Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 26, 1999
Head: Two Fighter Pilots "Return with Honor"
Sect: News; Domestic
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My two guests were fighter pilots flying missions over North Vietnam when they were shot down, captured and held prisoners of war. They're among the men interviewed in the new documentary, "Return with Honor" about the POWs who were released in 1973. The film was made by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, who won an Oscar for their documentary about Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial.
The North Vietnamese didn't honor the Geneva Convention's regulating the treatment of POWs, they called their captured men, "war criminals." My guests were among the POWs who were tortured. Ronald 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 law firm handling intellectual property and technology.
Ed Mechenbier spent six years as a POW. After returning home, he stayed in the military. Mechenbier left active service in 1978, and has since worked for private aerospace companies. He's also a Major General in the Air Force Reserve.
I asked them each to describe how they bailed out after being shot down, and Ron Bliss answered first.
RONALD BLISS, FORMER FIGHTER PILOT AND 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.
GROSS: Ed Mechenbier, you say something really extraordinary in the movie "Return with Honor;" you kept -- 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 out.
ED MECHENBIER, FORMER FIGHTER PILOT AND 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 F4C Phantom which had two people in it. It had myself and a pilot systems operator about six feet behind me.
And 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 (ph), 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 fireball, and before the parachutes opened, the airplane hit the ground.
GROSS: What was going through your mind on the way down?
MECHENBIER: "Please don't hit me," because 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 of 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'd 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: It must be quite a feeling of helplessness.
MECHENBIER: Complete -- complete helplessness, yes.
GROSS: Ronald Bliss, were you being shot at on the way down too?
BLISS: Well, I was unconscious, so I don't know.
GROSS: You were unconscious?
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 sun, about two to 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 relaxed so you don't hurt yourself when you land, and I assure you I was as relaxed as you could be.
GROSS: Were you conscious long enough to pull the chord and open the parachute?
BLISS: Well, it's automatic. I squeezed the triggers...
GROSS: ... oh.
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: So, when you regained consciousness did you think good news I'm alive, bad news I'm a prisoner of war?
BLISS: Well, you're so pumped up with adrenaline you don't think, you just react. But you go into a pre-training mode, if you will -- a pre-ejection mode -- and I knew where I was. I knew it was not a good situation. I kept trying to get up off the dirt road and they wouldn't let me.
And finally, when I sat up and insisted on walking I reached behind my head and felt this big clot of blood. I had -- probably my seat impacted my head on the way out. And they were trying to take care of me for that -- those few brief moments, but I had a headache that lasted about a week. It was pretty sensational.
It's really nice when they're interrogating you for this that and the other, and you start off with a throbbing headache.
GROSS: Ed Mechenbier, were you taken prisoner of war pretty immediately after landing?
MECHENBIER: We landed right in the middle of them, and as Ron says, on they 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 and rolled down and presented myself to the Vietnamese completely tied up in my shroud lines.
So, we were completely surrounded by about a cast of 100 immediately upon hitting the ground.
GROSS: My guests are Ronald Bliss and Ed Mechenbier and they were each held over six years as prisoners of war in North Vietnam. They're two of the people who are interviewed in the new documentary "Return with Honor" about Americans who were held prisoner of war in Vietnam.
What does your military training tell you to do if you're captured?
MECHENBIER: Go ahead, counselor.
BLISS: Well, ideally you hold out for a few seconds by giving them name, rank, 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.
MECHENBIER: And Ron made reference there loosely to those who are familiar with the American fighting man's code of conduct, some of the six things they tell you to do. But all anybody ever really remembers is name, rank, serial number and I'll die before I give them anything else.
Well, the rest of that sentence or paragraph goes on, "I will evade answering further questions to the best of my ability." And there gets to be a point where what you know is not worth your life. And sometimes it's not worth even serious injury to yourself or to somebody else, particularly if somebody is depending on you in a cell or, you know, in the total POW system.
