Valdosta Daily Times

October 16, 2013

Former POW shares story with military past, present and future

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — For more than six years, now-retired Air Force Lt. Col. Barry Bridger endured torture as a prisoner of war in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.”

The Hoa Lo Prison was a brutal camp where the North Vietnamese held prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Hoa Lo, translated, reportedly means “fiery furnace,” or “hell hole.” Built by the French in Hanoi in the 1800s when Vietnam was a colonial part of French Indochina, controlled by the North Vietnamese by the 1960s, Hoa Lo was called the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs. Though held prisoner, their sense of sarcasm remained intact.

Bridger’s residency in the prison occurred after his plane was shot down on Jan. 23, 1967, over Son Tay, North Vietnam.

As Bridger has noted in many a presentation, he entered the Hanoi Hilton with the values of his family and his nation. Values passed from generation to generation since the founding.

“I walked into Hanoi with these values of our ancestors,” he has said in the presentations he makes in schools and at Air Force bases across the nation. “They could destroy our body and mind, but not our heart. They couldn’t touch our values.”

Last week, Bridger visited Valdosta. He spoke with Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps Detachment 172 at Valdosta State University and to the Valdosta chapter of the Military Officers Association of America. Earlier this year, Bridger spoke with Moody Air Force Base airmen.

During his presentations, Bridger speaks of American values and the nation’s most important value: Liberty. Yet, to endure, one must also keep a sense of humor.

“You have to have a sense of humor to put up with tough times,” Bridger told the Moody airmen in May. “Americans have an incredible sense of humor.”

Bridger’s sense of values and humor began in his native Bladenboro, N.C. Attending the University of North Carolina, he earned a bachelor of science degree in mathematics in 1963, according to his biographical information. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant through the ROTC program.

In 1964, following his pilot training, he was assigned to the 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. There, he flew the F-4 Phantom. Following Army parachute training at Georgia’s Fort Benning in 1965, Bridger completed his first combat tour in Vietnam in 1966.

“He returned to the United States, advanced to aircraft commander in the F-4 Phantom and began a second tour, again flying missions over Vietnam,” according to his biography. “During these two tours, he accumulated over 200 combat flying hours and completed more than 70 combat missions over North Vietnam.”

Then came Jan. 23, 1967.

On that date, “Barry and his co-pilot were flying on a mission over North Vietnam when their F-4 Phantom jet was hit by a surface to air missile,” according to the book “We Came Home” transcribed on “The plane burst into flames and fell beneath the cloud layers. No parachutes were seen nor were beeper signals heard, so Barry was carried in a missing in action status.”

Hanoi confirmed his prisoner of war status in 1970. The Bridger family received the first letter from him in May 1970.

He had landed amidst 75 people. Enemy territory. Capture. Interrogation.

“Immediately he was put in straps with manacles around his wrists,” according to “We Came Home.” “An eight-foot strap was then woven between and around his arms from the wrists to the shoulders, pulling his arms together until his shoulders came out of their sockets. He suffered through seven excruciating days of straps, ropes, beatings, and handcuffs with no food, sleep or water — he finally printed with his left hand (he is right handed) a bogus mission statement and not the apology to the Vietnamese people that he was supposed to write and sign.”

The 1977 book quotes Bridger: “They finally get you and then you write an innocuous statement, one with as little meaning as possible.”

Guards beat prisoners based on changing standards. They might beat a prisoner for awaking at night, or walking across a room. “During his initial interrogation Barry was repeatedly beaten about. There were two severe head injuries incurred when he was shot down, they were ignored for seven days of inhuman treatment and then required 20 stitches to close the wounds.”

He passed the time practicing gymnastics, which served multiple purposes: kept his body strong, his mind sharp, and helped pass the endless hours of boredom.

“Barry practiced his gymnastic maneuvers under the most adverse conditions,” according to the book. “In the summer, the room was often like an oven, frequently dark with only a dim light dripping through the cracks of the boarded window.”

Six years. Torture. A pattern of abuse. Isolation. Re-education efforts. Demoralization. Bridger says the American POWs would not be broken. They kept a sense of humor. They carried a spirit of sacrifice. Whomever was in the torture chamber would try staying in it longer so that other Americans may not be brutalized.

On March 4, 1973, Bridger was released.

In his post-POW years, he requalified for jet aircraft. He served as an Air Force instructor pilot in air-to-ground combat and in other positions. He earned a master’s degree in business administration, and served as a teacher. After 22 years, Bridger retired from the Air Force in October 1984. His awards and decorations include the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal with V device, Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster, Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters, and Prisoner of War Medal.