Former POW’s Story Is One Of Courage, Grit, And True Patriotism

(FLORIDA TIMES-UNION 29 JUN 13) … Maggie FitzRoy

Navy pilot Dick Stratton was bombing bridges in North Vietnam when one of his rockets exploded in front of his plane and debris flew in. He ejected, parachuted down and landed in a tree.

Before long, he found himself sitting in a drainage ditch, next to a rice paddy, dressed only in his underwear, in an area where enemy villagers were hunting for him with machetes.

Procedures went through his mind.

“You are trained for survival and emergency procedures, and all your training kicks in,” the Atlantic Beach resident said one recent day while recounting the six years and two months he spent as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. “You don’t have time to be scared.”

Americans will celebrate Independence Day next Thursday in traditional red, white and blue ways. They’ll march in, or watch parades. They’ll wave flags. They’ll eat hot dogs and hamburgers at picnics, and they’ll close the day watching fireworks light up the sky.

Dick Stratton will, too. He lives in the patriotic retirement community of Fleet Landing, where about 50 percent of the residents are military veterans.

They’ll celebrate with a bicycle parade, a ceremony that will feature a guest speaker, a buffet lunch, and evening fireworks.

But Stratton and his wife, Alice, understand far more than most Americans the true meaning of freedom, sacrifice and patriotism.

As a POW from 1967 to 1973, Dick Stratton learned first-hand what it meant not to be free. To be forced to eat awful food and to be locked up in a cell day after day. To be tortured for even trying to talk. To be beaten for refusing to lie.

Alice took care of their three young sons during those years, without knowing how her husband was, or even if he was still alive.

But for the Strattons, the experience wasn’t all bad, because it had a happy ending. It taught them the importance of information and social support, Alice said. And it gave Dick the opportunity to get to know some really special Americans.

His fellow prisoners were “the finest group of Americans I ever lived with in my life,” he said. They had little clothing, and were often freezing. They were often tortured to provide propaganda for the enemy. They could only communicate by tapping in a secret code through walls.”

But it wasn’t all bad, Dick said. “Because we knew who the enemy was, and the rules were real simple.”

Life was simpler before the war for the Strattons.

Alice grew up in Michigan, Dick in Massachusetts, and they met in San Francisco in 1957, the year Dick obtained his wings as a naval aviator.

They married in 1959, and had three young sons, aged 1, 3 and 5, when Dick was deployed to fight in Vietnam in October 1966. They knew the probability of Dick being shot down in combat was high, and the day he left, Alice gave him one more kiss and said, “Don’t you dare die and leave me with these three little kids.”

Dick said he remembered those words several months later in January when his plane was blown out of the sky.

He was captured and taken to prison, where he spent the next 18 months in solitary confinement. He and other prisoners rotated between different cells and situations, and were often tortured and beaten because their North Vietnamese captors wanted them to put in writing that they were being humanely treated.

Alice, who was living in Palo Alto, learned her husband had been shot down the day it happened, but she didn’t know if he was alive until two months later, when his picture appeared in Life magazine. He was dressed in prison garb and bowing deeply.

A LIFE Magazine photographer was permitted to take pictures in the prison to show American prisoners were being treated fairly, Dick said. American peace activists, who met with North Vietnamese officials, believed that was the case, because they were given a “dog and pony show.”

Dick said he purposely bowed 90 degrees toward the Life magazine representatives to draw attention to his mistreatment. “It was routine to bow ninety degrees to any Vietnamese creature, two-or four-legged,” he said. “If you wouldn’t bow, they’d beat you down with a rifle, or whatever else they had.”

It worked. Alice could tell something was wrong.

“I didn’t know what was the matter with him,” she said. “But at least I knew he was alive.”

Dick spent his time in solitary confinement traveling around the world in his imagination. In some cells he managed to carve a hole in the wall to see outside.

Even though they couldn’t see each other, the prisoners taught each other the secret knocking code and passed messages back and forth. They spelled out their names, and established a chain of command based on rank.

Food, served at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., consisted of cabbage or pig food and pumpkin soup. At one point, Dick’s weight dropped to 110 pounds.

As the war progressed, the prisoners were put in cells in groups. To pass the time, they set up a “school of the ship,” where they taught each other courses in subjects they knew. They didn’t have any books, paper or pencils, and were tortured and beaten if caught, but they had courses going in calculus, physics, chemistry, foreign language, history, politics and auto repair. Dick taught Toastmasters’ public-speaking skills.

In the meantime, Alice and other wives whose husbands were POWs or Missing in Action began giving speeches to raise awareness of the need for humane treatment of American soldiers, and to encourage Americans to wear bracelets engraved with the names of POWs and MIAs.

The wives received support from each other and many others in the military and surrounding community, even though the government told them not to talk about their situation, Alice said. A National League of Families of POW/MIAs was created in 1970, and wives flew around the country to meet with congressmen, senators and the President to advocate for better treatment of their husbands and for their release. Some went to the Paris Peace Talks.

Alice received periodic letters from Dick, although the first sentence was always the same, one he was forced to write: “I’ve been leniently and humanely treated by the Vietnamese people.”

The reality was that he was often tortured by having his arms bent behind his back, and pulled up until his shoulders were dislocated.

He still has burn marks on his arms from ropes.

Once, when he was being interrogated, Dick asked his interrogator what was the lenient and humane treatment he was forced to proclaim?

“‘We let you live Stratton,” he was told.

When the prisoners were finally released, they were warmly welcomed by the American people, even those protesting the war. Other returning Vietnam soldiers were often treated shabbily, but the POWs were invited to a dinner in California by Governor and Mrs. Reagan and to dinner at the White House by President and Mrs. Nixon.

Dick went on to serve more years in the Navy, and then joined Alice in her lifelong career as a clinical social worker. She served four years in the Reagan administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Force Support and Families, and traveled to 89 different bases worldwide.

After they moved to Fleet Landing in 1993, the Strattons both worked at the Fleet and Family Service Centers in Kings Bay and then Naval Station Mayport. Both are now retired.

When invited, they tell their stories to groups, because they don’t want the country to forget, and many young people are not aware of the POW sacrifices. Dick visits local schools, and the “kids lap it up,” he said.

Both Strattons have spoken at Fleet Landing Fourth of July celebrations, and say they would do so again.

Fleet Landing resident Mickey Miefert, who served four tours of duty as a pilot in Vietnam, said he has known Dick for many years, and that it’s good for people to know the stories about the POWs.

“I never wanted to be a prisoner,” Miefert said. Pilots heard stories at the time about how those captured were being mistreated, he said, and “they had a horrible existence.”

“I can’t imagine being in captivity for over six years,” said Fleet Landing director of charitable gift planning Olivia Bush. “I think we owe the man a debt of gratitude.”

In May, the Strattons reunited with many POWs when they attended a 40th anniversary celebration of the POW release in the Nixon library in Yorba Linda, Calif.

“I was amazed at how well we were all doing and how well we all looked,” Dick said. “And what a magnificent lot we are.”

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