So, then exactly as Ron says, you start doing all those things that you're always trained not to do. You lie, you cheat, you steal, you do anything you can; but you don't try to give them anything of use.
GROSS: What were the first things that happened to you after you were taken captive?
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?
BLISS: Well, the first one that Ed mentioned in "Heartbreak Hotel," a special part of the "Hanoi Hilton" where they break you down, was a wooden bedboard 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 were -- there was a screen over the window and a light bulb that was on day and bight. 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 Vietminh, 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?
BLISS: Because a fellow that was there at the same time -- and I mean that literally -- Jack Fellows (ph), a 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 ten 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 inside 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?
MECHENBIER: Yeah, I spent about three years at "The Zoo," like Ron. It seemed like once every year, probably to, in their own mind, 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 Wallow Prison (ph), 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.
I spent about eight months up on a camp on the Chinese border, another place called "Dogpatch" and various other places around town. So, they moved you around occasionally.
GROSS: My guests are Ed Mechenbier and Ron Bliss, two of the former POWs featured in the new documentary "Return with Honor." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guests are Ron Bliss and Ed Mechenbier, former fighter pilots who were shot down over North Vietnam, captured and held for about six years as prisoners of war.
Now, Ron Bliss mentions that his cellmate 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 pears of captivity?
MECHENBIER: Ron, go ahead. And throw in about the "Hanoi March," which is a different kind of torture.
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 that had shattered their confidence and it shattered their propaganda invincibility. So, they marched, chained two by two, all 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 Gederics (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 they 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 breathing.
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. It 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 did 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 get it this way?
MECHENBIER: I think individually some of them actually thought that 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 you wanted, hten they tried something else or they'd go try somebody else.
So, then, again, it was up to the individual to the best eh 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. You just do the best you can, as much, you know, for your own personal honor but just to make them -- 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: Well, Ron Bliss, what kind of questions did they ask you during the torture sessions? What did they want?
BLISS: Well, there are two reasons for torture: one is for military information and two is what they call attitude. Now, military is the classical James Cagney or John Wayne. They want to know about ordinants that you dropping, altitudes you were coming in at, who else was in the flight.
And I had a great off the cuff smoke screen story that I gave to them that I'm still prod of. But most of the time in captivity it really wasn't about military information, because, realize, after a year or two anything you know is obsolete.
GROSS: That's what I was thinking.
BLISS: What it is -- oh, it really is. But what they want is they want the proper attitude. They want you to be subservient, they want you to be cowed and they want you to be pliable and give propaganda. And they will twist you sometimes as long and as hard as they have to so that they think you're in that mode.
Secretly, you never are. They can beat you until you pass out, which is always a blessing because if you're out you don't hurt. But we've had people -- for example, they threw Red McDaniel (ph) into my cell after they tortured him for, he thinks, about two weeks. He lost consciousness so many times he wasn't sure -- in one of the purges.
But they hung him upside down from the hook and they put him in a chair for about three days and he couldn't relax. He woke up on the floor one morning as the guards -- the interrogator walked in and there was a whole chalk drawing of the cellblock on the floor and he said, "sir, did I do that?" And he says, yes. He didn't even remember doing it.
He says, "well, if I did that it's a lie." And they started all over again. That's the way it went. It was attitude.
GROSS: Did either of you at any point give in and tell them what they wanted or pretend to tell them what they wanted and pretend to believe their propaganda?
MECHENBIER: You never ever act like you believe. You never give them any kind of encouragement. You may say something like I understand what you're saying, you know. And that was the first level, I mean, do you understand what I'm saying? Yes, I understand.
Once they find out that you say yes, I understand, then they say do you believe and you'd never believe.
GROSS: What did they ask you to believe?
MECHENBIER: Oh, that their fortunes were wonderful. That they had the just cause and that the Americans were the aggressor in the South and it was a puppet government and all the rest of the traditional Communist poppycock. That they had a fraternity and a society and a democratic place there that was just wonderful and, you know, nirvana and all the rest of that wonderful stuff.
