the incredibly stupid one
"Why, I’d like a pillow, sir." Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
I was researching something recently about the late billionaire and presidential candidate H. Ross Perot (story to come).
Somewhere in the rabbit hole I realized that it was 50 years ago this month that negotiators reached a breakthrough at the Paris peace talks that eventually led to the end of the Vietnam War.
That’s our entrée into the story of a surprise visitor that Perot sent to the talks, and whose appearance there was just the latest important twist in an improbable saga.
The visitor’s name: Douglas B. Hegdahl: a U.S. Navy sailor who had enlisted right out of high school from his native North Dakota and been assigned to a ship called the USS Canberra, after telling his recruiter that he'd hoped to have a chance to visit Australia.
Sure, Australia was on the Canberra's itinerary, but in 1967, the ship was first sent to the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam. Hegdahl, just a seaman apprentice (basically the second-lowest rank for a young sailor just out of bootcamp) lived and worked deep in the bowels of the ship.
But in the early morning hours of April 6, 1967, he had the bad fortune to come up top for fresh air, just as the ship's 5-inch guns started firing. The concussion knocked Hegdahl overboard into the dark sea, with nothing but the clothes on his back.
The ship steamed away into the darkness, unaware of the missing man. Then, when Hegdahl's buddies realized he was missing, they covered for him for two days, telling nobody so that he wouldn't get in trouble. Hegdahl spent 14 hours in the water before he was rescued by fishermen, who turned him over to the North Vietnamese military.
Now he was in trouble. Hegdahl's captors simply didn't believe his crazy story about falling off a ship; they assumed he was some kind of CIA spy. But in a flash of genius that might well have saved his life as a prisoner of war, Hegdahl got the idea to play dumb.
Quick moving past name, rank, and serial number, he told his interrogators about his life growing up on a farm in North Dakota.
How many water buffaloes did your family have? he was asked.
He replied truthfully—none, of course.
A farmer with no water buffalo? His captors concluded that he must have been a poor peasant.
Later, when they wanted Hegdahl to write an anti-war statement, he readily agreed—except that he told them he didn't know how to read or write. In the end, they wrote a statement for him, which said that he had been personally responsible for bombing the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh.
He signed it earnestly:
Douglas Brent Hegdahl III, Seaman Apprentice, United States Navy Reserve, Commanding Officer, USS Canberra
The ruse paid off, and Hegdahl was spared some of the harshest treatment that prisoners like Navy and Air Force fighter pilots endured, although he was sent to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison, where he had two cellmates:
An air force captain named Joe Crecca, who had come up with a way to memorize the names of 256 U.S. prisoners he’d learned about, and who taught it all to Heghdahl.
A navy aviator named Richard Stratton, who had spent a long time in solitary confinement as punishment for having embarrassed the North Vietnamese in a staged prisoner photo shoot that had run in Life magazine.
Now, Stratton watched Hegdahl—who had a penchant for doing odd things like skipping around their prison cell, and reciting the Gettysburg Address backward—parlayed his reputation as a harmless simpleton into relative free reign of the prison.
Among other things, he was allowed to go outside the cell blocks to sweep, during which time he relayed prohibited messages from prisoners in one cell block to another. Stratton also later relayed what happened when their captors asked Hegdahl a standard interrogation question:
"What do you want more than anything else in the world?"
The answer of the weak & willing was: "To go home to my family." Doug thought for a long time, then cocked his head with a smile and said: "Why, I’d like a pillow, sir."
This was not an unreasonable response since we had no pillows on our cement pads or bed boards. However, the response sure confounded the enemy.
They eventually came up with a name for Doug amongst the guards and interrogators: "The Incredibly Stupid One."
Prisoners had a code of conduct that required them not to take any favors from the enemy, which also meant they had to go home in the order they'd been captured. (Future senator and presidential nominee John McCain, whose father was a high-ranking admiral, was repeatedly tortured for refusing to go home early, which would have been a PR coup for the North Vietnamese military.)
However, the senior-ranking prisoner in the camp ordered Hegdahl to accept early release, both because he was young and could bear witness to so much of the mistreatment that went on, and also because he'd memorized those 256 names.
(He could recite them only by singing them very quickly, to the tune of "Old McDonald.")
"It was a direct order; he had no choice," Stratton wrote. "I know, because I personally relayed that order to him as his immediate senior in the chain of command."
Hegdahl went home with two other prisoners in August 1969. The list of names proved invaluable; it included prisoners whom the United States had never confirmed.
Now the Paris-Perot connection: The year after Hegdahl came home, Perot flew him to France for the peace talks, along with the wives and children of other prisoners, to draw more attention to the POWs' plight.
In fact, Hegdahl made a statement about the North Vietnamese captors’ treatment of his cellmate Stratton—who had never been heard from again after the Life magazine shoot—which Stratton later credited with being the reason he was eventually released in 1973:
Thanks to Doug, despite the scars on my body, the Communists had to produce me alive at the end of the war.
"The Incredibly Stupid One," my personal hero, is the archetype of the innovative, resourceful and courageous American sailor. ... As long as we have the "Dougs" of this world, our country will retain its freedoms.
Sometimes it pays to play dumb.
I wonder who around me is smarter than I tend to give them credit for?
Understandably is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
7 other things worth knowing today
Israel has said immigration applications from Russia and Ukraine have tripled since the conflict started, and that in Russia especially, young people trying to avoid the draft are frantically trying to prove their Jewish roots so that they'll be allowed to immigrate under that country's Law of Return. (Times of Israel)
Here's the fascinating story of Colleen Hoover, by far the top-selling author on the New York Times paperback fiction best-seller list right now, with six different books on the list. She has sold 8.6 million print books this year alone—more copies than the Bible, according to NPD BookScan. A decade ago she was making $9 an hour and living in a single wide trailer. (NYT, gifted/free article)
"Will to live, life jackets: Boaters survive 28 hours, sharks." This is a heck of a story. Highlight: the fisherman who swam half a mile or more and managed to find a cellphone signal, and sent an Apple maps screenshot of his location just before his battery died. (AP)
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has been ordered to pay $965 million to Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims’ relatives and an FBI agent. The agent said Jones turned their loss and trauma into years of torment. (AP)
Sending a thumbs-up can be seen as passive aggressive and even confrontational, according to Gen Z who claim they feel attacked whenever it is used. Whether the chat is informal, between friends or at work the icon appears to have a very different, 'rude' meaning for the younger generation. (This is about a poll of 2,000 people aged between 16-29.) (Daily Mail)
A federal judge in Missouri is deliberating on whether to stop the Biden administration from moving forward with plans to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for more than 40 million people. U.S. District Judge Henry E. Autrey heard arguments Wednesday on a motion filed by six Republican-led states seeking a preliminary injunction to halt the program until a ruling is made on the full lawsuit. The judge wrapped the two-hour hearing without issuing a decision but told attorneys to expect to hear from him soon. (WashPost)
A pair of Levi's jeans from the 1880s sold for $76,000 at an October 1 auction in New Mexico. The buyer was a 23-year-old vintage clothing dealer named Kyle Haupert. (Insider)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Unsplash & U.S. government work. See you in the comments!