Marine veteran recalls being 'perfect liar' to survive as POW in Hanoi Hilton
During the 5½ years he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Frank E. Cius Jr. often thought about his parents’ bar on Genesee Street back in Buffalo, Frankie’s Inn, named in honor of his dad.
Cold beer, fish fries and other delicious delights from the tavern’s kitchen seemed like heaven to Cius, a Burgard Vocational High School graduate who worked there as a bartender before enlisting in the Marines.
Cius recalls that he became a POW on June 5, 1967 – but not without a fight.
Two days earlier, serving as the crew chief aboard a CH-46A Sea Knight helicopter, he was in the midst of overseeing an extraction of Special Forces soldiers from a mission in Laos.
The chopper had just lifted off when enemy fire disabled the craft. The pilot and co-pilot were wounded, and the door gunner was dead from the barrage. To make matters worse, the helicopter crashed into an enemy camp.
“We had a firefight, and I took a round in the left shoulder that I still carry with me today,” Cius says. “The pilot told me to escape and try and report what had happened. I left with the Special Forces team leader and his 10 soldiers. We were being tracked by the enemy for a day and a half.
“We got ambushed by them. They didn’t shoot at us. They shot over our heads and we fell to the ground, and the next thing you know, they were standing over us. They informed us we were going to be prisoners of war and took away our military clothing.”
The destination was Hanoi.
For three weeks, Cius and his fellow POWs trekked on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in olive-colored shirts and pants. The enemy had initially taken their boots but returned them for the forced march.
“Every now and then, we would pass North Vietnamese Army troops carrying down food, weapons and ammunition,” Cius says, “and they would hit us, scream at us and strike us with the butts of their rifles.”
Worse than being beaten, he says, was the precarious setting.
“Some of the trail was on the sides of cliffs, and we were all tied together so you couldn’t run away,” Cius remembers. “They were trying to hit us and make us fall off the cliffs. That was a rude awakening that they were not a friendly people.”
After the 21-day march, the prisoners were placed in an open supply truck and traveled by night. “During the day,” he says, “our aircraft could have spotted the truck and tried to destroy it.”
At one point on the journey along Highway 1, the enemy turned off into a village and separated the prisoners and began field interrogations that lasted about two weeks.
“I was put in a house in a room and fed twice a day,” Cius says, “and they would take me out for interrogation at the command building. They threatened me and tried bribing me and tried to get me to be a sympathizer. They tried to get me to see their cause, but that wasn’t going to happen.”
Finally reunited with his fellow prisoners and placed back in the truck, Cius and his companions were driven to another village that, as it turns out, was one day’s drive from Hanoi.
“We were paraded through the village; I called it walking the gantlet. They were throwing rocks, screaming at us, spitting at us, the villagers,” he says.
“The sergeant who was the team leader was not the same person he had been after the interrogation, and I was trying to help him walk. He collapsed at the back of the village, and he went into a seizure and died right in my arms. I tried to revive him with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”
Unsuccessful, he requested a doctor. “The doctor checked his pulse, and he told me that he was gone,” he says. “They then took his body away in a stretcher.”
The next night, Cius remembers, he and his fellow POWs arrived in Hanoi.
“We went through streets with houses and trees and it reminded me of Buffalo,” he says. “That’s the feeling I got. We were then placed in the prison that was known as the Hanoi Hilton.”
For three months, Cius says, he was interrogated.
“I was a perfect liar,” he says. “I camouflaged everything I said. Their questioning was based on threats. They threatened torture.”
He believes that the enemy saw through his lies, and that was why he was placed in solitary confinement for three of his 5½ years as a prisoner.
“I was in 6-by-7-foot cell with two cement slabs for beds,” he recalls, “but I had the whole cell to myself. They fed me twice a day, pumpkin soup and seaweed, something like spinach, and bread. I would listen to the American warplanes bombing North Vietnam and used that as motivation.”
It worked, and he survived.
On March 5, 1973, Cius became a free man, after the Paris Peace Accords.
He does not carry the burden of bitterness for his captors.
“I was very thankful that my prayers were answered, that I made it and was going home to America,” he says.
He wanted to make a career out of the Marines, he says, but eventually was given a military medical retirement.
Back home in Buffalo, Cius says, he returned to Frankie’s Inn and remembers his first meal at the family tavern.
“I had a hot roast beef sandwich and washed it down with a cold Genny,” he recalls.
It was the best meal he ever tasted, he says. “It completed being home.”