DATE November 10, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Robert Kotlowitz on his memoir called "Before Their
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan, in for Terry Gross.
Those who have been in combat know that war rarely goes according to plan.
Robert Kotlowitz is among those who can never forget the lesson. In 1944, his
platoon made a disastrous attack on German positions in France that he was
lucky to survive. Last year Robert Kotlowitz published an extraordinary
memoir called "Before Their Time." It describes the experiences of a Jewish
college student who found himself fighting the Nazis.
To help mark Veterans Day, we want to listen back to his story. Kotlowitz is
the former managing editor of Harper's Magazine and former director of
programming and broadcasting for the New York public television station WNET.
In 1999, he told Terry that he was drafted out of college, sent to basic
training and then to the French countryside with the 26th Division.
(Soundbite from 1999 interview)
Mr. ROBERT KOTLOWITZ (Author, "Before Their Time"): I was sent to the
Alsatian countryside because I had been what was called an ASTP infantryman.
In the summer of 1943, about 175,000 18-year-olds were drafted out of college
and given basic training, primarily at infantry centers like Ft. Benning,
where I had been sent. And after 13 weeks of basic training, I was sent off
to the University of Maine in Orono to study engineering, along with a
thousand other 18-year-olds, and within two months that program folded, and lo
and behold, the Army had 175,000 infantry-trained 18-year-olds to fill in
divisions that were below strength.
We went to the 26th Infantry Division, which was the New England National
Guard, and then shipped to Europe in August of 1944, about eight weeks or so
TERRY GROSS, host:
And what was your mission in the countryside?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: The mission in the countryside was to simply rest, bivouac,
until the new 9th Army was formed, of which we were to be a core division,
along with other divisions that were arriving and bivouacking exactly as we
were. And we were there for three weeks or so, and suddenly the orders were
changed, and we joined the 3rd Army in Alsace-Lorraine, which was General
Patton's Army. And the 3rd Army had broken out of Normandy. It was primarily
an armored division group, and those armored divisions had run out of fuel and
food and were now stuck in foxholes in Alsace. So they shipped us out. We
relieved the 4th Armored Division, moved into their foxholes and there we
GROSS: I want you to describe what it was like for you to be fairly new in
the war and living in a foxhole.
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Well, the first thing was that it was very scary. I mean, it
was not the first time I had lived in a foxhole. Training in the States
tended to be as realistic as possible, so the physical aspect of living in a
foxhole and dealing with the daily filth, the ordinariness of it, I was
familiar with. What was new, of course, and what was threatening was that we
were facing German troops across a no-man's-land that was perhaps 200 yards
wide, if that. It was a very static period in the world, not unlike World War
I. And the tension that built up by just staying in a foxhole and unable to
get out, unless you were called for night patrol or were sent back for food
and ammunition to replenish what you didn't have, that tension was really
awful. And as a kid, I was really very scared.
GROSS: You describe how the Germans would taunt you through a megaphone. So
what were some of the things they would say?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Well, they would, first, tell us that Franklin Roosevelt was a
`chew,' as they called it, C-H-E-W, and they would tell us that New York had
been flattened by German bombers and Seattle wiped out by Japanese bombers and
that the Statue of Liberty had been sunk and, you know, things like that,
things that you knew immediately were hilariously false and had no effect on
us at all.
GROSS: How were you given orders to get out of your foxholes and attack the
Germans, who were about 200 feet away?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Well, you receive orders always at night, so whoever's
carrying the orders, usually the squad leader, can reach each of the foxholes
in which his men are occupied. And he tries to do it before dawn, before
there's any light at all, so he won't be caught out by German snipers and
riflemen and so he can get back to his own foxhole in time to lead whatever
has to happen in the morning.
GROSS: And what did you think of the orders?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Well, I knew there were going to be orders like that at some
point. I mean, we had been occupying foxholes facing a kind of series of
small rises in which we knew the Germans were somehow hidden in their
foxholes. And we knew that, at some point, we would have to try to take those
rises because they made a kind of thumb sticking out of the lines. In other
words, if you can imagine two straight lines facing each other, with the
opposite line bulging toward our direction, that would have been those rises.
But when we actually did get the orders--I mean, my mind was not working
rationally at all--I was just instantly paralyzed with fear, and by the time
we gathered to make the move out, I was going through the motions in a kind of
automatic, robotic way. You know, depending upon my training, trying to stay
alert to what the situation was and hoping not to get killed.
