Updated: Feb 6
Douglas Hegdahl was born on September 3, 1946 in Clark, South Dakota. Clark was a small town and Douglas wanted to see the world. He once told a reporter that he had never been “east of his uncle’s Dairy Queen stand in Glenwood, Minnesota or west of his aunt’s house in Phoenix, Arizona.”
So when a Navy recruiter approached Douglas in 1966, he signed up right away. The recruiter had asked Douglas what it would take to have him sign up and Douglas replied “why, I’d like to go to Australia.” Douglas was sent to boot camp in San Diego and was then placed on the ship USS Canberra, which was named after an Australian cruiser which is named after Canberra, Australia, the capital of Australia. Instead of heading to Australia, the ship took off for Vietnam.
A little background on what was going on in Vietnam at the time. In the 1950’s, the United States started to provide military equipment and advisors to the government of South Vietnam so that they could resist communist North Vietnam and the South Vietnam based Viet Cong from taking over. In 1962, America also began to initiate military air operations within South Vietnam that included offering air support to South Vietnamese fighting forces, destroy Viet Cong bases, and spray herbicides like Agent Orange that would kill off the forest cover Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops were using to hide.
In August of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized air strikes against North Vietnam after it was reported that United States warships in the Gulf of Tonkin had been attacked. Later that year, President Johnson also approved bombing raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was a military supply route made up of trails, footpaths, and roads that ran through Laos and Cambodia. North Vietnam used to send weapons and supplies to their fighting forces in South Vietnam.
On February 7, 1965, the Viet Cong launched an attack on a United States Army helicopter facility near Pleiku. The result of the attack was eight U.S. soldiers killed, another 126 wounded, ten aircraft were destroyed and 15 more were damaged. In retaliation of the attack, the United States activated Operation Rolling Thunder. Operation Rolling Thunder started by bombing the southern portion of North Vietnam and gradually grew in intensity and area. By 1966, the United States military was bombing both military and industrial targets in North Vietnam, with the only off limits being the cities Hanoi, Haiphong, and a 10-mile buffer zone along the Vietnam-Chinese border.
So that brings us back to Douglas Hegdahl on the USS Canberra headed to Vietnam. The USS Canberra made it to the Gulf of Tonkin in April of 1967 and began to fire targets at the Vietnamese shore. Douglas’s battle station was the aft ammunition handling room for the 5-inch guns that was located deep inside the ship. On April 6, Douglas woke up around 3:30 am for his 4 am mess duty shift. Douglas locked up all of his valuables in his locker and then decided to step out on the deck before his shift started to get some fresh air and get a better view of the bombardment. It was a violation of protocol to step out on deck while a bombardment was happening because two things could happen. One, the concussion of the gun fire could blast you over the side of the ship or two, you’ll go deaf. After making his way to the deck, Douglas Hegdahl then got knocked back from a gun blast and fell overboard. Nobody noticed that Hegdahl was no longer on the ship, so Hegdahl just worked on keeping afloat in the South China Sea.
Douglas removed his boots, tied them together, and hung them around his neck and then stripped of his pants to make a life jacket. He couldn’t get his pants to inflate, so he put them back on because he was afraid sharks would see his white legs and attack him. Douglas had been floating for hours, with no sign of
rescue. He had heard that drowning wasn’t too bad of a way to die so he put his hands over his head and started to sink below the water. He soon realized that drowning sucked, and resurfaced. He then rolled onto his back and started to slowly swim westward, hoping to make it to land. After 12 hours of floating, some Cambodian fisherman found him and pulled him into their boat. The fishermen made their way to the Vietnamese shore, where they promptly turned him over to a North Vietnam militia where he was clubbed repeatedly with rifles.
Meanwhile, back on the USS Canberra, his fellow shipmates didn’t report him missing for two days, trying to cover for him. When they finally did report him missing, it was assumed that he fell overboard with no life preserver and he was more than likely dead, so they held a memorial service for Douglas.
