On April 6, 1967, Douglas Brent Hegdahl III was assigned to the 0400 watch on the USS Canberra, sailing down the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. At about 03:30, he left his bunk and stowed all of his valuables in his locker. He then went out on deck for a breath of fresh air before starting his watch.
The USS Canberra is a Boston-class guided-missile cruiser with 28 guns, including six 8-inch, 55-caliber cannons. If you are in close proximity to a gun of this size when it fires, best-case scenario, you will become temporarily deaf. In the worst case, the concussion of the blast will knock your butt overboard. And that's exactly what happened!
Doug was three miles from shore, with no life preserver, no identification, no nothing. He also didn’t tell anyone else that he was going up on deck. Normally on a ship, if you don't show up for a watch, someone will start looking for you. But not in this case... his fellow shipmates covered for him and didn't report him missing for two days, so the commanding officer did not organize a search.
It was about 03:45 when he went overboard, and just after dawn, he saw a trace of the shoreline and decided his best shot was to swim in that direction. He swam until he was picked up several hours later by Cambodian fishermen who treated him well. He was later handed over to Vietnamese militiamen who clubbed him repeatedly with their rifles before moving him to the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" prison.
Doug was now a Prisoner-of-War (POW). His interrogators didn't think he was a pilot because he was too tall, and they also didn’t buy his story about being thrown overboard during a cannon blast.
Doug faced two choices. Either the Vietnamese would think he was a spy, and therefore submit him to endless torture for secrets he never knew, or he could act like he was stupid enough to make his accident credible - which is exactly what he did. He thought his best chance was to act like a fool - not any kind of fool though, but the one with which the communists sympathized - the poor peasant.
Doug was so good in his role that the prison guards finally considered Doug too stupid to cause any harm, so they gave him the job of cleaning the prison corridors while they were resting. This allowed Doug to wander freely out of his cell and around the prison. Doug used his freedom to perform acts of sabotage.
Once he went to the prison garage, opened the gas caps of the trucks there, and threw sand inside. By doing that, he took five trucks out of service. Many fighter pilots never destroyed as many enemy vehicles as Doug did.
One of Doug’s cellmates was Joe Crecca, an Air Force officer who had mastered mnemonics - a set of memorization techniques. Joe taught him methods to memorize 256 names of other prisoners, cross-reference them and retrieve personal details, like their pets or place of residence. Later, this helped the American government to identify and rescue soldiers that once were considered dead.
Hegdahl was released on August 5, 1969, as a propaganda move by the North Vietnamese. At first, Doug refused to leave, in solidarity with the other prisoners. He only accepted to be released after his superior officer, Lieutenant Commander Richard A. Stratton told him he would be more useful outside. The information he memorized about the other prisoners would allow the US government to know that these POW's were still alive.
LTCDR Stratton later wrote: “Doug did not want to go. We finally told Doug that as long as he did not have to commit treason, he was to permit himself to be thrown out of the country. He was the most junior. He had the names. He knew first hand the torture stories behind many of the propaganda pictures and news releases. He knew the locations of many of the prisons. It was a direct order; he had no choice. I know, because I personally relayed that order to him as his immediate senior in the chain of command.”
‘"The Incredibly Stupid One,’ my personal hero, is the archetype of the innovative, resourceful and courageous American Sailor. These sailors are the products of the neighborhoods, churches, schools and families working together to produce individuals blessed with a sense of humor and the gift of freedom who can overcome any kind of odds. These sailors are tremendously loyal and devoted to their units and their leaders in their own private and personal ways. As long as we have the Doug’s of this world, our country will retain its freedoms.”
In 1970 Hegdahl attended the Paris peace talks where he confronted his captors and disclosed the conditions of the prison.
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