GROSS: What happened in the first few seconds when you and the rest of your
troop got out of your foxholes?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: What happened was that we formed a diamond formation. That's
literally what it was. The shape of it is a diamond. It was the whole
platoon. And the leader of the platoon, Francis Gallagher(ph), moved out very
quickly to the head of it, and we started across that no-man's-land. It was
still dark, and at the first break of light, we were moving up those rises.
And the head of the diamond was already at the top and almost over when the
Germans had us with machine guns; they took us with a sweep of machine guns
and mortar fire and then rifle fire and grenades.
And our platoon lieutenant, Francis Gallagher, was shot within 10 seconds of
our ascent of those rises. He was shot through the neck. Probably both
carotid arteries were destroyed at the same time, and he was gone. The rest
of us fell instantly against this assault of so many weapons, and I don't know
how many died in the first assault or how many died in the second assault, but
the assaults went on for the entire day. This was 6 in the morning. By 6 in
the evening, there were only three of us left alive; two were wounded, one was
unwounded and I was the unwounded one.
And I think our survival was based on some kind of luck dealing with the
geography of those rises because we made a small cluster of our own. We were
a BAR team; the man I shared the foxhole with and my closest buddy were the
BAR team: the Browning automatic rifle. And somehow we were missed. They
were shot; they were wounded, but I was not.
GROSS: So how...
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: And I don't know why, except that I did not move, and I don't
even think I breathed for the entire time.
GROSS: How many men were killed?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: I never really got the figure straight, but I would guess it
is 37 or 38, maybe even as many as 40.
GROSS: You survived by playing dead for about 12 hours. The Germans were
walking around with guns picking off people who appeared to be alive, but
wounded. How did you play dead for that long?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Well, I just want to say that they were not walking around.
We never saw the Germans. They stayed in their foxholes, if that's what they
were occupying, and they had formed a semicircle into which we had walked.
That's exactly what happened. And they surrounded us on three sides. They
did not have to appear. They just had us perfectly. And I survived by
just--I began to count very, very slowly in order to get my breath slowed down
so that I would not be breathing in a normal way, and that's what I did for
And I lay there for 12 hours without moving, and that was it, hoping, in fact,
that I might get a kind of respectable wound that would enable me to
concentrate on--you know, a wound in the thigh, the fleshy part of the thigh,
so that I could concentrate on that and forget about my own anxieties. I had
the feeling that if I were wounded, my fear would lift and disappear. I would
have gotten it.
GROSS: What position did you fall in, and how uncomfortable was it to hold
that position for the 12 hours?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: I was sprawled not flat, but sort of that in that position
where you're half on your hip and more on your stomach, with my face really in
the mud. It was very muddy and had been raining for days before that. And it
was not a comfortable position, not a usual position, but there it was, and
that's what I stayed with.
CONAN: Robert Kotlowitz is the author of "Before Their Time." He spoke with
Terry Gross last year. More of their interview after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Let's return to Terry's interview with Robert Kotlowitz about the
World War II battle in the French countryside that killed all but three men in
his platoon. They were pinned down by Germans. Kotlowitz survived by lying
still for 12 hours.
(Soundbite from 1999 interview)
GROSS: As you lay playing dead in the mud, you were listening to your buddies
die. What did you hear?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Well, the sounds that I heard were the worst sounds I have
ever heard, and I do feel that the sounds of war are the worst part of it. I
heard young men screaming in terror and pain, calling for their mothers in
some cases, which is the saddest call of all; some of them speaking in a
language I had never heard, including my friend who I shared the foxhole with.
He was grunting a kind of animallike way all day. He was violently thirsty.
I could not get him any water. And those sounds were almost worse than the
sounds of the machine gun rounds and the grenades and the mortars and the
snipers. It's unbearable to hear people you have trained with for months and
months, to listen to them die in a helpless way and be unable to give them any
help at all.
GROSS: How did you know when it was safe for you to get up?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Well, dusk had really begun to fall. It was really getting
dark, and it quieted down. It really got quiet, and for a while--and I
thought maybe the Germans had pulled back, having won the day. I mean, no
question of that, not that I thought of it that way, but there was no reason
for them to stay anymore. And I heard English being spoken, and I listened
and listened, and I realized that there were, I think, three medics scouring
that rise where we were, looking for survivors so they could take them back to
company headquarters and from there to a division hospital.