During his memorial service, Douglas was currently being taken to a POW camp named Hoa Lo Prison, also known as Hanoi Hilton. Shortly after arriving at Hanoi Hilton, he was interrogated about how he came to be found floating in the Sea. Douglas tried to explain that he was knocked over board, but the interrogators insisted that he was a CIA agent. When it became obvious to Douglas that they didn’t believe him and they were going to torture him until he gave up information, he decided that his game plan would be to just act as stupid as possible.
He started to really exaggerate his country-bumpkin accent and began to compare the land in North Vietnam to his family’s farm back in South Dakota. He told them all about how his dad had ten motel units, a bunch of vehicles, and a lot of land, but when he was asked if his dad owned any water buffalo, he answered that they did not have any. If you didn’t have any water buffalo in Vietnam, that meant you were just a poor peasant. After realizing this, Douglas tried to play up that angle as much as possible.
When the North Vietnamese decided that he was just a poor dumb hick from middle of nowhere America, they decided that they could at least have him help with propaganda. They asked Douglas to write an anti-war statement, which he quickly agreed, which surprised his captors, because he was the first American to agree to that without being tortured first. They brought Douglas paper, ink, and pens. That’s when Douglas told them “But one small thing. I can’t read or write. I’m a poor peasant” which checked out, since most poor peasants in Vietnam couldn’t read or write either.
The captors then assigned a tutor to Douglas that would teach him penmanship, spelling, and grammar. The tutor would report back to the interrogators though, that Douglas was extremely stupid and no matter how hard the tutor tried, he couldn’t teach Douglas anything. Since the tutor wasn’t helping, they wrote a confession for Douglas to sign that basically said that Douglas admitted to the war crime of shelling the presidential birthplace of Ho Chi Minh as Seaman Apprentice Douglas Brent Hegdahl III, United States Navy Reserve, Commanding Officer, USS Canberra. Douglas just scribbled on the paper for his signature. His captors didn’t really know what to do with Douglas after that, so they kind of just moved him around wherever there was room at the camp.
Eventually, Douglas was placed into a cell with an Air Force officer named Joe Crecca and later met Dick Stratton. Stratton later wrote about his first meeting with Douglas. “It was a hot summer day when I first met Doug. I was in solitary confinement again. The Communists did not care for me, which was OK because I didn’t like them either. My cell door was opened and here was this big moose standing in his skivvie shorts (Douglas was over 6 feet tall).”
Stratton later described how the captors would take a nap every afternoon for about two hours. During one of these nap times, Joe was laying on the floor and Douglas was skipping around the room. When Joe asked Douglas what he was doing, Douglas said “Skipping sir.” When Stratton asked why, Douglas said “You got anything better to do, Sir?” Since Joe didn’t, Douglas just kept skipping. Another day, Douglas asked Stratton if he could teach him the Gettysburg Address, so Stratton got a brick and started to write out the whole Gettysburg Address on the tile floor. Douglas learned the whole thing and could said it by memory frontwards and backwards. Seeing that Douglas wasn’t completely stupid like everyone thought he was, Joe taught Douglas the names of 256 POW’s in Hanoi Hilton along with their rank and a piece of information that could be used to verify the soldier like a dog’s name, kid’s name or social security number. Douglas would sing all of this information to the tune of “Old MacDonald Has A Farm” and he would sing it over and over until he had memorized every single name of every American prisoner there at the camp.
Douglas still pretended to be an idiot in front of his captors and the guards eventually named him “The Incredibly Stupid One.” When asked what he wanted more than anything in the world, most soldiers would say “I want to go home”, but Douglas would just ask for a pillow. Because they figured he was too dumb to cause much trouble, they would let Douglas out of his cell to go sweep the courtyard while being watched by a guard that would fall asleep often. Douglas would hum and sleep until the guard fell asleep, and then would go to a truck, take off the gas cap, and put a handful of dirt in the gas tank and then put the cap back on. Douglas ended up disabling 5 trucks in the camp by just filling up the gas tanks with dirt.
