Staff Sgt. Ken Wallingford had only days left to serve in the US Army when he found himself trapped – and seconds away from being burned alive.
He’d spent the previous night hiding in a bunker with another soldier at a base that had been overrun by the North Vietnamese forces and was already nursing 17 shrapnel wounds when he realized his position had been spotted. His life flashed before his eyes, frame by frame, like an old 8mm film.
“We started smelling gasoline on top of the bunker that we were in and knew a Molotov cocktail was coming next,” he recalled.
He didn’t wait for that to happen. Instead he scrambled out of a porthole and found himself face-to-face with the North Vietnamese. “The enemy descended upon us, took our weapons and anything visible, my wallet, the money,” Wallingford said. He knew worse was to come.
That was Friday, April 7, 1972. A day that Wallingford recalled as clearly as if it were yesterday, as he recounted it to CNN at a recent reunion for surviving Vietnam War POWs in California.
At the time of his capture, Wallingford had been tantalizingly close to freedom and home, with just six more days to go before his expected discharge.
Instead, he would spend the next 10 months shackled in a bamboo enclosure measuring 5 feet by 6 feet, too small for the 5-foot-11 American even to stand in. His new home was a Viet Cong “tiger cage.”
Elsewhere on the base, Capt. Mark Smith was engaged in a firefight and about to be shot by the bullet that would save his life.
The small-arms fire that hit him in the left shin knocked him off his feet – and out of the firing line of the rocket-propelled grenade heading his way.
“The RPG that was headed to my chest hit the tree behind me (instead),” he said.
The blast left him unconscious, but alive.
“When I came to, I thought I was crippled. My worst nightmare. I couldn’t move.
“Well, then I started shaking my shoulder. And I finally realized there were three Vietnamese standing on my back. And that was why I couldn’t move,” Smith said.
Smith had been fighting in Vietnam since 1966, and “didn’t like the communists at all…”
But he was now at their mercy, and about to join Wallingford in chains in the jungle.
The base where the pair had been captured – Loc Ninh – was in South Vietnam. As the North Vietnamese wanted to keep their prisoners in a more secure area, they marched the pair off – with five other American prisoners – along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an elaborate network of paths and roads the North Vietnamese forces used to infiltrate weapons and troops into the South throughout the war.
The trail extended beyond Vietnam into neighboring Laos and Cambodia, non-parties to the conflict, where the North thought its military movements would be less vulnerable to US air attacks.
After three days of marching, they arrived at a camp deep in the Cambodian jungle.
“There were five tiger cages in a circle. And they were roughly five (foot high) by six (foot wide) in size,” each with a small wooden door, Wallingford recalled.
“They put me in one cage by myself and put a 10-foot chain around one of my ankles (and) locked the other into the cage itself.
“That chain never came off. Unless I either went to the bathroom, or to bathe, which was about every seven to 10 days,” Wallingford said.
Yet it was Smith – the commander of the US and South Vietnamese troops at Loc Ninh – who was destined to endure an even worse punishment.
His cage was a “hell hole” in the ground, about the size of the tiger cages above, but with four earthen walls.
“It was a terrible place. My mosquito net rotted. My hammock rotted. And you didn’t want to get on the floor. I was worried about snakes coming,” Smith recalled.
Smith said that in the jungle, the North Vietnamese fighters could leave the fear, the intimidation, the torture, up to nature.
“All they had to do is punch a couple holes in your mosquito net, and not give you a needle and thread to sew it up. Or just take your mosquito net away,” Smith said, pausing for a split second, the word “malaria” silently hanging, before adding, “Then you die.”
(Smith did not know it at the time, but he did in fact catch malaria. On his eventual return to the US, Army doctors found two types of the disease in his body. By all odds, he should have never made it home.)
Meanwhile, above in his tiger cage, Wallingford too was worried about the snakes. Early in his captivity he saw a king cobra, a snake whose venom can kill a human in 30 to 45 minutes, nearby. It was the first of many.
“Over that next 10, 11 months, there were some of the most venomous snakes in that camp, and I thought I was going to die from a snake bite, versus anything else,” he said.
The horrors Smith and Wallingford endured over those months have only brought them closer. Despite the distance between them – Wallingford lives in Texas, Smith in Thailand – today, they say, they are “like brothers.”
The “50th Anniversary Homecoming Celebration for the Vietnam POWs” at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda last week was only the second time they and other POWs from their camp and others had reunited since their release in 1973, yet even now, as Wallingford said, “We’d do anything for each other.”
