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True Soldier Stories

"Courage is the ability to move; when all around you are frozen in fear
and no one would blame you if you did nothing at all." Capt. Click. Phx. PD

My Name is "Lucky" Larry Chesley

I'm a former Vietnam POW

I grew up in Burley, Idaho. We lived on a farm and I learned to work hard at an early age. I enlisted in the Air Force in 1956 when I was seventeen years old and spent two years in Japan and nearly two years in Germany. In 1960 I took an Honorable Discharge and began college at Weber State College in Ogden, Utah. I was married and had one child and worked full time for Boeing at Hill Air Force Base (AFB), Utah. I finished a four-year course of study in less than three years, graduating with honors.

I reentered the Air Force at Officer Training School (OTS) at Lackland AFB, Texas. I graduated as a Distinguished Military Graduate. From OTS I went to Pilot Training, then to fighter training in the F4C Phantom, I graduated as the outstanding pilot of my class (Top Gun).

             I volunteered to go to Vietnam in the Fall of 1965.
                          I was shot down and captured on April 16, 1966
                                       and was released from prison on February 12, 1973,
                                                         nearly seven years in captivity.

While a prisoner of war at one time I was in a room of 48 men and there were 5 Larry’s. So I ask them to give me another name. They started calling me "Lucky", like one might call someone "tiny" who was large.

                     I had broken my back in three places in the ejection
                                               and had received no medical treatment to it.
                                    I had beriberi and lost over 60 pounds in two months.

My wife divorced me etc, etc. The name just stuck. After I got home I remarried and we had three children adopted three more and had a Navajo boy living with us. Then my wife Annette and our six-week-old baby got killed in a train/car crash. After I retired from the Air Force I ran for an elected office in the State of Arizona. I ran eight times and won two.

See how lucky I am?

I'd like to tell you about an incident that occurred while I was a prisoner in the "Hanoi Hilton" in North Vietnam. On July 6, 1966, the Vietnamese staged the infamous Hanoi March. From various prison camps they gathered, as I recall, fifty-six U.S. prisoners, handcuffed them together two by two, and marched them down the main street of Hanoi. My roommates-to-be, Navy Lt j.g. Bill Tschudy and Air  Force Lt. Al Brudno led the march. Later they told me the details.

To enhance and record the spectacle, big trucks carrying floodlights and cameras kept pace with the marchers. The road was lined with people. At first they just stood and watched, but as the march got under way, a man started yelling into the microphone, stirring up the onlookers. They began shouting, "Bow your heads!" at least phonetically that is what they were trying to say, through it hardly sounded like the English words.

                          The Americans would not bow their heads.
                                          They held them high and looked straight ahead.

Aroused by the men with the microphone, the onlookers took on the character of a mob as they pushed in among the prisoners, grabbing their necks to force their heads down. The prisoners got punched and kicked, and hit by flying bottles and rocks. As the crowd surged in, the march became a riot, each pair of the prisoners becoming separated from the other marchers. One man would be holding up his buddy, who had just been hit in the stomach or kicked in the groin and was unable to walk, and the next moment it would be switched and the other guy would be injured. It was very fortunate that no one was killed in the charade.

The next day the camp commander's voice came across the camp radio: "The Vietnamese people demanded that we bring you to Hanoi," he said, "that they may see you and punish you; and what the people demand, we do." This of course was nonsense. The people don't demand anything in that country--they do what they are told to do. Three days later the English-language paper, the Vietnam Courier, said; "When scores of dozens of American prisoners were being brought somewhere to be interrogated, spontaneously a crowd arose to greet them." They lied about the circumstances, the number of prisoners, and the crowd. There was no spontaneous reaction--the crowd were told to be there and were manipulated while they were there. It was obvious to the marchers that the responses of the crowd were being turned on and off as with a switch.

At that time there was talk of war crimes, of bringing the prisoners to trial in North Vietnam. We heard that President Johnston had given an ultimatum that if any men were tried, North Vietnam would be totally destroyed by U.S. air power. Whether this was true or not, the Vietnamese backed off from the war trials idea.

                          After the march some of the men were tortured
                to write statements the North Vietnamese could use for propaganda.

Others were called in just for interrogation and asked what they thought of the march. Most of the prisoners responded that they had seen the animals of Vietnam in the streets that night. Of course, that didn't make the interrogators very happy; but our men weren't very happy either, being black and blue from the bad beating the mob had given them.

