U.S. Air Force combat pilot Edward J. Machenbier and his navigator, Kevin McManus, were 30 miles northeast of Hanoi on June 14, 1967, when their F-4C, Phantom II, was hit by enemy fire.
Machenier says, “When the plane was hit, I was trying to keep it flying, and McManus said, ‘I don’t think we’re gonna make it.’”
Within a few seconds, Machenbier had completed all the steps for ejection that he had learned in Survival School: make the radio call, eject, break the radio batteries and pistol.
On the ground, he was faced with several hundred North Vietnamese, and two used machetes to cut off his clothes except for his shorts. He was then supplied with a loin cloth and was run through villages with residents screaming at him, slapping him, and throwing projectiles.
The next step involved being hog tied, clad only in the loin cloth, and being picked up by a helicopter. At the new location, he was burned with cigarettes and beaten for 12 hours with rubber hoses, sticks, and fan belts. Following that, he was manacled for one week with his hands behind his back and his feet in foot locks.
Machenbier had been taught what would come next in the attempts to break both his body and mind. He knew he would be deprived of sleep and tortured, isolated in a dark room and subjected to classic interrogation techniques. And what followed was six months in solitary confinement.
The professional interrogators began their work in attempts to get him to sign a confession, divulge military secrets, make an anti-war tape. The idea was to make him feel that he would be confined for the remainder of his life if he did not cooperate. If he did cooperate, early release was possible.
Interrogators claimed to have been trained by Russians. Machenbier says some were trained by Chinese and Cubans with the Cubans being the most sophisticated. They were familiar with American culture and could talk freely about incidents that would resonate with American POWs.
Machenbier knew the Fighting Man’s Code of Conduct at the time of his capture, which specified that he was only to provide his name, rank, and serial number.
His next stop was the Hoa Lo Prison, known as the infamous Hanoi Hilton. The conditions were worse than horrendous, and he survived in spite of violations of the terms of the Geneva Conventions regarding POWs.
“In our living space, there were lots of snakes, including cobras, rats, and spiders the size of your hand. We co-existed with them. We were fed twice a day: rice and a steamed vegetable — pumpkin, turnip tops, seaweed. I went from 197 pounds to 133 pounds. They needed to keep us alive for prisoner exchange. We had hepatitis A, B, and C, and pink eye. We all had tapeworms and parasites in our bodies.”
He reports these many years later, “The key to enduring was realizing you need other people, and they need you. There is no room for self- pity. Others have it worse, are more hurt (he suffered a crushed vertebrae, dislocated shoulder and broken teeth), and have been there longer. We communicated between rooms by tapping on walls. To say “Hi” meant two taps, three taps, pause, two taps, four taps. Between buildings we scribbled on walls or put notes in our honey buckets which were emptied daily.”
He reports that very few POWs were broken and corroborated with the enemy, “I wouldn’t know what breaks a particular man. I’m not one to judge. It’s not my job to make decisions about them. I did what I was asked to do.”
When Machenbier learned five days before the release date that he was to be freed, “I didn’t believe it. We all quietly went back to our cells.” He was released on February 18, 1973, after five years, eight months, and three days as a POW.
With today’s wars and future wars, Machenbier says, “Presidents who have worn the uniform have a better understanding of the realities of armed conflict, but presidents don’t make decisions in a vacuum. They consult with others as they look at the political and economic realities of war.”
Of his navigator Kevin McManus on that day they ejected from their F-4C, Mechenbier says,” He saved my life. I pray to him in heaven every day.”
Note: This is a small part of Major General Edward J. Machenbier’s story. There is much more including “Life on a $5 Bet” at Amazon, a movie “Return with Honor,” and “Veterans in Blue” and “Ford Oval of Honor 2017” on YouTube. Machenbier was raised in Dayton and is currently a Columbus, Ohio, resident.
Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., a graduate of The Ohio State University, served as a community college president for 15 years in Kentucky, Texas, California, and Missouri before returning to Ohio to teach telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and to work with veterans. You may reach her at 937-778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.