A week later, we finally reached our next camp located southwest of Hanoi. We called it Camp 77 because all the newspapers had the number 77 on them. Here, we were interrogated more often and kept in solitary confinement for a whole year. The cells were dark - you could only see the silhouette of your hands in front of you. There was absolutely nothing to do, but I didn't let this dampen my spirit. Every morning as soon as I hear the rooster crow, I did sit-ups and jogged in place. Shortly after that, the guards allowed the prisoners out, one at a time, to empty their pee pot and bring in our breakfast of bread, sugar and water.
We were given a bar of soap and toothpaste and were allowed to clean ourselves outside next to a bucket of water once a week. They also gave us a pajama and rubber sandals we called "Ho Chi Minh slippers". At night as I lay in bed I tried to visualize my wife, my children, my mother and how nice it would be to be a free man. I constantly prayed that the Lord will watch over my family and that tomorrow will get me closer to freedom!
For our first Christmas as captives, we were given cookies, bananas, and additional cigarettes. They played Christmas carols, which made us all homesick. Memories of my wife and family celebrating Christmas brought some comfort, but soon filled my mind with grief and brought tears to my eyes.
Approximately nine months later, we moved from solitary confinement to groups. This proved to be beneficial to our well being as we were deteriorating physically and mentally. Richard Spaulding, Robert Olsen, Tom Rushton and I occupied a cell. Chuck Willis was assigned to another cell. I requested Arturo Balagot to be included in our room because I have been made aware of his stomach problems. I wanted to assist him in any way I can. I rubbed his abdomen with kerosene from our lamps that the guards gave us every night. This gave him some warmth and comfort. He was able to eat and hold some food, but he had gastrointestinal problems until we were released. I was grateful to have him in the same room because this gave us a chance to speak in our native dialect, Ilocano. There is comfort in talking to someone in your own language that just makes you feel better and secure in difficult situations such as this.
We stayed in this camp the longest - 2.5 years. We passed messages to adjacent cells through cracks on the wall, the floor and the roof. This became our communication line. This was how I got to know who attempted escape, and when Ho Chi Minh passed away in Sept. 1969 and heard about Arturo's problem. For years we communicated with guys next to our cells that we did not see until our release.
At this camp, the VC asked the prisoners for volunteers to dig a foxhole or trench in case of an aerial attack and another time, to make coal balls to build fire for our food. I always volunteered to do something because it kept me busy.
Here, I was able to use my skills. Every now and then, the guards would take me to the Camp Commander's office to repair transistor radios and tape recorders. (I kept a little journal of the dates and repairs I made and kept it with me until my release). This gave me a chance to listen to the news. In return for my services, I was given a pack of cigarettes to smoke while I worked. I pretended to chain smoke, lighting one after the other extinguishing them quickly and breaking off the ends. I hid them between the layers of rolled sleeves and cuffs of my pajamas so that I could share them with my fellow roommates. After fixing the radios, I would clean them with alcohol. When my roommates found out I had access to alcohol, they asked me to bring some back. So just before I tell the guards that I'm done, I would dip several cotton swabs in alcohol and hide it in my sleeves. My roommates would anxiously await my return and marvel at the smell of alcohol. Life in camp was dreary, so we lived one day at a time. The hidden cigarettes and alcohol soaked cotton swabs brought excitement and a little piece of the outside world inside the confines of the cramped cells. It brought me comfort and solace to see smiles on my friends faces as they gathered around me to share in the loot.
To keep my mind occupied, I made a slide rule out of bamboo, a rosary, a cigarette case, a cigarette holder and roller. Using a needle made out of chicken bone and scrap wire and thread from my old socks, I was able to embroider the rosary bag (made from an old pajama) with flowers, leaves and the words "Baguio City, Philippines" on one side. On the other side, I had a cross with a heart and embroidered "In God we trust".
I remember the time when we tried fermenting or brewing grapes in a plastic bag. There was a grapevine with branches that climbed by our room. We picked the grapes as they got plump. We added banana peel and sugar that we received as part of our ration. We kept this hidden underneath my bed made out of bamboo slats. One day while the VC was conducting a room inspection, they found the home brew and confiscated it. We all agreed that, we should have drank it before the inspection since it was beginning to smell like "real wine". It had a sweet scent that filled our room, a welcome change to the pee and poo pot odor. It must have been what gave it away!
This page was last updated 09/23/01