Six years as a POW

Air Force pilot shot down in Vietnam War
Nov. 10, 2013 @ 06:48 PM

Retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Norman C. Gaddis spent 30 years and three months in the Air Force. Six of those years – 2,124 days to be exact, were spent in a North Vietnam prison. He was the first senior officer captured.

Gaddis, 90, was a prisoner-of-war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, there at the same time as its most famous POW, John McCain, and hundreds of other men. Gaddis was tortured and interrogated. He survived, came home and retired from the Air Force in 1976. He now lives at the Durham Regent retirement community.

Gaddis spent the first half of the 1960s at the Pentagon and attended the National War College. As a colonel with two decades of service already, Gaddis was deployed to Vietnam in November 1966.

On May 12, 1967, Gaddis was on his 73rd combat mission in Vietnam. Airplanes flew in formation and took ground and surface-to-air fire, he said.

On that Friday, Gaddis had flown out of Da Nang, in one of a dozen airplanes that refueled in Laos. Their target was 15 miles outside Hanoi. Gaddis was flying with bombardier/navigator James Jefferson when their F-4 was shot down.

“I landed in an anti-aircraft revetment, in the midst of 10 people with rifles. There was not a chance to play John Wayne,” Gaddis said. “Once I saw the guns I knew I was going to be captured. My concern was my weapons officer in the backseat. The plane was on fire, flipped, and I ejected upside down, downward. My parachute opened, I pulled out my radio and said, ‘This is Dagger 4. I’m OK.’ They didn’t know which Dagger 4 man,” Gaddis said.

Gaddis was taken in a truck to the prison.

“I could smell the airplane burning,” he said. Later, Gaddis saw Jefferson’s helmet, knee clip and name tag, but they were clean so he assumed the other pilot got out of the plane OK. But he never turned up in prison. In 1999, Jefferson’s DNA was found at the crash site. Something happened to him after he reached the ground, Gaddis said, or in the air.

The Hanoi Hilton had between 200 and 300 prisoners in the main prison and 10 smaller prisons around Hanoi, he said. Prisoners were rotated, which worked to their advantage, Gaddis said, because they could find out who was alive. They communicated with a tap code of 25 letters. “You could tap, you could cough, a broom sweeping – any way you could make a noise,” he said. But Gaddis didn’t learn the code passed between American POWs for nearly four years.

After Gaddis was tortured and recovered, he was put in solitary confinement for 1,004 days.

The POW in the cell next to him was a South Vietnamese pilot. They conversed in English, and Gaddis learned who else was nearby in the camp. One time they were caught communicating and the South Vietnamese pilot was beaten. Gaddis was interrogated weekly.

“I did a lot of praying, certainly,” Gaddis said. “I was determined I was going to survive. I was not going to give up.”

Gaddis was in his mid-40s and had a family. One son was grown and the other was home with Gaddis’ wife, Hazel, in Winston-Salem. Because Gaddis did not cooperate with his captors, he was not allowed to write her a letter for two years. When he did, it was given to an anti-war group that added propaganda and then sent it to Hazel Gaddis fourth class, he said. She confirmed his handwriting with the Air Force, and Gaddis was classified as a POW instead of MIA. They exchanged more letters the remainder of his captivity. POWs found out news from home in packages containing prune seeds with messages hidden inside – everything from promotions to who won the World Series. Once their captors caught on, packages were smashed, and Gaddis remembers seeing the remains of candy canes sent by his wife.

Eventually Gaddis and three other senior pilots were put together in a larger cell. Two of the other colonels were Gaddis’ good friends, John Flynn and Dave Winn, who both also later became generals. They hugged.

Accurate news of the war was scarce. Before their 1973 release, Gaddis knew the bombing of Hanoi had stopped and there must be some reason for it. He was the senior officer in a second group of prisoners to be released – 120 men came out with him on March 4, 1973. The night before they left, they heard American voices and made contact, wrote the names on toilet paper and gave the list to multiple people to ensure its delivery once they arrived in the Philippines.

“We just didn’t want anyone left behind. That was my biggest concern – no one left behind,” Gaddis said.

The F-4 Phantom is still Gaddis’ favorite airplane, he said, and has a model in his apartment. “It was both a privilege and an honor for me to serve in the Air Force,” he said. Also on display on his walls are plaques, framed letters and photographs, including an aerial photo of the Hanoi prison. There are still 1,500 U.S. servicemen missing in Southeast Asia, Gaddis said. Fifty-eight thousand Americans were killed in the war. It was a terrible price to pay, he said.

After a few more years at the Pentagon, Norman and Hazel Gaddis retired to North Carolina. She died in 2007. Gaddis and his sons just started an engineering scholarship at Meredith College named in her honor.

“She carried her share of the load and even mine when things got tough,” he said.

Hazel Gaddis was a North Carolina representative to the National League of POW/MIA Families. During the war they sold metal cuff bracelets with the names of POWs and their capture dates. He received one in the mail last week from the POW Network, saved by a woman who wore the bracelet with his name on it 40 years ago.