And so I spoke up. I just said--I forget what I said. I don't remember what
I said in the book. But I did get the attention of one and, finally, ended up
carrying what they considered to be a wounded soldier back to headquarters,
and I knew he was dead. He was dead. And that's how I got out of there.
GROSS: What was the first scene you saw when you picked your head up out of
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: It was a kind of litter of bodies, most of which I knew were
dead, and three upright, young Americans wearing Red Cross arm bands carrying
two stretchers among them.
GROSS: You must have had such conflicting emotions when you emerged, the
exhilaration of having survived and the agony of having lost just about
everyone who you trained with.
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Well, I was in terrible shock, although part of me was
functioning in a very clear way. I mean, I saw everything that I saw, heard
everything that I heard and processed it the way I normally did, but my system
was in terrible shock. I no longer was afraid. When I stood up and spoke to
the medic and then helped a third medic carry the dead GI back, I was no
longer afraid. I mean, it was about 500 yards to company headquarters, and I
made that move feeling just--exalted is not the word, but it's not far from
it. I think I was running on the last of my adrenaline and that it was
getting me to the end, and that when I got to company headquarters, it sort of
vanished again and I began to shake and tremble and all the things that you do
when you're in shock. And that's how I felt when I got out of there.
GROSS: You were very angry with your commander. Why?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Well, I had the feeling that, clearly, those orders--I don't
know where the orders came from. Whether they came from battalion
headquarters, regiment or division, I don't know, but they had not been
thought through and the timing was off. And our company commander was not
part of the action; he was 500 yards behind us. We had no help all day.
There was no artillery fire and no troops sent out to help us. So, of course,
I was enraged. And I saw him, too.
GROSS: Where'd you see him?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: He was in his company tent talking on the phone with the
company master sergeant in the tent, a major I had never seen before standing
there sort of beating his thigh with a stick--his own thigh. And there were
company commanders from two adjoining companies there--they were probably
discussing a counterattack--and two MPs. And when my company commander saw
me, he said, `Let's'--he didn't quite remember my name. He knew it began with
a K. And he said, `Let's get this man a Silver Star. Let's put him in for a
Silver Star right away.'
He had no idea what had happened, what I had done, what my part was. But I
could see that he was hysterical, and it was not the first time I had seen him
like that. His tendency was to--when he lost control of the situation, when
it slipped out of his hands, he got hysterical. And he was hysterical, and I
was not far from it myself, and he did this monologue about the afternoon.
And I knew--I mean, it was just awful to hear it and to see it, and I just
said, `Get me out of here.' And I left the tent. And one of the medics was
going back with a stretcher with that dead GI on it to the divisional
hospital, and I hopped on the jeep and was off with them.
GROSS: After the battle, one of the people you were introduced to was an
infantry historian whose job it was, at that point, to write up what happened
in the battle that you survived. Did you get to read his history, and how did
it compare to your memory of what you had lived through?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Well, his history, as I found it, was an entry of about three
lines in "The 26th Infantry Division: History of the War,"(ph) and it was not
specific in any way. In fact, you couldn't tell whether anything had really
happened or not. So it was useless, absolutely useless to me.
GROSS: Did you find other references to that battle in other history books?
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: I found one in the "US Army Alsace-Lorraine History,"(ph)
which was a line suggesting there was an action, which was even more meager.
And then I found an entry in the 4th Infantry Division of the 26th Division,
which acknowledged that something had happened and that it was important to
the division because it marked such a serious loss. I later met with the
German historian, who was a member of the German army in Berlin, and he found
for me an entry in one of their daily war reports which matched the experience
in terms of the location and date, which in six lines said that the Panzer
Division was attacked by Americans at 6 in the morning, and by 6 in the
evening, they had been totally destroyed. And after this lieutenant had
translated this for me, he turned to me, deadpan, and said, `It misses the
reality, doesn't it?'
GROSS: It must have been strange to read the German account, which would be
feeling quite good about the demise of the platoon.
Mr. KOTLOWITZ: Well, it was very matter-of-fact, as those day reports tended
to be in the army. It was a way to keep the history of the army together in
brief, you know, presentations. So it was very bald, but it was very clear
that that's what it was.
CONAN: Robert Kotlowitz's memoir is "Before Their Time." He spoke with Terry
Gross last year.
I'm Neal Conan, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Singer: I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that
this heart of mine embraces all day through: in that small cafe, the park
across the way, the children's carousel, the chestnut trees, the wishing well.
