Editor’s note: The event at the N.C. Museum of History, mentioned in an earlier version of this story, has been rescheduled due to impending weather. A date will be announced.
Until July 18, 1965, Navy Lt. Bill Tschudy was focused on performing his duty as a bombardier-navigator during the Vietnam War.
Tschudy remembers that mission shifting a bit, though, after he was shot down over a heavily defended bridge over the Ma River. As he abandoned the doomed A-6A Intruder jet, his parachute floated toward the middle of an enemy-controlled village.
“Your war now is survival,” he thought to himself.
His landing spot, an enemy trench, didn’t inspire confidence.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I landed in a burial site,’ ” recalled Tschudy, with a laugh, in an interview at his Cary home.
Tschudy, then a married 30-year-old with a 6-month-old son, was captured quickly by North Vietnamese forces.
Then-Cmdr. Jeremiah Denton Jr., the late Alabama senator, was Tschudy’s pilot and also was captured. The two were imprisoned together and tortured for 7 1/2 years. The 42nd anniversary of their release was Thursday.
Time Magazine reported part of Tschudy’s story in a December 1970 issue that featured his face on the cover, and various national news outlets wrote stories after his release.
Tschudy (pronounced t-shoo-dy) is scheduled to tell his story of survival at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh as part of a program on American prisoners of war and Vietnamese re-education camps.
Tschudy, now 79, is one of three scheduled speakers. The other two – Brig. Gen. Norman Gaddis of Raleigh and South Vietnamese Col. Hien Vo of Raleigh – were also POWs.
Program organizer Bill Dixon, of N.C. Vietnam Veterans, said he chose the men as speakers because of the lessons they could offer.
Tschudy retired as a commander, went on to earn an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, worked for the Pentagon as a Senate liaison and spent 11 years in the aerospace industry before moving to Raleigh in 1993 to start Sunbelt Business Brokers. He and his wife, Janie, have two adult children: Michael and Nancy Anne.
“The men who have gone through what they went through and came out with a positive attitude and have been successful in life ... are just unbelievable,” said Dixon, also a Vietnam veteran.
Tschudy said felt the need to serve in the military because his father had served in World War II and his brother had served in the Korean War. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves in 1961 before transferring to the Navy.
“I was not there for political reasons,” he said.
‘Hands up, Yank!’
Tschudy was captured in North Vietnam during his 13th mission. About half a dozen men with machetes and a single militia officer with a gun surrounded him in the trench.
“Hands up, Yank!” he recalled the officer saying.
One of his first interrogations was conducted by an officer who entered the room with a pack of Marlboro cigarettes that guards had confiscated from him.
The North Vietnamese tried to keep Tschudy and other American prisoners alive because they had “economic value,” he said. The government also wanted to include American soldiers’ “confessions” and “apologies” in Communist propaganda.
Americans were tortured if they refused, Tschudy said, and were sometimes brutalized randomly.
“Maybe something in the South had not gone they way they wanted, so they’d get angry and might take it out on the prisoners,” he said.
Tschudy, who lost feeling in the bottom of his feet as a result of torture, doesn’t always like to talk about what he endured. In an interview, he produced a sketch to illustrate what he went through.
In the sketch, a man is sitting with his legs extended. His wrists are tied together behind his back, and a captor is pushing the prisoner’s arms upward toward his feet so that his face is between his knees.
“Sometimes, fingernails would pop off and things like that,” he said. “They were very cruel.”
For a time, Tschudy was a prisoner at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where Arizona Sen. John McCain also was held.
And in 1966, guards tied Tschudy and another prisoner together at the front of a line for what was known as the “Hanoi March.”
The government marched about 50 handcuffed prisoners through the city streets. Onlookers “shook their fists and were throwing things – lighted cigarettes and beer bottles, mostly,” Tschudy said. Many prisoners were injured.
The march made headlines throughout the world, drawing criticism from the United Nations and the Vatican, according to the Washington Post.
Keeping hope alive
Tschudy said he stayed alive by keeping his physical, mental and spiritual health in check as much as possible.
Prisoners would exercise when allowed because they wanted to be able to flee, if the moment came, and to prepare their bodies for unnatural trials.
“We would exercise all the time,” he said. “You could blank your mind out.”
He prayed aloud when his captors permitted it. Some guards didn’t care so long as the prisoners didn’t recite Psalm 23.
“That could start riots or something,” he said of the Bible verse. “For some of us, (faith) was what got us through the day.”
And he tried to put a positive spin on everything.
“If our food was bad or there wasn’t much of it, we’d say it was because the war was about to be over,” he said. “If they gave us lots of it, we’d say it was because they were trying to fatten us up for our release.”
Making it to the end
Tschudy and other prisoners were released in 1973 after the United States and Vietnam signed a ceasefire. Their release coincided with an anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, which Tschudy, an Illinois native, found appropriate. He told his captors as much on the morning he was set to be freed.
“They liked Lincoln, the Great Emancipator,” he said, reflecting on one of his last interactions with a guard. “He was smiling about that until I told him he had to stay there.”
For years, Tschudy celebrated the anniversary of his release with Denton.
Denton became famous during the war for the way he communicated to outsiders as a POW in 1966 during a propaganda video scheduled to be aired in Japan.
In Morse Code, Denton blinked out “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” while pretending to be blinded by spotlights. The tape was later broadcast in the United States and was the first confirmation that American POWs were being tortured by their North Vietnamese captors, according to the New York Times.
This is Tschudy’s first year celebrating the anniversary of his release without talking to Denton.
Denton, who was 89, died in March 2014.
“We’d always call each other on that day,” Tschudy said. “We’d talk about how glad we were to have made it to the end.”