And you never wanted to give them the least hint that you were willing to say publicly or believe even privately anything that they were espousing in terms of a political or social philosophy.
GROSS: So, what's the closest each of you came to feeling like you had reached the breaking point? And no matter what...
BLISS: ... for me there were two or three times. But I remember early on since I was shot down in a Joint Chief of Staff target they publicized my ID card picture and everything else in the "Vietnam Courier (ph)," and 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 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 to happen.
So, after about a six or seven month period the camp commander, 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 that just radiated all night long. And we would sleep on the floor with the mosquitoes eating us, no mosquito net at all.
Just to get our nose up by the crack under the door maybe you'd get one breath of air a night. And they were working us over pretty well physically, and it was a bad time of the war. We knew we weren't doing well in the air war.
And at the end of '67 -- 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 gave in.
GROSS: Did you ever seriously entertain the idea of suicide?
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.
MECHENBIER: I'm too big a coward, I wouldn't do it.
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.
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. I mean, I'm not going to help them.
BLISS: The only way that people really consider suicide I think is when they're alone and not in communication 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 just looked at the guard and quietly think to yourself, "Nyuen (ph), you can't kill me today. I'm not going to die."
And maybe the next day it's, I remember my lovely wife and I want to see her again or the child whose never seen me. But it was not one answer for the whole time.
MECHENBIER: And you 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?
MECHENBIER: Oh, yeah we lived together for about a year.
BLISS: Oh, we did. Yeah.
MECHENBIER: We had an apartment.
BLISS: We had a rock and roll group of four young Lieutenants, and just because of my -- 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 years as a Lieutenant.
Can you imagine living in a room with Ed Mechenbier, Kevin McManus and a gentleman that you don't know, Gaelen Cramer (ph), and being the senior man? That's more fun than you should ever be entitled to.
GROSS: Ron Bliss and Ed Mechenbier are two of the former POWs featured in the new documentary "Return with Honor." They'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with Ron Bliss and Ed Mechenbier. They were each fighter pilots flying missions over North Vietnam when they were shot down and held as prisoners of war for about six years. Bliss and Mechenbier are among the former POWs interviewed in the new documentary, "Return with Honor." They were interrogated and tortured repeatedly.
What could you do mentally, psychologically, to just keep reminding your self of what you believed in and why you were going to hold out and why you were going to do everything to not reveal information that you had; to not rat out anybody else? I mean, your mind must get so disoriented and so disturbed by repeated torture and by all the other deprivation that you were going through.
So, what do you do to remind yourself of who you are and what you stand for?
BLISS: You want to take a shot at that, Ed, first?
MECHENBIER: Well, I think it's as much a matter of the fact that -- Ron alluded to it earlier, as long as you're not alone now you have a reason. If it's only to hold the other guy's hand when he's in trouble and have somebody there when you get in trouble.
And you'd be amazed at the richness of what's in your own mind when you don't have a television or a magazine or a newspaper to distract you. When you can start htinking about the things that you've learned, the dreams that you've had, the creativity of the human spirit is really unbridled.
And hten sometimes, you know, you just spend time with somebody else telling stories and fantasizing and things like that. So, there's a lot in you that when you take away all of the convenient diversions that you and you just have to rely upon yourself and maybe one or two other people you can -- interesting word -- entertain yourself; keep your mind busy.
And maybe not most productively, but certainly enough to keep yourself oriented and sane.
GROSS: Ron Bliss, did you have any form of religion to fall back on, prayer, that you could use or poems that you could recite to yourself, songs that you would sing to yourself? Things that would kind of give you a richer inner life while deprived of your outer life?
BLISS: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, and yes to all of the above. Everybody had his own religious belief and mine changed a little bit up there. I found out that my classical approach as I was taught and practiced here in life needed to be adapted to a different form of the world than I had ever seen or heard about.
