Special Report: Bob Waggoner Told His Story of Vietnam

He flew with heroes

Colonel Robert Waggoner (USAF Retired)

Rick Phelps

On Friday February 26th Bob Waggoner spoke at an event at the Bishop High School library sponsored by Bishop Rotary to raise funds for Rotary Internationals Polio Plus. The library was filled to capacity with nearly 150 people of all ages, including Veterans and high school students, who all wanted to hear Bobs inspirational story of how he survived 2,365 days in brutal captivity (and, yes, they did torture him.)


Colonel Robert Waggoner

Bob told his story with natural ease and true emotion and he wanted us all to know that I was not a hero. I flew with heroes. I was just a survivor. I think Bob was the only one in the room who didnt think he was a hero, as we heard about his time as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese from the time he punched out over North Vietnam on September 12, 1966 to when he headed home on March 4, 1973. Nonetheless, he was a well-decorated survivor with a Distinguished Flying Cross, two Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts.

As I listened to Bobs story I wondered what kept him going and imagined that he would tell us about incredible faith and a personal will to survive, but thats not what we heard. Instead, we heard about tap codes, poetry and fellow prisoners. Thats what kept Bob going.

Tap codes represent a very quiet way to communicate and have their origins in Czarist Russia with the Cyrillic alphabet and were mentioned in Arthur Koestlers Darkness at Noon a classic book about Stalins purges that was published in 1941. Tap codes in Vietnam were based on a very simple matrix:


























The first tap is the column and the second tap is the row. For example, using todays texting vernacular, L is 3+1, O is 3+3 and L 3+1 for LOL – laughing out loud. Theres no K in the 5 by 5 matrix, but C was substituted phonetically. POWs, like todays texters, developed their own acronyms and all newcomers could easily learn the tap codes and could talk by gentle taps on the walls or even on each others thighs. Thats how the POWs communicated (very patiently) and found out who was there and shared whatever little news there was. Imagine how just that little bit of talking kept their spirits alive.

Poetry and its messages also had a very inspiring message for the POWs when they had more opportunities to talk as the years marched on. Some could recite entire poems and share them with the others. Three poems were popular: Invictus (1875) by William Ernest Henley, and If (1910) and The Ballad of East and West (1889) by Rudyard Kipling. Listen to the words and feel the source of inspiration:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.


If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds worth of distance run

Yours is the Earth and everything thats in it,

And which is more youll be a Man, my son!


Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at Gods great Judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

The Ballad of East and West

I was struck that these men who flew supersonic aircraft sought inspiration from 19th century poets.

The old adage that infantrymen fight not for God and country, but for the man next to them was true in Hanoi too. Through their tapping and their poetry the POWs kept in touch with each other and preserved their military esprit de corps and chain of command through all the years and the darkest of times (including Jane Fondas visit.)

Bob reinforced this shared spirit with a story about the POWs last days in North Vietnam. In January 1973 all the POWs were told to gather in the central courtyard of the prison and the word went out to form up and maintain their bearing. The North Vietnamese announced the POWs were going home, but the news was not greeted with cheers or celebration; instead the men went about their routine hoping that this news was the truth and not another deception. Bob said the men kept that attitude in the days ahead and didnt raise their voices in celebration until the pilot of the C-141 transport flying them from Hanoi to the Philippines announced feet wet signifying they had crossed the coast line of Vietnam and were over water.

Whatever Bob says, hes a hero.

Rick Phelps served in the Air Force during the Vietnam era, but spent his time in air-conditioned shelters in the midwestern US protecting valuable electronic equipment. He considers the opportunity to write about Bob a true honor.

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