Lily Woolsey, Rebekah Eklund & Sara Pitts
Day five was an early one for the College of the Ozarks crew gathering in the Rex Hotel lobby at 6 a.m. preparing to journey to North Vietnam, starting with Hanoi. As we arrived at the Saigon airport anticipating the day, we walked alongside Colonel Tom Moe and asked about his feelings on returning to Hanoi, specifically the Hanoi Hilton – a prisoner of war camp where Colonel Moe spent nine consecutive months in solitary confinement. In total, Colonel Moe was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese from January 16th, 1968 to March 14th, 1973. After a moment of reflection, Colonel Moe answered, “I’m ready to go back. I’m ready to walk in and walk right back out. I’m ready to go in there and not be blindfolded, handcuffed, or shackled.”
Upon arriving in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, we experienced the noticeably cooler temperature as we exited the airport. Riding on our bus toward our lunch spot, we began comparing the scenery of the south to the new observance of the north— less scooters, mountainous terrain, peaked red rooftops on the homes, and less street noise. Our lunch consisted of a buffet combination of Vietnamese and American cuisine giving us our American food fix while continuing to immerse us in the Vietnamese culture.
Shortly after lunch, we made our way to the Hoa Lo prison which was a prison camp that the North Vietnamese Army used to hold American soldiers captive. The prison was given the sarcastic name “Hanoi Hilton” by the American soldiers. The prison, now museum, still holds the cells, cement beds, shackles, torture mechanisms, and devices to deter escapees. Though the history of the prison is largely portrayed through the vision of the North Vietnamese, we were able to hear accounts from two men who experienced the truism of the Hanoi Hilton. Two of the veterans accompanying us on the trip, Col. John Clark and our veteran, Col. Tom Moe were now able to walk in and out of the prison freely. In their time at the Hanoi Hilton, Moe and Clark were cell mates.
Including his stay in the Hanoi Hilton, Tom spent over five years in captivity – a total of 1,881 days. One of the most important memories that Tom shared was an attempt made by Bob Wilke to rescue Tom after his F4-Phantom crashed into the jungles of Vietnam. Courageously, Wilke attempted to rescue Colonel Moe from the North Vietnamese, however, his aircraft was shot down and he was killed on impact. Colonel Moe recalled “feeling the ground shake” when the aircraft fell. Tom will forever carry and share the memory of Bob Wilke, so his sacrifice will not be forgotten.
On his first day in the Hanoi Hilton, Tom was led blindfolded into a room, only to reveal, when the blindfold was removed, two North Vietnamese interrogators sitting at a table. They shone a light in his face telling him to not waste time avoiding their questions. Their questions remained unanswered by Tom, and the punishment for the insubordination of authority almost always resulted in abuse. He spent time in multiple Vietnamese prison camps during his five years of incarceration. Through the physical, mental, and emotional pain inflicted during that time, Tom remained optimistic that he soon would be released home to his family, at the time his wife and daughter. Tom recounted that he was able to endure many of his days imprisoned by keeping himself mentally astute. Among other strategies, Tom would create counting games to pass the time or mentally design homes, one of which he later built and still resides in with his wife Chris. As a result of the Paris Peace Accords, Tom was released in March of 1973. While touring the museum in Hanoi, Tom spotted himself in a picture that was featured in an exhibit capturing the day that the American POW’s were released. The late senator John McCain was also featured in the picture. It has been a blessing to travel with Colonel Tom Moe and hear his stories. We are so excited for the days ahead! One thing we will always remember from Tom is his optimism: “Every day that I wake up with a door handle on the inside is a good day.”