While sweeping, Douglas would also pass notes between other prisoners. However, since Douglas had left his glasses on the USS Canberra, he was having trouble discerning between isolated cell blocks. So Douglas went to the guards and told them that he was really interested in reading their propaganda. His captors were, of course, excited that a prisoner voluntarily wanted to read the propaganda without being tortured, so they quickly gave him some. That’s when Douglas told them “Small thing; I cannot read without glasses.” So they took Douglas into town and had a store clerk fit Douglas with several glasses until he said that he could see. Douglas used his newfound distance vision to memorize the layout of the prisoner camp.
The North Vietnamese decided that they would release three POW’s as a goodwill. Usually these were volunteers that had not been tortured very much, as too make a good impression when they were photographed. Even though Douglas did not volunteer to be released, the North Vietnamese figured he was too dumb to give away any Hanoi Hilton secrets and he hadn’t been tortured like many others had been. Douglas didn’t want to be released. Many of the American soldier prisoners there had made a “No Go Home Early” pact where they all agreed that they would all go home together or not at all. The guards would give Douglas big bowls of potatoes and canned meat to try to get him to gain weight before he was released, but he refused to eat the food if the other prisoners weren’t getting it either. Stratton had to convince Douglas that because he knew all of the names and the layout of the camp, that he needed to be released so he could help them all out eventually.
On August 5, 1969, Douglas Hegdahl was released along with Navy Lieutenant Robert Frishman and Air Force Captain Wesley Rumble. At a press conference immediately after leaving North Vietnam, the released POW’s told the press that their food, housing, and medical treatment had been adequate and
that the relatives of the Americans left behind in North Vietnamese camps had nothing to worry about. However, as soon as he could, Douglas Hegdahl recited the 256 names that he had memorized. This was huge, because the North Vietnamese didn’t release the names of the POW’s, so families didn’t know if their soldier was dead or a prisoner. One of those names was John McCain. A month after arriving back in the United States, Douglas Hegdahl and Lieutenant Frishman held another press conference where they told a much different story. They told the press how the North Vietnamese had tortured other prisoners by pulling out fingernails, tying their hands to the ceilings, or tying them up to a stool and leaving them in an extremely hot hut. Frishman also explained that the prisoners were denied medical attention when they needed it and many of the prisoners were kept in solitary confinement.
Ross Perot, then a 40 year old billionaire from Texas that had made his fortune from selling computer data-processing systems, took up the cause of American POW’s. Ross Perot called up Douglas Hegdahl and told him, you’re coming with me to the Paris to confront the North Vietnamese Peace Talk Delegation about the POW’s at Hanoi Hilton. In Paris, the US was holding secret negotiations with North Vietnam about ending the war and Perot wanted Douglas there to make sure they released POW’s once the war was over. During one meeting, a representative from Hanoi said “Our policy is very humane in the camps” which prompted Douglas to say “Look, I was there” and that shut the Hanoi representative down. The United States Congress unanimously passed a resolution accusing North Vietnam of violating the Geneva Convention.
On January 27, 1973, America agreed to a ceasefire with North Vietnam and the withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam for the release of 600 American prisoners of war within 60 days of the removal of US troops. The first group of POW’s were flown home from Vietnam on February 12, 1973 and the last group came home on March 29, 1973, bringing a total number of American POW’s returned to the United States to 591. This was known as Operation Homecoming. After the last group came home, the United States still had 1,350 Americans listed as prisoners of war or missing in action and 1,200 Americans reported as killed in action, but their bodies hadn’t been recovered. As of November 2015, the Department of Defense reported that there are still 516 unaccounted for U.S. Army Personnel from the Vietnam War.
Douglas Hegdahl was honorably discharged from the US Navy on July 1, 1970 as a Petty Officer Second Class and then became an instructor at the U.S. Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape or (SERE) School in San Diego. Douglas Hegdahl is still alive.
“Douglas Brent Hegdahl” from the POW Network
“Lest We Forget: Douglas Hegdahl” by Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler
“Meet the Hero: Douglas Hegdahl” by the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes
“Seaman Apprentice Douglas Hegdahl” by Bethanne Kelly Patrick
“How Vietnam War POW Doug Hegdahl Tricked His Captors by Playing The Fool” by Shahan Russell
“Operation Rolling Thunder” by History.com
“The Incredibly Stupid One At The Hanoi Hotel” by Dick “Beak” Stratton