The now 77-year-old Smith, who was Wallingford’s superior officer in Vietnam and is two years older, said captivity had thrust them into familial roles.
“His nickname was ‘the kid,’” he said, nodding to Wallingford with a laugh, and adding that he, despite the small age gap, was the uncle or fatherly figure.
As a longtime veteran of combat in Vietnam, Smith also had battlefield wisdom to impart to his brothers in arms.
But Smith admitted, while sat with Wallingford at the California banquet, that he never thought he would be captured. “That only happened to losers,” he joked.
Back in 1972, the laughs were few and far between, but for the two men – indeed, for many American POWs being held in the jungles of Cambodia, or in the Hanoi Hilton, the notorious camp in North Vietnam’s capital, relief would eventually come.
When it did, it was in the form of a soon-to-be disgraced US president and a plane originally designed to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union: the B-52.
The 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon, remains a deeply controversial historical figure.
He’s most remembered for the Watergate political scandal, which involved the cover-up of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee during his 1972 reelection campaign and led to his resignation two years later.
But for Smith and Wallingford, and many other POWs, the big Nixon event of ’72 was something else entirely – something for which they still love him.
That December, as efforts to get North Vietnam to agree to a peace deal stalled, Nixon ordered Operation Linebacker II in a bid to bomb it into submission. Over a period of 12 days beginning December 18, more than 200 US Air Force B-52 bombers flew 730 sorties and dropped over 20,000 tons of bombs on Hanoi and nearby Haiphong.
Historians debate the exact role those bombings – among the most intense in history – played in ending the war. Some insist they were pivotal; others argue the sheer scale of the destruction and civilian death toll was wholly unnecessary and the war would likely have ended without them. But what can’t be disputed is that soon after those bombings took place, early in 1973, North Vietnam did finally agree to a peace deal.
For Smith and Wallingford, the hero of the piece seems clear: Nixon.
“He had the stones to go to Hanoi and bomb them for (12) days, which ended the war,” Wallingford said.
“And so that’s why the POWs love him dearly… because he was responsible, and the only one that ended the war, and got us home.”
Smith, too, is emphatic: “The doors at the prisons, the cell doors, the chain around my leg were blown off by B-52 bombers over Hanoi and Haiphong.”
Word of the peace deal reached the camp in Cambodia on January 27, 1973, via a transistor radio held by a guard.
Over the next two weeks, the POWs were fed and cleaned and made ready for release. On February 12, Wallingford and Smith – and two dozen others from small camps in Cambodia – were on a truck back to Loc Ninh, the base where they had been captured, because it had the closest airstrip.
Five American UH-1 helicopters flew in. Thirty minutes later, the truck carrying the American POWs started its engine. But it was still not the end of their ordeal, not yet.
“Our truck starts up, we think they’re gonna take us across the airstrip to the Americans,” Wallingford said.
Instead, “they take us back to where they’ve been holding us for two days.”
North Vietnamese prisoners being held by the South, and to be exchanged for the Americans and other POWs held by the North, had refused to go back, stalling the deal, Wallingford recalled. “They (the North Vietnamese) said we don’t get our guys, you don’t get the Americans.”
A torturous eight-hour negotiation ensued before the deal eventually went ahead
At this point in his recollection, Wallingford’s voice chokes up a bit.
“Even today, 50 years plus later, it’s still an emotional experience,” he said. “When I think about it, I should have been dead.”
One of Smith’s most memorable moments of the war period, however, came after he had returned to the US and was being interviewed by the media about his imprisonment.
A reporter asked him why he had joined the Army.
He told the story of being a vulnerable teen in a bus station in Cincinnati, Ohio, one night. Older men had been hassling him when he heard a voice say, “Leave him alone.”
The teenaged Smith turned around to see a man in uniform. “And he took me and bought me a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup,” Smith recalled.
“I said, ‘Who are you?’ And he said, ‘I’m a paratrooper at the 101st Airborne Division.’ And I said, ‘I think I know now what I want to do.’”
A day after that TV interview aired, someone in the Army facility where Smith was staying told him he had a phone call and handed him a telephone.
The caller said he was the man from the Cincinnati bus station.
“He said it was the greatest day of his life when I came off that airplane and said that I had joined the US Army because of a paratrooper corporal in the Cincinnati, Ohio, bus station,” Smith said.
“I was always touched by that. And I didn’t tell the story for effect. I told the story because they asked me how I got in the Army.
“And he was the reason. I saw those jump boots and all that, and I said, ‘I think I want to be what you are.’
“And I was.”