Northern Utah veterans tell harrowing stories of their time as Vietnam War POWs

Northern Utah veterans tell harrowing stories of their time as Vietnam War POWs

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Jay Hess was a 37-year-old father of five when he was taken as a prisoner of war.

It was August 1967, during the height of the Vietnam conflict.

Hess was on a recovery mission, looking for two downed pilots when his F-105 was shot down, catching fire over the northern portion of Vietnam. Hess ejected from his plane, but the event left him unconscious. When he woke up, he found himself face down on a dirt trail.

He drew his pistol when he saw a figure approaching him in the distance, but put the gun down when that figure turned out to be a young boy. 

Moments after the boy screamed to alert authorities nearby, Hess was captured by the Chinese. 

“I never got off my stomach before I was captured,” he said. 

Hess was later transferred to North Vietnamese forces and taken to the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” POW prison.

He was moved around among POW camps, each varying in their dereliction. All told, he was held captive there for nearly six years.

Bill Spencer and Lynn Beens were part of the “Christmas help” of 1972 — mass bombings that were ordered by President Richard Nixon after peace talks broke down between the United States and North Vietnam. 

“We were excited because we knew guys like Jay were over there,” Spencer said. “We thought we’d help bring them home.”

Spencer was shot down piloting his F-4 in July of that year. Beens, a navigator in a B-52 Bomber, was shot down the following December. Both ended up in the Hanoi POW prison with Hess. Spencer was 29, with a wife and daughter. Beens was 26, also married with a young daughter.

The trio of former POWs — all Davis County residents — spoke about their experiences at a Vietnam veteran celebration  April 29 at the Hill Aerospace Museum.

Though they all endured torment and anguish, Spencer and Beens are adamant that Hess’ POW ordeal was the worst.

The retired colonel, now 87, rolled up to the gates of the Hanoi prison in a jeep. As he arrived, he was immediately blindfolded, tied up, interrogated and tortured.

North Vietnamese tied his hands behind his back and pulled them up over his head, far enough to connect them to his feet. Hess stayed in that position for hours, sweating profusely and becoming dehydrated to the point of hallucination. 

“I lost feeling in my hands and you hallucinate so bad, you’re not in the real world anymore,” he said. 

After three days of comparable treatment, Hess was finally brought a bowl of soup. He ate the soup and began regaining feeling in his hands, but torture tactics continued for a few weeks. He remembers being forced to hold his arms in the air all day, for several days, at gunpoint. 

He was eventually put in solitary confinement. He said his mentality and survival plan changed constantly.

“It all happens so fast,” he said. “My first thought was, ‘I gotta get away from this place as fast as I can.’ Eventually you realize you’re not going to escape and your mindset changes to, ‘OK, I gotta make it through this next day,’ then ‘OK, I gotta make it through the next minute.’”

Spencer and Beens were both put in isolation, and interrogated. Before arriving at the prison, Beens remembers being taken to a village, walking through a line of people screaming, kicking and punching him. 

At the prison, they subsisted on soup and a few vegetables. Spencer recalls being fed pumpkin soup, “then being given a piece of pumpkin as an entree.” Bread and water were staples. Sometimes they were given pig fat for protein. They were allowed to bathe maybe once a week, if they were lucky.

After 2 1/2 years captive, Hess was finally allowed to write a letter home, telling his loved ones he was alive and thereby changing his war status from missing in action to POW. Later, he was also able to receive a letter from home, his son telling him he’d become an Eagle Scout.

Though Spencer and Beens suspected the war was near its end when they were captured, all three POWs said their time in prison was full of uncertainty. When would they be released? Would they ever see their families again? Would they survive?

Though he acknowledges it seems counterintuitive, Hess said not knowing actually helped him endure.

“You had to have faith, you know, ‘maybe I’ll get out soon,’ ” he said. “If you knew you were going to be in there for six years, I don’t know what the approach would have been. I guess you’d just bang your head on the floor.”

All three POWs were released and sent home in March 1973. 

Hess said he felt like he wanted to “explode” when he finally embraced his wife and children.

“For everybody, life has its ups and downs, but (the POW experience) made you realize how extreme they can be,” Hess said. “Being captured was the ultimate low, but then finally seeing my family, that was a happiness you can’t describe.”

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