Forty years later, Vietnam veteran is thankful for life
By AMY BICKEL | The Hutchinson News, Kan. | Published: November 22, 2012
HUTCHINSON, Kans. — Bill Talley was cold, hurting and hungry.
It was Thanksgiving 1972 and Talley's happiness had faded months before. He had a hard time seeing much to celebrate as he sat inside the tall walls of the prison where he and the others had been interrogated and tortured — the prison where he would spend his 40th birthday just a few days later, in a tiny cell away from his wife and children.
This day was a special day, however, this U.S. Air Force pilot's Vietnamese captors told him, serving him and other prisoners of war an egg roll no bigger than a pinky finger, a small sip of wine and a piece of bread that would be their only meal of the day.
Nevertheless, it was a change from the normal small tin cup of watery pumpkin soup served twice a day at the Hanoi Hilton.
Forty years later, as Talley looks back on those days as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he can't help but be thankful for life.
"It wasn't a good time," he said. "I wasn't all that happy. But when I look back on it, oftentimes I think of how thankful I am for what I got."
Nearly four decades after the nearly 600 prisoners of war were freed and returned home, Talley told his story this week to Hutchinson's American Legion Lysle Rishel Post No. 68.
Talley, a major in the Air Force at the time, had gone home to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita with 169 combat missions under his belt and two tours of duty. He planned to retire, but developments in the war in 1972 activated his unit.
Talley was flying on a surface-to-air missile suppression mission with another major in an F-105 jet fighter when his plane was shot down near Hanoi.
The two bailed out of the damaged plane at 1,500 feet. Talley watched as the plane exploded below him.
He landed on the side of a mountain and then evaded North Vietnamese search parties for about 24 hours by hiding under a rock before he was finally captured by the North Vietnamese. The Vietnamese took off his flying suit and his shoes and tied his arms behind his back. They marched for three days through the jungle until Talley didn't know where he was or where he was going. They would stop in villages where residents would mock him, throw rocks at him and hit him with sticks. Some spit in his face.
They didn't feed him, and the only drink was a few small capfuls of tea.
Talley finally ended up in the Hoa Lo Prison — or, as they called it, "the Hanoi Hilton."
The prison was originally built by the French when they occupied the region. The walls were three feet thick and 15 feet high — the top covered in electric wires and broken glass.
Talley's captors gave him some water and he tried to drink just a little, knowing he could get sick.
"About 15 minutes later I could feel the nausea in my stomach," he said. "I didn't want to throw up — I didn't know when they'd give me water again. So I picked up a pan and threw up in the pan. Since I didn't have anything to eat, the vomit was clear and I drank that water down again."
The North Vietnamese interrogated him every day. They didn't want military information, instead demanding propaganda that included asking him to write antiwar letters and appear at a press conference of eastern European cameramen.
"I refused," Talley said. "I was labeled a bad guy by the Vietnamese."
Talley was told that his black and infected knee that was oozing pus would not be treated unless he cooperated. They said his leg would probably be amputated. But Talley said he was hurting too much to care. He knew the code of conduct, to not fall for the propaganda or make the antiwar statements and to not accept early releases.
The North Vietnamese sent him to solitary confinement — or "Heartbreak Hotel," as the Americans dubbed it. Talley wasn't allowed to have mail.
One night a month later, they brought him into a room, tossed letters onto a table and told him to read them. One was an antiwar letter written by the man he had flown his last flight with.
Talley didn't believe it until the next day, when the North Vietnamese brought him back into the room to listen to a recording of the man reading the letters.
"I nearly got sick to my stomach,' Talley said. "It was very discouraging."
But some of the POWs did give in to the temptation of better treatment, better food and promises they would be released early.
Because of the heat and lack of ventilation, Talley had a rash similar to poison ivy. He also had sores like boils popping up all over his body. He would take half the water he was allotted each day to pour on his skin to help alleviate the itching.
"I would stand with my arms against the wall like a push-up to keep myself from scratching," he said.
Typically, he wore shorts during his time in prison. However, whenever he put on his interrogation clothes — a long-sleeved shirt and long pants, not practical for the heat of the summer — he would pray.
"I would say a prayer to God to not stop the heat, not stop the rash, but to help me through the interrogation," Talley said. "And the itching would stop, and I would never itch all during the time of the interrogation until I got back to the room and took off my clothes, and then the itching would start again.
"God was watching out for me," he said.