I did not take part in the march. I don't know if this was because I was sick or because my name had not been released as a prisoner of war and they didn't want it to be released. Everyone in the march would be identified, of course, so with a few exceptions the Vietnamese only put in the march the men whose names they had released.

                     My name was not officially released until April of 1970,
                                                    four years after I was shot down.

On July 11, another group of prisoners were moved to Briar Patch, and at this time the man who had been living solo next to me was moved into my cell with me. This was Jim Ray, an air force lieutenant. A few years younger than I and a bachelor, Jim was from eastern Texas, a graduate of Texas A&M, where he was president of the student union. He had been Top Gun in his F105 fighter-bomber class at Nelis AFB. In addition to having this kind of background of achievement, he was just an all-around good guy. His coming was a partial answer to prayer, for I prayed constantly in prison for two things--to have a good roommate I could get along with, and to have a roommate who could teach me a foreign language. When Jim moved in with me it was an answer to my first prayer. We got along well, especially considering the close quarters.

                         A Baptist, Jim knew a lot of scriptures,
                                                  and we talked about religion a great deal.

I told him all I knew about my church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we discussed different points of doctrine. I have a great affection for Jim, and I like to hope that some day he will consider seriously the things I told him about my religion.

We moved around within the Briar Patch from building to building and ended up in Echo Hut. I was still in a cell with Jim. In this four-room building there were seven of us, and we enjoyed each other's company very much. Al Brudno was the one who lived alone. We talked to and taught each other as best we could through the walls. We had a lot of fun, but we had to be careful not to get caught communicating between rooms, for then we would have been in deep trouble.

Inevitably, some prisoners were caught and punished. The punishment at this time consisted of being confined to a hole in the room. We had a bomb shelter in each room, a hole just dug out of the dirt and rocks. The holes contained sharp rocks, they often contained a pool of stagnant water, and they were always full of mosquitoes. The punishment at this time for communicating between rooms was to live in that hole for three months with the hands tied or cuffed behind the back, without a mosquito net, and without any blankets to keep you warm. It was a gruesome punishment. Captains Bob Lilly, Dick Bolstad and George McKnight spent some time in there--how long, I don't remember; the prison authorities shortened the three-month sentence in their cases.

                        Christmas 1966 was my first Christmas in Prison
                                       but my second Christmas away from my family.

We got a special meal I'll never forget. Turkeys were brought into the camp and paraded around the camp so we could see them, and on Christmas we each got a little piece of turkey meat with our rice. We had soup, lettuce and carrots (a salad) for the first time since I had been a prisoner.

Before this, in October of 1966, it was time for another torture session--the first I was involved in since my original ones back in Hanoi. As I shall indicate later, it left my feet in a torn and painful condition, so that when in mid-December my feet began to hurt again I thought this was a recurrence of the effects of that torture session. Actually it turned out to be beriberi.

At first this difficulty was principally a nocturnal problem. When I would lay down to go to sleep at night my feet would start aching. I would have to get up and walk for thirty or forty minutes and then they would feel better for a while. By late December they were hurting all the time. I had asked to see a doctor but the prison authorities wouldn't bring one. Pretty soon most of the prisoners started talking about it in the building, and then we found out that several of the men's feet hurt. It turned out that all these men had basically the same symptoms. The feet would heat up and hurt; would feel as if they were being twisted, being wound up like a rubber band.

I thought sometimes that the intense, unrelieved pain would send me crazy.

We were not allowed out for exercise, but we found that if we walked in our rooms or ran in place it helped ease the pain, so we did this. But things got progressively worse all through January, my feet hurting more and more until finally I just had to be walking or running almost all the time. I was now at the lowest ebb in my incarceration the only point at which I was ever really depressed. By this time about 50 percent of the Briar Patch prisoners had this problem. Jim was one of those who didn't have it, and he did his best to encourage me.

On February 3, 1967, all the Briar Patch prisoners moved back to Little Vegas at the Hanoi Hilton. I needed that. Even through I was still in the same pain, different surroundings and new things seemed to give me a fresh start in life. Here we were given a few Epson-salt foot baths, and these would relieve the pain for me for about ten minutes.

February merged into March, and things were no better. Although we were in the city, where we usually got bread, we were instead getting rice with our not so very soup.

            I was losing weight. I had gone into prison at about 160 pounds,
                                    but by March 1967, I weighed only about 100 pounds.
                                                             A loss of approximately 60 pounds.