But in terms of -- you have to realize that we were all highly trained, highly motivated people. And something which is very difficult to explain is camaraderie because it doesn't exist in the civilian life. People have been deprived, they've been deprived mightily. Because when you have trained with people -- running over the North Road, for example, at the Air Force Academy, throwing up because you can't go any farther, and somebody falls down and you are trained that two of you will pick him up and the third will pick up his rifle because you don't leave anybody or anything behind.
You don't find that in the civilian world, but that is a feeling among men and women that is -- you can't put a price tag on that. We are blessed to have found that.
GROSS: Tell me more about how your sense of your religion changed.
BLISS: I came out of a classic Baptist upbringing and of course I was a regular church attender until I got to the Air Force Academy and when chapel was compulsory it's a natural reaction of a young lad -- you react and I didn't appreciate some of that. They've since changed the rules. They've -- they're doing it very well now.
But I got to the point where I realized that look, life is neither fair nor unfair. Life just is, and you can't blame life or anything. You can blame yourself if you don't step up to the plate and meet life head on.
So, what I pray for was not the easy way out, because I knew there wasn't one. And perhaps we shouldn't even deserve one, but, so dear God, just give me the strength to do what I need to do and give me a hint about what I ought to do and then I'll take it from there. And if I fail, have mercy.
GROSS: Ed Mechenbier, did you have a religion to help sustain you, and did that sense of religion change?
MECHENBIER: It didn't change. I was a Catholic, I still am a Catholic. I don't know that I appreciate the Catholic Church the way it is today, because I rather appreciate the way it was before I went to Vietnam.
And like Ron's group, you know, it was interesting, I was one of 66 people stationed in Europe who "volunteered" to go to Vietnam. Of those 66, statistically skewed probably higher than the average, I was the 33rd to get shot down. Of those 33, four survived.
So, I always took the attitude that God got me through that for some reason. There was some reason I didn't stay with that airplane a second and a half longer and smash into the ground with it. And so I just appreciated the fact that I had survived and I was clever enough to believe I hadn't done it on my own.
And so I just came away from it more with a better appreciation for why I as an individual am here.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Ronald Bliss and Ed Mechenbier and they're both American pilots who were held prisoner of war in Vietnam for over six years. They were released in 1973. They're two of the former prisoners of war who are interviewed in the film "Return with Honor."
How were you told that you were going to be released. Ed Mechenbier, do you want to start?
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 agreed to.
Now interestingly enough, this was five days and a 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, interesting 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?
BLISS: The sweetest moment. It would have to be the 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 (ph) for the first time...
GROSS: ... your wife?
BLISS: My wife, Charlene. It had been pretty close to seven years by the time I had a 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.
MECHENBIER: I think Ron hit it right on the head. I mean, you find out what's really important in life, and its 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 we got back at 1:30 in the morning. And there were hundreds of people out there (unintelligible).
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, 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 and cherish -- think hold close and cherishable -- they're back together now.
GROSS: I'm wondering if there were moments after you were united with your families if you felt surprising alienation because you had changed so much maybe from the over six years as prisoners of war. And I don't if your wives had changed much since, you know, in the intervening years. But in some ways you must have felt like a different person put back into a life that you hadn't been in for so long.
So, did you feel confusing conflicting things and a certain degree of alienation from your own life and your own family?
BLISS: Alienation is probably too strong of a word, but you have to realize that we were gone out of the country for well over six, six and a half years. And the country went through such a rapid change, it almost fell apart on its own. And society changed.
You know, I don't mean this lightly, it sounds that way, we were up there so long we virtually missed the mini-skirt. And people change every day. You'll be a little bit different person tomorrow than you are today, that's the nature of the beast.
Now, you multiply that by six and a half years or so and you've got remarkable changes. Alienated, no. Careful, yes. We were careful about everything. You felt around. You groped. You came in very lightly to see who you had, what you had and let them know who you were.