I'll be seeing you in every lovely summer's day, in everything that's light
and gay. I'll always think of you that way. I'll find you in the morning
sun, and when the night is new...
CONAN: Coming up, two former POWs talk about their years of captivity and
torture in North Vietnam; and Henry Sheehan reviews "Men of Honor," a new film
about an African-American Navy diver's struggle against racism and the sea.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Vietnam fighter pilots and former POWs Ron Bliss and
Ed Mechenbier discuss their experiences as prisoners
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan, in for Terry Gross.
As we continue this Veterans Day edition, we hear the story of two former
fighter pilots who were shot down over North Vietnam and held prisoner of war,
an experience that included repeated torture. They're among the men featured
in the documentary "Return With Honor" about the POWs who were released in
1973. The film is being rebroadcast on public television Monday night.
North Vietnam did not observe the Geneva Convention's rules on the treatment
of POWs. They called their captured Americans `war criminals.' Ron Bliss was
held prisoner of war for six and a half years. After his release, he went to
law school. He's now a partner in a firm handling intellectual property and
technology. Ed Mechenbier spent nearly six years as a POW and stayed in the
military. He's now a major general in the Air Force Reserve. He also works
for private aerospace companies.
Terry asked them each to describe how they bailed out after being shot down.
Ron Bliss answered first.
Mr. RON BLISS (Former Prisoner of War): I had electrical fire in the front
part of the aircraft, and a lot of gray smoke and a lot of heat. And it just
got hotter and hotter. And about 10 seconds after--about eight seconds after
the pop-up, after I'd already pickled off my bombs hot just in case they tried
to carry them south for booby traps, I got out. So I imagine it took about a
minute and a half to really punch out, but I knew subconsciously, at about the
30-second mark, that I'd had it.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Ed Mechenbier, you say something really extraordinary in the movie "Return
With Honor." You stayed in the plane. You were dealing with it. And when
you bailed out, the plane crashed about one and a half seconds after you got
Major General ED MECHENBIER (Air Force Reserve; Former Prisoner of War):
Yeah. Ron was a single-engine, single-seat airplane that he was flying, so he
didn't have the privilege I did of having somebody--I was flying an F-4C
Phantom, which had two people in it: myself and a pilot systems operator
about six feet behind me. As a fighter pilot, you're always in control. If
you don't think that you're the world's greatest fighter pilot, you aren't.
And one of the things about a fighter pilot is you are in control, and `I can
do this. Don't bother me,' as I say in the movie. I had a wonderful
gentleman, a classmate of Ron's and mine from the Air Force Academy, Kevin
McManus, behind me, and he said, `Ed, I don't think we're going to make it.'
And that kind of jogged me out of this thing that `I can fly out of this.'
But by then the airplane was a complete fireball. And when Kevin and I
ejected upside down, 620 knots, going down at 45 degrees, nose low, we came
out of a fireball. There was nothing left of the airplane except these two
seats that came out of the bottom of the fireball. And before the parachutes
opened, the airplane hit the ground.
GROSS: What was going through your mind on the way down?
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: `Please don't hit me,' 'cause there were lots of people
down there shooting at me. I had a .38-caliber pistol which was full of
tracers, which I knew was not a weapon. It was more a signaling device. And
we were coming down into a populated area and there were just a lot of people
down there shooting at us, and you could see the bullets go whipping--well,
you couldn't see them; you could hear them going by. And you look up and see
the holes in the canopy above you.
GROSS: That must be quite a feeling of helplessness.
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: Complete. Complete helplessness, yes.
GROSS: Ronald Bliss, were you being shot at on the way down, too?
Mr. BLISS: Well, I was unconscious, so I don't know.
GROSS: You were unconscious?
Mr. BLISS: I went out just below the speed of sound about Mach .93, and that
in itself, as Ed will testify, is somewhat of a miracle to survive that. But
I woke up on the ground, stripped down to my underwear, lying on a dirt road,
about, judging from the sound, two or three hours later, and they marched me
to the little village where the fun began after that. So I don't know what
happened on the way down. They always tell you to be nice and relax so you
don't hurt yourself when you land, and I assure you I was as relaxed as you
GROSS: Were you conscious long enough to pull the cord and open the
Mr. BLISS: Well, it's automatic. I squeezed the triggers.
