his cage.

"We were really pumped up for the cause," he recalled. "We wanted South Vietnam to have the right to be free. Here these Americans were coming over and telling us we were criminals."

One night someone came to Elias' cell and told him to put on his clothes and come along. Elias was taken to the interrogation room, where another man was sitting. "Some Americans are coming to see us," the man said. After the two men had sat there for a long time, an interrogator, who had been nicknamed "the Weasel" while at the Hanoi Hilton, appeared. He told them, "In honor of [some Vietnam holiday] and the benevolence and memory of our beloved president and the goodwill of the American people, we are going to release some prisoners." After that, Elias was returned to his cell. He was called back again the next day, and the release progressed from there.

The actual circumstances of Elias' release were a mystery to him at the time. The people who came to release him referred to themselves as "the Coalition." They included Cora Weis of the Faberge' family; David Dellinger of the Chicago Seven; William Sloan Coffin, a Yale University chaplain; and Professosr Richard Falk. They were accompanied by NBC correspondent John Hart and Associated Press correspondent Peter Arnett. Elias says the whole thing was a propaganda effort to show that the Coalition could deal with the North Vietnamese government and the American government could not.

"I didn't know who these people were," he said. "I only knew I wanted to get back to the military." When he learned the Coalition was intent on preventing the military from "capturing" him, he got up from their table and left the room. A North Vietnamese political officer stopped him and said, "That is not intelligent."

Elias and the Coalition flew from Hanoi to Beijing. Arnett had given Elias the telephone number of the satellite communication system that President Richard Nixon had used on his recent trip to China. When Elias walked into his hotel room, he picked up the telephone and dialed that number. A switch operator picked up the call in New York and passed it through to Elias' wife in Valdosta, Ga. "We talked no more than two minutes," Elias said. "no one eger knew except Peter Arnett, who was in the room when I called."

From Beijing the group flew to Moscow where Adolph "Spike" Dubbs was the American charge'd'affaires. Elias said, "He was wonderful." After a conversation with Dubbs, Elias decided to be quiet. The group flew fromm Moscow to Copenhagen and then on to New York, where Elias was finally reunited with his wife and family.

[Disributed through P.O.W. NETWORK]

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