And it didn't happen in a day, it took a while.
MECHENBIER: And in the movie, Everett Alvarez (ph) talks about a shield -- an insulation shield around us. And I think some of us still have that to some extent, and it's not that we're standoffish or anything else like that. It's just that, you know, there are some very private things that, some of them perhaps too horrible to share with your family. Some of them are just things that only guys like Ron and I and Kevin McManus and Joe Milligan (ph) and all the rest of the guys would ever really truly appreciate.
Otherwise you get yourself into a situation where you're trying to read a dictionary of words to explain something that just isn't understandable.
GROSS: Did you try to hold back a lot of what you experienced from your family?
MECHENBIER: I just basically -- yeah, I just basically said, OK, today is the first day of the rest of my life. I mean, I have never sat down and tried to recreate a diary of what it was like over there. I mean, it's -- as far as I was concerned it's gone. The spilled milk has already soured, so get on with the rest of your life.
GROSS: So, was doing the movie "Return with Honor" and talking in detail about what had happened to you something you hadn't much done before?
MECHENBIER: Not -- hadn't done much before.
BLISS: I think all of us -- I think a lot of us had done something on that order before, but I think they got deeper than anyone else has in this project. I told Freida Mock and Terry Sanders, I said, look...
GROSS: ... the directors.
BLISS: You may have two-thirds of what really counts up there and that is light years ahead of what anybody else has ever done or will do. And as Ed said, the other third is just so private, so personal that nobody will ever hear it.
GROSS: Ron Bliss, you have to leave us now because you're in Texas and the studio time there has run out. I wish we had more time to talk , but we have to end this part of the conversation.
BLISS: Well, thank you very much. I've enjoyed it, Terry.
GROSS: I've enjoyed it too, and I want to thank you very much. And, you know, I wish you good luck and good health and thank you for sharing your part story with us.
BLISS: We'll be standing when the mountains fall. Ed, take it from here, and I've enjoyed talking to you again. Terry, thank you very much. So long.
GROSS: Ed Mechenbier, if it's OK with you I'd like to just continue speaking for the next few minutes.
MECHENBIER: Press on.
GROSS: And before I do, let me just say that Ronald Bliss, who we just spoke with, was held prisoner of war in North Vietnam for over six years. He's now a lawyer specializing in intellectual property and technology. He's the former Texas Aerospace Commissioner.
And both Ronald Bliss and Ed Mechenbier are interviewed in the documentary "Return with Honor" about American fighter pilots who were held prisoner of war in Vietnam. Let's take a short break here and then Ed Mechenbier will talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Back with Ed Mechenbier. And he is one of the American fighter pilots interviewed in the new movie "Return with Honor," a documentary about fighter pilots who were shot sown during the war in Vietnam and held prisoner of war. He was a prisoner of war for over six years.
What were your thoughts about the anti-war movement when you came home after being a prisoner of war for over six years.
MECHENBIER: Well, it's amazing it didn't change. I mean, what a wonderful country where people can express their views like that. They didn't always agree with the way that they did it, particularly some of the more influential people in the arts and in the media and in politics.
But, you know, you can't come away from living in a Communist society as we did and see the utter repression of privacy and, you know, free thinking and not come back and say, well, different stokes for different folks. At least, you know, if it's a lousy system it's still the best one in the world , as Winston Church said.
So, I didn't come away with any personal animosity towards anybody who might have walked up to me and says, you know, I was anti-war. In fact I went to Kent State University and addressed the student body there, a couple of times.
GROSS: What did you talk about?
MECHENBIER: The war in Vietnam and my experiences. I had a very warm reception.
GROSS: Now, did you find that people in the anti-war movement really wanted to know what happened to you or did you feel that they didn't want to hear it because it would contradict some of their views?
