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John Dramesi the true Vietnam POW you never hear about

Book Review by BOB BARNEY:

image from images-na.ssl-images-amazon.comColonel John Arthur Dramesi (born February 12, 1933) is a retired U.S. Air Force officer who was held as a prisoner of war at the Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Dramesi is one of the very few captives who never broke under torture. He was held along with Senator John McCain and has criticized McCain's conduct as a prisoner and after release. McCain would later hail him as "one of the toughest guys I've ever met." Dramesi has also criticized the conduct of a number of his fellow POWs. He was shot down over North Vietnam and captured on 1 April 1967. While a prisoner, Dramesi twice attempted to escape, without success. On the second occasion, his partner, Edwin Atterbury, was killed, and the entire prison population was subjected to "barbaric" reprisals. Plans for a third escape attempt, to be assisted by Navy SEALs in Operation Thunderhead, were cancelled after the SEALs were injured, and one killed, when jumping from a helicopter. Dramesi was released in 1973. Following his release, he continued his career in the Air Force, serving as a planner for U.S. forces in Europe, commander of the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron, flying the F-111F Aardvark, and as commander of the 509th Bomb Wing (Strategic Air Command), Pease Air Force Base, New Hampshire. While the commander of the 390th TFS, his autobiography, "Code of Honor" which was initially published in 1975 and again in 1990. He retired in 1982 with the rank of colonel.

 

Tim Dickinson's' (reporter) account of interviewing Dramesi.  It's incredible!

Most of us consider McCain's conduct as a POW out of bounds. Who are we to judge? Dramesi's more than willing to.

I met John Dramesi 35 years ago when I was writing a series of articles on the returned POWs for the Sun-Times. I called him at home in Pennsylvania on Thursday to ask if he'd really said those things about McCain, but I was sure he had. They sounded just like him. To establish Dramesi's bona fides, Dickinson even has McCain hailing him as "one of the toughest guys I've ever met," but hailing -- that's Dickinson's verb -- is deceptive. Dramesi was one of the most unpopular prisoners in the camps. He was so tough he was viewed as a danger to the health, and even the lives, of the other POWs. 

Dramesi knows what they thought about him, and still think. He told me, "If you talk to another POW -- and I've been told this -- if you mention my name to another POW, if you meet somebody and you find out they were a POW, and they'll be telling you stories, and you say 'I know a POW.' 'Who do you know?' 'I know John Dramesi.' All of a sudden the conversation will come to a complete standstill and they’ll probably walk away."

As Dickinson noted, Dramesi escaped and was recaptured twice. The second time, the North Vietnamese made vicious reprisals against the rest of their prisoners, and Dramesi and Ed Atterberry, the POW he escaped with, were beaten so badly that Atterberry died. Dramesi planned a third escape, but the senior POWs at his camp ordered him not to try it. Nobody wanted to be tortured again. Dramesi says he once got a letter  from McCain that called the escape with Atterberry "infamous."

"So obviously," said Dramesi, "he doesn't agree with the escape, because it did bring a great degree of discomfort down on everyone."

In his memoir Faith of My Fathers, McCain admitted to being a lousy midshipman at the naval academy and a flier who lost four or five planes. (The time he decided to hug the ground in Spain for the hell of it and flew into some power lines the plane may have survived--it's not clear from his account.) And when he was captured he caved under torture. He concedes other POWs performed better.

I asked Dramesi if four or five planes was par for the course. He laughed long and hard. "Anybody who loses one airplane is lucky to still have a career in the air force." Dramesi said. "[McCain] told me once -- he was laughing -- and he said, 'I jumped out of six or eight airplanes,' and I was thinking, 'Holy shit! How could anybody still be in the military and lose six or eight planes. That was hilarious. It  really was. Here he was talking to a guy who had friends who killed themselves trying to save an airplane. 'I'm not going to suffer the embarrassment of crashing and bailing out.'" 

So Dramesi doesn't think much of McCain. But in his eyes, few of his fellow prisoners measured up. He told me their behavior, graphed, would form the familiar bell curve, with the outright collaborators on the far left and the POWs like Atterberry who died resisting on the far right. The prisoners to the left of center were easy to break, while those to the right of center took the North Vietnamese a little longer. Dramesi, according to his memoir Code of Honor -- and the testimony of other prisoners -- didn't break at all.

