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From the Moon to Hanoi

12:34 PM, Jul 20, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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Many people will write tributes today to the Apollo 11 astronauts on the fortieth anniversary of man's first steps on the moon, including a lot of "where were you?" memoirs (I was thirteen, and glued to our television set, trying to decipher the fuzzy images being transmitted over CBS to the portentous commentary of Walter Cronkite, a true space buff who just missed making it to this anniversary day). The most unusual, however, comes from my friend, Jim Warner, who today presents his target=_blank>very different take on the Moon landing.

Jim was a Marine aviator, whose F-4 Phantom was blown out of the sky over North Vietnam in 1966. Captured by the North Vietnamese, he spent the next five and a half years as a guest of Uncle Ho. He and his fellow prisoners were generally cut off from all knowledge of the outside world, except for what their captors let them know, and what newly arriving POWs could tell them. Since the bombing halt in 1968, new prisoners were few and far between, and so Jim and his compatriots had been living for more than a year in almost total isolation.

But, as Jim puts it,

I was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and on July 20, 1969, I was in a small box that sat out in the sun in the third month of a prolonged interrogation about what the Communists were convinced was an escape attempt. Although we did not hear any news about the actual moon landing, the Apollo program did affect us in an interesting way because we thought the landing had happened several months earlier.

It seems that BBC Radio out of Hong Kong had jumped the gun by almost eight months:

One morning in late December 1968, we heard the customary hiss as the loudspeaker system began warming up for what we anticipated would be the usual propaganda session from radio Hanoi. To our surprise, however, at 8 a.m., instead of radio Hanoi, we heard a man with a British accent say, "This is the BBC Hong Kong. The American astronauts become the first human beings to come under the gravitational influence of another celestial body." And then the radio went dead.

The prisoners, always looking for ways to gain psychological leverage over their captors, played up what they believed to be a great American triumph for all its was worth:

An hour later, we were taken out to wash. The first man out of our cell was Air Force Capt. Kenneth Fisher. We had not rehearsed what happened next. Ken looked up and could see the moon in the clear winter sky. He came to a stop, snapped to attention and saluted the moon. Instantly, the rest of us caught on. As each of us left the cell, we came to a stop, snapped to attention and saluted the moon. . .

Navy Lt. j.g. Ted Stier went up to one of the guards and pointed at the moon and spoke the Vietnamese word for the United States, "Hoa Ky." He then pointed at the ground and said "Vietnam." He then made a pantomime as though he were operating a very large piece of artillery. Pointing at the moon again, and again speaking the Vietnamese word for America, "Hoa Ky," he began rocking back and forth with his imaginary artillery piece while crying out "boom, boom, boom" to show that American artillery, if placed on our moon, would have the range to hit North Vietnam. Ted walked away while the guard continued to stare doubtfully at the moon.

The gullibility of the North Vietnamese never failed to amaze Jim and his fellow prisoners, and this episode was no exception:

Later that morning, our political officer called Ken Fisher, who was the senior officer in our cell, out to interrogation and demanded an explanation of our conduct. . . Ken explained since Americans were the first to land on the moon, it must belong to us. Therefore, we were just showing respect for our country by saluting when we saw it. . .

He told the political officer, whom we called "Louis the Rat," that despite American ownership of the moon, we would allow Vietnam to continue to use our moon to time their lunar new year. . .

Thereafter, at every opportunity, we asserted American ownership of the moon. This soon spread throughout the camp and guys began saluting the moon whenever they saw it.

The American prisoners did not learn of their seven month anticipation of the moon landing until 1973, when new prisoners started coming into the Hanoi Hilton as a result of President Nixon's "Linebacker" bombing offensives. By that time, their minds were focused more on the possibility of going home in the near future, and so moon landings faded into the background. Besides, as Jim said, "[O]ur story about the landing, even if premature, sounded better to us."