Mr. BLISS: I had the canopy off already, trying to cool it down, because I
had a lot of smoke and fire in the cockpit. But that released the back
pressure and it got worse, so I said--I was talking to myself. I said, `Tampa
4 is punching out. I'll see you when the war's over,' and I didn't have any
radio. I didn't know it, but I went out. That's the last I remember. I
don't remember any of the parachute ride down, but the seat automatically
separates from you and the parachute automatically opens. And it's wonderful
equipment. It worked.
GROSS: Ed Mechenbier, were you taken prisoner of war pretty immediately after
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: We landed right in the middle of them, and as Ron says,
you know, on the way down they were shooting at us, and you're trying to get
rid of your survival radios and get yourself prepared to land, and I landed
right on top of a little building. I rolled down and presented myself to the
Vietnamese completely tied up in my shroud lines. So yeah, we were completely
surrounded by about a cast of a hundred immediately upon hitting the ground.
GROSS: What does your military training tell you to do if you're captured?
Mr. BLISS: Well, ideally...
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: Go ahead, Counselor.
Mr. BLISS: ...you hold out for a few seconds by giving them your name, rank
and service number and date of birth, but that doesn't last long or you'll be
dead before the night is upon you. So what you have to do for interrogation
is to make up a plausible story, sound sincere, and frankly, just give them
garbage. And you realize--and you're trained this way under the Code of
Conduct--if you have an opportunity to escape, you must take it; albeit where
we were it was impossible, and that's a long story. But secondly, you never
lose faith with your fellow man, and you try to contact him as soon as
possible, because you're all in the same pot of soup together and you just
need to hang in there.
GROSS: What were the first things that happened to you after you were taken
Mr. BLISS: Ed?
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: Well, everybody went through an area we called `New Guy
Village' or `Heartbreak Hotel,' and it was a very intense area where they were
trying to convince you that because they had complete control of your body,
you ought to tell them everything you want and be completely cooperative. It
was not a very sophisticated intellectual discussion. It was strictly a
brute-force effort to bring you down to a level to where they thought you
would do anything and everything they asked you to do.
GROSS: And I'd like you each to describe the cells that you were in or the
prisons that you were in. Ron Bliss, would you start?
Mr. BLISS: Well, the first one in `Heartbreak Hotel,' a special part of the
Hanoi Hilton where they break you down, was a wooden bed board with permanent
rusty leg irons on it. The room was three and a half paces wide and four
paces long, and it was all bricked up. There was a screen over the window and
a lightbulb that was on day and night. And it was filthy. And this is a
comment I think I made in the movie, that when you walk into this place--it
was built by the French for the Viet men--you can hear the screams of over 50
years. It's a very serious place.
GROSS: And then where did you--where were you taken after that?
Mr. BLISS: Because a fellow was there at the same time--and I mean that
literally--Jack Fellows, naval officer, lost the use of his arms for about
eight or nine months because of the Vietnamese rope trick, we were thrown
together after, I don't know, I lost track, about eight or 10 days and moved
to a camp called the Zoo. It's an old French movie colony that they converted
to a prison camp. And we were there in sight of two weeks, and that's where I
spent probably half to two-thirds of my total time in captivity; not at one
time, but back and forth to the Zoo.
GROSS: Ed Mechenbier, were you there as well?
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: Yeah, I spent about three years at the Zoo. But, like
Ron, it seemed like about once every year probably to, in their own minds,
make themselves believe that they had disrupted any kind of a communication
routine that we had, a communication network we had within the camps, they'd
move you around to different places. So over the six years, I lived in eight
different places from downtown in the Hao Lo prison, the Hanoi Hilton, to the
Zoo, to another place we called the Plantation because it was an old
plantation house with a movie studio associated with that. I spent about a
year there. Spent about eight months up on a camp up on the Chinese border,
at another place called Dogpatch, and various other places around town. So
they moved you around occasionally.
CONAN: Ed Mechenbier and Ron Bliss, two of the former POWs featured in the
documentary "Return With Honor." More of Terry's interview with them after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: Let's continue Terry's interview with Ron Bliss and Ed Mechenbier,
fighter pilots who were shot down over North Vietnam and held as prisoners of
war for six years.
GROSS: Now Ron Bliss had mentioned that his cell mate had lost his use of his
arms through the Vietnamese rope trick. Now the rope trick is a word for a
specific type of torture that the Vietnamese used. How often were you
tortured during your over six years of captivity?
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: Ron, go ahead; and throw in about the Hanoi march,
which was a different kind of torture.