                  Most of that had come off in the previous three months.
                                           My health was bad and getting worse.
       I could sleep only twenty or thirty minutes out of a forty-eight hour period,
                               and that was when sheer exhaustion overcame the pain. 

It was a very cold winter and we did not have enough clothes or blankets to keep us warm. Yet my feet were uncovered the whole winter because they felt as if they were on fire. They were so hot that they burned the hair off my leg halfway to my knees.

During this period I was lying on my bed one day feeling more dead than alive when I began to cry. My roommate Jim Ray, in his concern for me, started yelling for a doctor. The guard came in and started beating on me.

                              At this, Jim jumped out of his bed,
                                                picked the guard up,
                                                                and threw him out of our cell.

The guard was furious. He took off his HoChi Minh rubber-sandal shoe and was going to hit Jim with it, but Jim stood up to him and said: "If you hit me with that I'm going to take it away from you and beat the hell out of you!" The guard didn't understand English, but he left the cell.

Pretty soon he was back with an entourage. I was afraid for Jim, because the second rule of being a prisoner of war is never hit a guard (first rule: eat every thing they ever give you because you never know if you will eat again). At survival training at Stead Air Force Base in Reno, Nevada, we had been told emphatically, "Don't ever hit a guard!" Yet Jim had done that for me because he wouldn't let that guard beat on me.

At that time they didn't do anything to Jim but later that night an English-speaking North Vietnamese officer came and told Jim he would be punished. The next day was Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, and Jim was punished that day. The authorities knew that the guard was in the wrong but they had to save face, so they "punished" Jim.

His punishment was that he had to stand in the corner for one minute.

They got even with him about two weeks later, however, when he was caught talking to another room. He was taken to interrogation, and when they asked him what he had said he told them that he had a very sick roommate. "He needs a doctor very badly and you won't give him one," Jim told them, "and I was asking if any of the other men knew how to take care of his foot problem."

Jim got put in leg irons for fourteen days for that.

It did some good though. They took me to the doctor. All he did was give me motor-skill tests on my legs and when he found out that I had all the proper reflexes he sent me back to my room the same night. They didn't really do anything for me until about March 18, when they finally moved me with Jim from the Desert Inn to the Golden Nugget, a sick bay area in Little Vegas. For thirty days I received shots, including Vitamin B1, B2, and B12. The vials of Vitamins were from Russia and 11 years out of date. In addition I got "extra" food, which in those days was unusual. That extra food was as follows: First, I received bread when all the other men received rice; and second, when we got pig fat, the guards would cut the minute pieces of lean meat from all the other prisoners' portions and give it to me, making a total of perhaps a heaped tablespoonful. I began to feel better, I started gaining back some weight, and my health generally improved. But beriberi had run my body down so badly during those bad months that I was sick most of the time that I was in prison. I caught any disease or sickness that came along.

                             During those very sick days from January
                      through about the last of March, the pain was so intense
                                                 that I could think of nothing but pain.

Even thoughts of my wife and children whom I loved so much, and who I normally thought about all the time, were ousted by the demon pain. Those were very trying times. In all, I was in pain for between four and five months, and after I started getting my health back my feet still hurt badly for several more years. Even today they are not completely normal.

          When the guard left the first time, Jim and I knelt by our bunk
              and took turns praying that God would soften the hearts of our enemies.
                                When Jim's punishment was so insignificant,
                     Jim Ray Baptist and Larry Chesley Mormon knew
               there was a God who could and did soften the hearts of our enemies.

The real moral to my story is this. Jim Ray loved me more than he loved himself. He was willing to put his very life on the line for me. We do not have as many Jim Rays in the world as we used to have. Today, to many of us are just worrying about ourselves, looking our for number one. Most of us don't have to put our life on the line to help others, there are so many ways in which to help. Most do not cost anything except maybe a little time.

                It is my deep and abiding faith that keeps me going.
                           I know I am a child of God. I know He was with me in prison.
                                           He healed my back and watched over me.
            I know Jesus is the Christ the Son of God and the Savior of all mankind.

I know we have a Prophet on earth, that there is a plan of happiness. I know I will live again in a perfect body in a perfect place with my wife and family for Eternity.

                       God is not some unimaginable person to me,
                                 He is real and I know He loves me
                                            and wants me to live like the example
                                                       Jesus set for me and for everyone.

                                              You see, I really am LUCKY.

                                                                "Lucky" Larry Chesley


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"Think About it..." mailed to your home for only $14.95   S&H included

Read "Think About it..." Online Warrior Stories  | Excerpts | News Articles | Poems
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