Eventually a Vietnamese doctor gave Talley a shot in each arm, put powder on his knee, and bandaged it. He began to get better.
The North Vietnamese didn't call it torture, Talley said. However, their method of punishment continued during his stay at the Hanoi Hilton. Talley recalls having to kneel for hours on concrete, to the point that his knees would bleed. Some prisoners had to kneel on broken glass.
Another tactic was to hold arms in the air for a length of time, sometimes a few days. The North Vietnamese would even tie a prisoner's arms together under the elbows to keep the arms up, Talley said.
He was also placed in a room without a mosquito net. Without the net, thousands of insects would bite at his skin.
Time moved slowly, he said, recalling one day when he put up his mosquito net in his cell and began playing a game of counting how many mosquitoes he could kill.
"I quit killing them at 94 — just a few minutes' time," Talley said. "That gives you an idea how bad they were."
He tried to focus on his wife, Louan, and their children, Mike and Susan. According to Geneva Convention standards, Talley was supposed to be able to receive mail, but his captors gave him only one letter from his wife, which he received shortly before Christmas in 1972.
Only then did he know where his wife was living — which was back in her hometown of Stafford.
Talley estimated there were a few hundred POWs at the Hanoi Hilton, which included Sen. John McCain, whom he eventually met. Talley said the number was a rough figure because the prisoners weren't all together at the same time.
When he was finally out of solitary confinement, other POWS in the prison gave Talley encouragement that helped him through until his eventual release.
Communication helped with depression, he said. POWs even started using a tap code between cells that would begin with "shave and a hair cut." If it was safe in the other cell, the other POW would tap out "two bits."
Faith helped the prisoners persevere, Talley said, adding that in such conditions, nearly all of the POWS turned to God for guidance.
In fact, he said, more than 90 percent who returned from the war noted in a biography they provided for a military yearbook that it was faith that helped them through the experience.
"We endured a cruel time in our life because of our faith in God, who would not abandon us, our faith in Americans who did not forget us, and our faith in comrades who helped us in our daily struggle of life," Talley said.
Talley told stories he had heard from other POWs, some of whom spent five or six years at the prison. One story is of a POW who had found an old rag and turned it into an American flag. He used broken red tile and a blue fountain pen, and tried to stitch on the stars.
One day, he held up the flag.
"Every man in that room stood up and saluted, and some even had tears in their eyes," Talley said.
The man eventually was caught and taken back into confinement, but when he was let out, he again found an old rag and starting making a new flag.
Another man, a senior ranking officer, who was in and out of solitary confinement, told his prison mates he was going to have a church service. As the worship service began, guards broke into the room, grabbed him, and led him back to confinement.
"Then one of the POWs started singing 'God Bless America,' " Talley said. "Then everyone in the room started singing 'God Bless America.' They sang so loud that POWs in other rooms began to sing, also. The Vietnamese actually thought they had a riot on their hands."
After spending roughly 322 days in captivity, Talley — 40 pounds lighter — was released. He eventually flew to Texas, where he was reunited with his wife and children. He recalled hugging his wife for a long time because he didn't want to let her go.
Some of his friends from his old squadron also flew in and greeted him.
"My buddies, they ran out and greeted me — it was that kind of atmosphere," Talley said. "I was so excited to see my family and my buddies."
Talley retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1981. He and wife Louan, whom he had met while attending college in Oklahoma, spent several years in Oklahoma before moving to Hutchinson earlier this year to be closer to daughter Susan in Abilene.
The couple lives near Louan's good friend from Stafford, Shirley Brensing, and her husband, Myron — a couple who helped her through her husband's captivity.
"My friends gave me a lot of help," Louan said of how she made it through, adding that they helped her "stay strong and brave."
Shirley Brensing and friend Charlene Durbin said they both wore POW bracelets with Talley's name on them.
"They had a big party at the school when he came home," Durbin said.
It's part of the reason Talley is so thankful each day. Not all soldiers came home to parties; many didn't come home at all.
One of his fellow pilots and friends, Ed Atterberry, tried to escape from one of the prisons in North Vietnam. He and another man were severely tortured, and Atterberry died during the ordeal.
Also, Talley said, four other men whom he had served with before the start of the Vietnam War were killed during the war, in flying combat missions.
Their names are among the others he knows on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.
It puts the small things in perspective, he said.
"I don't care if we have a big meal at Thanksgiving or my birthday," said Talley, who turns 80 on Monday.
He's just thankful, he said, to have survived. He is thankful for life.