Mr. BLISS: Just before I was shot down, Ho Chi Minh and his cronies--we had
had a big air strike on their oil storage plant in Hanoi, and it shattered
their confidence and it shattered their propaganda invincibility. So they
marched, chained two by two, all the existing POWs, down through Hanoi and
whipped up the crowd to the point where the Vietnamese guards actually lost
control of the crowd and a lot of our people really got worked over very, very
heavily. And I still remember, I think it was The London Times commenting
that not since Caesar brought Verson Getericks(ph) down from Gaul after he
captured him had any spectacle so humiliating ever occurred.
One thing that happens to you is, generally speaking, at least for the first
three years of captives, you go through the rope trick. The rope trick is
very simple. There are variations on a theme, but it goes like this: They'll
manacle your hands behind you. In my case, it was rigid wrist irons. They
throw you down on the floor face down. They put a rope around your elbows and
the put a bamboo pole through the rope and they just start cranking it all
down. The first thing you feel is your wrists may break. Next your elbows
feel like they could come out of the socket, and then your shoulders may come
out of the socket and then you have back problems. And you have trouble
But there are all sorts of tortures other than that: food deprivation, sleep
deprivation. I was under the Cuban interrogation program for a while and he
killed a man next door to me, took about three years for him to die. But I
got worked over with a fan belt. I was black and blue for about six months
after that. There are all sorts of things that they can do at their whim.
GROSS: Now how much do these torture sessions actually have goals? Did you
have a sense that the people torturing you were sadists who were just
enjoying the act of torturing somebody, or were they really determined to get
information? And did they seem to believe that they'd be able to get it this
Mr. BLISS: There are two reasons...
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: I think individually, some of them actually thought
that, you know, they could get information like that. There were others who,
I think, just thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, we had one guy we called
Psycho. I think he just thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to physically
abuse another person's body. I don't know that after a period of time,
anybody on the Vietnamese side really ever thought it was going to be
effective. And if you resisted, if they didn't get what they wanted, you
know, then they'd try something else or they'd go try somebody else. So then,
again, it was up to the individual to do the best he could, and it comes out
in the movie as well. We didn't judge if a guy lasted five hours or five days
or five months or if he went the entire period, never did. You just do the
best you can, as much, you know, for your own personal honor but just to
make--the next time they get interested in some information or they want some
propaganda, they go try somebody else who might be an easier target.
GROSS: So what's the closest each of you came to feeling like you had reached
the breaking point? And no matter what it...
Mr. BLISS: For me...
Mr. BLISS: ...there were two or three times. But I remember early on--since
I was shot down and a Joint Chief of Staff target, they publicized my ID card
picture and every thing else in The Vietnam Courier and it was a--I didn't
know this for months, but it was a big deal. And we were not living too badly
under the circumstances except they were boiling our brains out in this
little, hot room we were in. But everybody thought--everybody around me that
maybe they were trying to set me up for an early release, which was not going
So after about a six- or seven-month period, the camp commander of `the
lump??' called me in and asked me what I thought about the treatment. And I
told him and he totally lost it, and he made up for lost time over the summer
of '67 in a dirty, I mean, blazing hot room. It just radiated all night long,
and we would sleep on the floor with the mosquitos eating us, no mosquito net
at all, just to get our nose up by the crack under the door maybe to get one
breath of air a night. And they were working us over pretty well physically
and it was a bad time in the war. We knew we weren't doing well in the air
And at the end of '67--by the end of summer of '67, I gave one of my last
formal prayers there to myself and I said, `Dear God, if it's going to be this
bad again, just turn out the lights. I don't want to do it.' But we never
GROSS: Did you ever seriously entertain the idea of suicide?
Mr. BLISS: Yeah, but I don't think I can run fast enough to crush my skull on
the cell wall, and every time I shaved, I had a guard there. I couldn't cut my
wrists with a razor blade, so really that's academic. The answer would be: I
considered it but not that seriously.
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: I'm too big a coward. I wouldn't have.
GROSS: Well, that's interesting that you say you're too big a coward to do
it, but, you know, here you are facing all this torture. So, you know, that's
not what a coward wants is torture.
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: Oh, no. I mean, it's just that I couldn't stand the
sight of my own blood. I might hurt myself. If they're going to hurt me,
that's OK, but I'm not going to add--I'm not going to help them.
Mr. BLISS: The only way that people really consider suicide, I think, is when
they are alone and not in communication...
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: Right.