MECHENBIER: I have never had anyone, with the possible exception of Jane Fonda, I have never had anyone ever try to personally embarrass me or call into question my integrity for having been in that war. And I have talked to a lot of people who had different opinions on our involvement in that war than I did.
GROSS: But Jane Fonda challenged you?
MECHENBIER: Oh, no. Jane Fonda still maintains that she was right and the war was wrong and all the rest of that stuff. I mean, she's just an absolute embarrassment I think to this country. Subtle opinion.
GROSS: When you got home and you were adjusting to being home again did you want, or were you given any counseling? Did you feel that that was necessary?
MECHENBIER: I don't know that I wanted it. Whether or not I needed it is probably still an open question in many people's mind. But by and large there were preconceived ideas about what we would be. And I hope we didn't match any of them, you know, because we weren't prone to commit suicide. We weren't latent homosexuals. We weren't indecisive. We weren't committing suicide in inordinate -- there's one other and I forgot what the fifth one was.
But they had kind of told our families certain characteristics, "watch us." And when we went down for a recurrenecy flying down at Randolph Field in Texas they wouldn't let us fly solo by ourselves because we might not quite be right in an airplane.
So, I think, you know, we felt like we were not as weird or as odd for the experience as a lot of people professionally thought we should be or were.
GROSS: You know, as you point out in the film when you're a fighter pilot and you're there in the sky you feel invincible and in a way you need to feel invincible. But after you've been shot down and held prisoner and tortured when you're back in the sky can you still feel invincible?
MECHENBIER: Absolutely. I mean, I came home and I flew fighters for another 17 years. And I'm still the world's best fighter pilot, even though now I'm flying cargo airplane.
But it's an attitude. I mean, I'm sitting here in a control room with a fellow who if doesn't think he's as good at what he does as anybody in this world he's not ever going to be as good as even he can be. You aren't going to be as good a television -- or radio personality if you don't really have some faith in you r own ability.
That's not to say that you have to become an egomaniac or say I know everything there is to know. But you have to have a high opinion, a high regard of your own personal capability to go out there and match wits, to match skills and talents against other people day in and day out.
GROSS: My guest is Ed Mechenbier, one of the former POWs interviewed in the documentary "Return with Honor." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Ed Mechenbier, one of the former POWs featured in the film "Return with Honor" about American fighter pilots who were shot down over Vietnam, captured and held as prisoners of war.
In the movie the men who are interviewed, the former prisoners of war, are really quite stoic in describing the torture and the solitary confinement and so on. And the place where they really -- where some of them really break down is in talking about going home and seeing their family again.
Why do you think that is?
MECHENBIER: Well, because you're training. The four years at the Air Force Academy, the survival schools, just the rigor of becoming an Air Force fighter pilot prepares you professionally for that -- for the call to arms, so to say. And there are all those other things -- in the movie Lee Royce (ph) says, you know, the Air Force had seen fit to send me off to these survival schools and I escaped and evaded for five seconds.
You know, you're prepared for a certain (unintelligible). The only time in the movie I ever cry is at the end when the Air Force Academy Choir is singing "Lord Guard and Guide the Men Who Fought." That's an emotional side, I mean, you can build yourself up against, you know, a particular frontal assault or thrust -- particular thought.
But when you get to the idea, again go back to something we talked earlier with Ron, you know, when you start getting into the soft underbelly of the emotion -- the pride, the camaraderie, then there's always a little chink in the armor there. There's always room for that no matter how stoic you can be.
GROSS: Is there any thing that you would like to teach fighter pilots that you learned during your captivity that you wish that you had been taught?
MECHENBIER: Not just fighter pilots, everybody. People look at us and they say, gee, I could never do that. How did you do that? That's not the message. The story is anybody could do it. We're all products of a society.
Don't look at me and say gee, you're a hero. I could never do that. You know, you would, you could. Because I didn't receive -- yeah, some special training. But if they had been in the same situation they would have had the same training I did.