I mentioned one of his prison's senior officers, James Bond Stockdale. A navy pilot, Stockdale attempted suicide to show his captors he'd rather die than talk. He feared that under unremitting torture he would talk, and there was no way he could let the North Vietnamese find out what he knew: that the attack in the Tonkin Gulf in August 1964, which plunged the U.S. into the war, was bogus -- the radar on the destroyer Turner Joy had mistaken bad weather for enemy boats. Later he wrote, "I was in possession of the most damaging information a North Vietnamese torturer could possibly extract from an American prisoner of war." 

But the origins of the Vietnam war are another story. When Stockdale came home he was awarded the Medal of Honor. The best Dramesi can do for him is place him on the right side of the bell curve.

He told me about a conversation they once had. Stockdale was wondering how Dramesi had managed to do what so few POWs could -- give the North Vietnamese nothing beyond his name, rank, and serial number. Stockdale told Dramesi it had been so hard to uphold the code he was prepared to kill himself rather than violate it. And again he asked, "How did you do it?"

Dramesi's puzzled reply: "Well, why didn't you let them kill you?" And he explained to me, "The point was, I was willing to lose my legs in the stocks or allow them to literally kill me before I'd deny the code of conduct." If you died at the enemy's hands, he said, "you wouldn't have any problem and you'd be able to uphold the code and retain your dignity and honor.'

What was Stockdale's reaction to that? "He had to think a little bit more about 'why didn’t you let them kill you?'" says Dramesi. "He walked away."

As a senior officer in the prison, Stockdale established a policy that Dramesi -- but few other POWs -- profoundly disagreed with. Dramesi calls it "Bounce Back," the idea being that no matter what they make you say or do under duress, tomorrow's another day and you can begin the fight all over again. 

"Stockdale was a nice guy," said Dramesi, but he thinks Bounce Back gave the POWs permission to fail. He thinks that if Stockdale and the other leaders had made it clear that no collaboration of any degree was permissible, that the code of conduct clearly demanded they put "their country before their life," more of the POWs would have braced and done that. More POWs would have died -- Dramesi concedes this. But they'd have died doing their duty, their honor intact.

CAPTAIN JOHN ARTHUR DRAMESI was flying an F-105D of the 13th TFS and 388th TFW out of Korat. Here is how Chris Hobson tells the tale from fifty years ago on this date: A flight of F-105s was sent on an armed reconnaissance mission that entailed flying along Routes 106 and 107 in Quang Bing province in the southern region of North Vietnam. As the aircraft reached a point about 15 miles northwest of Dong Hoi they came under a hail of anti-aircraft fire. Captain Dramesi’s aircraft was hit in the tail and with the aircraft on fire he ejected a few minutes later. He twisted his knee on landing and was immediately surrounded by North Vietnamese militia. He shot at them with his revolver but was shot in his right leg and captured. After eight days in his first prison camp he dismantled part of his cell and escaped but was soon captured and stoned and beaten by a crowd of Vietnamese. The next day he was taken to the Hanoi Hilton and then to the Zoo (one of several prison camps in the NVN prison system). On 10 May 1969, after months of planning he and Captain Edwin Atterberry escaped through the roof of their cell but were recaptured 12-hours later about four miles from the prison. Dramesi and Atterberry were beaten and tortured for their escape, Atterberry did not survive and Dramesi was near death when the brutal treatment stopped after 38-days. Dramesi remained in leg irons for six months and the entire prison population was also systematically beaten and tortured as punishment for the escape. This incident effectively put an end to any further escape attempts as the repercussions were to serious and in any case it was extremely unlikely that an escape and return to friendly territory would ever be successful. However, in June 1972 Captain Dramesi and Major Jim Kasler were involved in a planned escape, code name Operation Thunderhead, despite much planning and assistance from SAR forces in the Gulf of Tonkin, senior POW officers vetoed the escape at the last minute. John Dramesi was released on 4 March 1973 and told his POW story in Code of Honor published in 1975, He was awarded the Air Force Cross after his release and later flew the F-111 with the 366th TFW.”

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