Mr. BLISS: ...with their fellow man. And as long as you can talk to somebody
around you, that gives you such an enormous strength as a human being that you
can find a way to carry on. And people will ask you the question--they don't
know what else to ask. They'll say, well, what made you get through it?
Well, frankly, it's a different answer for each day. Some days were so bad,
you'd just look at the guard and quietly think to yourself, `Nuin(ph), you
can't kill me today. I'm not going to die.' And maybe the next day, I
remember my lovely wife and I want to see her again or the child who's never
seen me. But it was not one answer for the whole time.
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: And you've got to remember, I mean, I had the privilege
of living with Ron Bliss during one of those years so, I mean...
GROSS: Oh, you lived together for a year?
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: Oh, yeah, we lived together for about a year.
Mr. BLISS: Oh, we did, yeah.
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: Yeah, we had a...
Mr. BLISS: Listen, we...
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: We had an apartment.
Mr. BLISS: We had a rock 'n' roll group of four young lieutenants and just
because of my--all three of us had the same date of rank. And my name started
with "BL" instead of anything else so I became the senior guy for a year as a
lieutenant. Can you imagine living in a room with Ed Mechenbier, Kevin McManus
and a gentleman that you don't know, Galen Kramer, and being the senior man?
That's more fun than you should ever be entitled to.
GROSS: How were you told that you were going to be released? Ed Mechenbier,
do you want to start?
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: Well, for the first time ever, we were back in the
Hanoi Hilton. For the first time ever, the Vietnamese got us all outside and
allowed us to stand in what would pass for a fairly decent military formation.
And they read to us the protocols concerning the release of POWs that had been
Now interestingly enough, this was five days--the maximum amount of
time--after the signing that they were allowed to tell us. And so they went
right to the 11th hour, the 59th minute and all the rest of that to tell us.
And two or three days before, they knew the war was over obviously, but they
kept telling us it was going to last forever. So at the last minute, they
drug us all outside and they read the protocols and generically told us how
we'd go home in four equal groups, approximating the withdrawal of each
quarter of the American troops remaining in South Vietnam.
And as it says in the movie, interestingly enough, there wasn't any, you know,
ripping off your shirts and jumping up and down and yelling and screaming. It
was all kind of OK, yeah, I'll believe it when it happens. And everybody just
kind of quietly went back into their cells.
GROSS: Ron Bliss, what was the sweetest moment for you after your release or
after being told that you would be released?
Mr. BLISS: The sweetest moment? It would have to be a combination of two
things. Number one, arriving at Clark Air Base and seeing the wonderful
welcome of John Q. Citizen who was there in the Philippines on the air base,
going into an air-conditioned hospital room where we had a soft bed, which I
couldn't sleep on. We'd been sleeping on concrete and wood for years--with
clean sheets and a pitcher of water with ice cubes in it. I mean, we're
talking first class now, right?
But the biggest thrill I think was at midnight that first night when I finally
got to call home and talk to Charlene for the first time in...
GROSS: Your wife?
Mr. BLISS: My wife, Charlene. It had been pretty close to seven years by the
time I had the chance to talk to her yet. And I had a son that was not quite
two months old when I left, and 30 days after I returned to the States, he
turned seven. So I was looking forward to seeing him. He's quite a young
lad. He's a good man. How sweet it is.
GROSS: Ed Mechenbier, what about you?
Maj. Gen. MECHENBIER: I think Ron hit it right on the head. I mean, you find
out what's really important in life, and it's those with whom you are blessed
to share life. And so every stage along the way--the people in the hospital
were wonderful, all the people who greeted us in the Philippines and at
Travis and in San Francisco and the wonderful people here in Dayton, Ohio.
When I got back here--it was 21 degrees below zero that night when we got back
at 1:30 in the morning, and there were hundreds of people out there in that
flight line. And, you know, those are all--it's not one moment. It was just
a cascade of joy, and like Ron says, getting back with the family--I mean,
that really kind of put the punctuation mark on it and says, `OK, now I'm
ready to start the rest of my life because I've got the things that I think
can hold--cherish--think hold close and are cherishable. They're back
CONAN: Ed Mechenbier and Ron Bliss, two of the former POWs featured in the
documentary, "Return With Honor." It's being rebroadcast on public television
Coming up, a review of the new military drama starring Robert De Niro and Cuba
Gooding Jr. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New film "Men of Honor"
NEAL CONAN, host:
Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr. star in the new film "Men of Honor." It's
loosely based on the life of the first black Navy deep-sea diver to achieve
top honors. Film critic Henry Sheehan has a review.