And then the other thing is you just tell people ahead of time, be aware of the fact that you've got a wingman. Somebody packed your parachute. Somebody put gas in your airplane. You know, don't be as arrogant as you might think you have to be to be the world's greatest fighter pilot.
And the world's greatest fighter pilot, Ed Mechenbier, goes around and shakes a lot of people's hands and says thanks for packing my parachute.
GROSS: Do you still have the after affects of injuries that you suffered when you were tortured?
MECHENBIER: Yes. Yeah, I mean, like a lot of guys, I mean, I've got -- I had a broken back and I sleep about two hours a whack at night and get up and walk around a little it. I still have the dreams. I've still got a lot of aches and pains.
But you know the other part of that is that I'm a whole lot better off than the 54,000 guys who died. And I'm a whole lot better off than people who lost arms and legs and limbs and some of the young kids who saw things that they weren't emotionally prepared to see.
So, I can live with my aches and pains. I'm doing pretty good.
GROSS: It must be really difficult to heal when you're given any medical attention.
MECHENBIER: Well, again, that's and aspect of the human body. I mean, I think, man was created by God in a pretty unsophisticated environment and I'm sure they arms and legs and had poison; I mean, the death rate might have been higher. But the human body is a pretty remarkable piece of engineering, and given time it may not be as comfortable, and, you know, it may be little more painful, but the human body -- you can relocate your own shoulders. We all proved that.
I mean, I spent a week in foot stocks, which is probably a good deal because my back was broken. So I couldn't move for a week. I survived that. I had an abscess, you know, talk about things you remember in the Philippines. I mean, I had an abscess and had a toothache for about three years. The right side of my face was puffed out about two inches for three years.
You know, the body didn't shut down, it kept going.
GROSS: you mentioned before that you still have dreams about Vietnam. Have they changed, or is it the same kind of dream as you used to have?
MECHENBIER: Yeah, there's a classic dream and no matter -- there's a lot of dreams, you know, where you're being physically abused -- a nice way to say tortured. But some of them are really kind of funny in that you have to get back.
You're sitting at a baseball game in Cincinnati or Houston or Dallas or something that and you look at your watch and say, gee, I got to get back. I got to get back before the guards find out I'm missing. So, that's probably the most recurring thing.
It's just so -- it's like going back to the womb, you got a certain comfort factor there.
GROSS: How much contact do you have with the other who you knew during the period of captivity?
MECHENBIER: Quite a bit, really. You know, like Ron Bliss, he and I are classmates from the Air Force Academy. And my backseater, Kevin McManus lives over in Washington and he and I are still very close. I mean, I spent four years with him, I could ruin his marriage.
GROSS: But you wouldn't do a thing like that.
MECHENBIER: No, because he could ruin me. So, you have that. And then, you know, I'm still in the Air Force Reserve, I'm privileged to a Major General in the Air Force Reserve, and so as a part-timer I get to travel a little bit and stay close to these guys.
We have two reunions every five years, so we have reunions on the five, ten fifteen, twenty, twenty-five year point. And we're finding that there are a lot of mini reunions in between, you know, guys geographically close together. So, it's a pretty close knit group in that regard.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And I wish you the best, thank you.
MECHENBIER: Thank you very much for giving us this opportunity to tell out story.
GROSS: Ed Mechenbier is one of the former POWs interviewed in the documentary "Return with Honor." The film is now playing in several cities and will open in more cities over the next few months.
I'm Terry Gross.
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington. D.C.
Guest: Ed Mechenbier and Ron Bliss
High: Former fighter pilots Ed Mechenbier and Ron Bliss. During the Vietnam War they were both shot down, and became POWs in Hanoi. They are interviewed in the new documentary "Return with Honor." The film was made by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, the team that made the Oscar winning film, "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision."
Spec: War; Asia; Lifestyle; Culture; Ed Mechenbier; Ron Bliss
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Two Fighter Pilots "Return with Honor"
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.