HENRY SHEEHAN reporting:
The smell of magnolia blossoms and corn pone has begun to waft from the silver
screen, telling us not that it's sleepy time down South, but Oscar time in
Hollywood. While lunacy, alcoholism and physical impairments are still the
surest path to an Academy Award nomination, the adoption of one Southern
accent or another is still a guaranteed way to grab the Academy's attention.
It's not even Thanksgiving yet and we already have seen three such ballyhooed
yarns. First was "Remember the Titans" in which Denzel Washington and Will
Patton drawl their way through a difficult football season. Last week was
"The Legend of Bagger Vance" featuring Matt Damon and Will Smith's syrupy
plantation verbal duels. And now we have "Men of Honor" in which Cuba Gooding
Jr. and Robert De Niro adopt the more taciturn accents of sharecroppers' sons,
or at least De Niro does.
"Men of Honor" is like many films of the past two years: based on fact, a
Hollywood term which, in common English means mostly made up. At the center
of the movie is Gooding's character, Carl Brashear. In actually, Brashear was
a racial pioneer who helped break the U.S. Navy's color barrier by enrolling
in its dive school. The school didn't turn out those free-swimming scuba
divers you usually see on screen, sneaking into enemy harbors and planting
explosives. Rather, they work underwater in those heavy, helmeted suits which
get their air through thin hoses. It's dangerous and unglamorous salvage work
requiring courage, physical strength and a willingness to sacrifice the
limelight, qualities which Brashear, who became a leading diver, seems to have
had in abundance.
No doubt because Brashear is still alive and cooperated with the filmmakers,
the film doesn't come close to suggesting any inner turmoil or
less-than-praiseworthy traits on the part of its hero. Those more
dramatically provocative qualities are offloaded onto an entirely fictional
character, Billy Sunday. Played by Robert De Niro with some of the accent and
venom left over from "Cape Fear," Sunday is a fearsome racist who, as
Brashear's instructor, is determined to flunk him out of dive school. As an
actor, De Niro seems similarly inclined, loading up on pork, bacon, bologna
and every other variation of ham to outduel Gooding at the Southern accent
(Soundbite of "Men of Honor")
Mr. ROBERT De NIRO (As Billy Sunday): Had yourself anything to drink today?
Mr. CUBA GOODING Jr. (As Carl Brashear): No, sir, chief.
Mr. De NIRO: What say we go on into town and get us a nice cold one?
Mr. GOODING: I can't do that, chief. I haven't reported for duty.
Mr. De NIRO: I'll tell you what. I'll buy you a tall one over there. A bus
ticket, too, so you can go on back to whatever borough you sprang from. What
do you say?
Mr. GOODING: Sir, I am a Navy man. Where I come from, there are no oceans,
only dirt farms and ornery mules.
Mr. De NIRO: You know what the Chinese say, Cookie? Beware what you wish
SHEEHAN: Because Brashear is virtually perfect, the movie can't do anything
but show him succeed. That leaves De Niro to play out a redemption story that
makes him the de facto protagonist of the film. He goes from cracker to
crackerjack in an attempt to make himself worthy. Worthy of what, though,
turns out to be a loaded question. One thing he becomes worthy of is the love
of his wife, a Southern belle laughingly played by Charlize Theron, who seems
to have stopped in on her way to do re-shoots for "Bagger Vance."
But as it turns out, Sunday's real redemptive role is to help Brashear out of
a third-act sick bed, something he can only do after he has a damascene
conversion from bigot to integrationist. In other words, having purged
himself of racial animosity, this white man is now suited to be the boss of
this black man.
If "Men of Honor" was the only movie to follow this pattern, it would probably
lie undiscerned beneath the surface, but much the same happens in "Bagger
Vance" in which caddie Will Smith guides golfer Matt Damon back to his
natural, God-given position of authority in a society built around a
segregated golf course.
"Remember The Titans" is a remarkably progressive social document in
comparison. At least Denzel Washington's African-American high school
football coach assumes a leadership position. But after the out-and-out
racism of last year's "The Green Mile" with its subservient death row black
man, it's enough to make you wonder if Hollywood isn't slipping back into
glorification of the good old days when blacks were helpful and whites
CONAN: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register.
CONAN: For Terry Gross, I'm Neal Conan.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.