Unsung Hero The Story of RA-5C Vigilante Pilot and Vietnam POW Captain Leo Hyatt, USN
Unsung Hero by:Bill Goss
The Story of RA-5C Vigilante Pilot and Vietnam POW Captain Leo Hyatt, USN (Ret) As told by his daughter, Ashlen Nunnery
Warm, friendly, and pretty, Ashlen Nunnery is the owner-operator of the UPS Store near my home in Orange Park, Florida. I use her copying machines to duplicate manuscripts and screenplays I?m sending out to publishers and producers.
One day, when the topic of me being a retired Navy pilot came up, Ashlen told me that her dad was a retired Navy pilot too. That statement interested me, so I asked her some more questions about her father. I became even more interested. Then I asked her if she would put into words her thoughts about the remarkable man that I?ve come to know as Navy Captain Leo Hyatt, but that Ashlen simply knows as ?Dad.?
What Ashlen wrote about her father -- and the adventures and sacrifices he lived through and endured -- and she did too -- now follow.
Memories of my father when I was a child are unfortunately few, but warm. If anyone asked me what I was going to do when I grew up, the immediate and confident answer for that little 8 year old girl was emphatically, ?I?m going to marry my Daddy!? If there was anything I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was that I loved my Daddy and he loved me. I was his morning companion in the bathroom, talking up a storm while he shaved, and I waited to see his uniform come through the door every evening.
We got the news that Daddy had been shot down in Vietnam, while Mom, my brother and I were in North Carolina at my maternal grandmother?s house. I expected Daddy home on my ninth birthday in October of 1967, but instead a black government car pulled up and that dream was shattered for what seemed like an eternity. I don?t remember much after that. Hearing the word ?shot? versus ?shot-down? was as far as my little brain got before I melted away.
We had a very difficult time as a family for several years. My Dad was listed as MIA and my mother didn?t know what to do, other than to continue to move with the Navy squadron he had been attached to every time they did.
My Dad was born in New Hampshire on April 29, 1934. He played three varsity sports and graduated as Valedictorian of his high school class. He ended up playing football and graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis with a degree in general engineering and then headed off to flight school. Dad earned his coveted Navy pilot ?Wings of Gold? in 1958.
For the next three years Dad was a fighter pilot, flying the supersonic F-8 Crusader out of Naval Air Station (NAS) Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida, as well as aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. He then earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate school in Monterey, California, followed by an instructor tour at Annapolis. He also coached the defensive backs in football.
From there, he started flying a jet even faster than the F-8 Crusader. It was the RA-5C Vigilante that flew nearly twice the speed of sound. He was attached to Reconnaissance Attack Squadron Twelve located at NAS Sanford in Central Florida and he later flew off the aircraft carrier USS Constellation in combat missions in defense of South Vietnam.
On August 13, 1967, during a high speed photo operation over a railroad bridge immediately south of the Chinese border, my Dad and his Radar/Navigation Officer, Wayne Goodermote were shot down by a barrage of fire from 37 mm anti-aircraft guns.
Daddy told my brother and me many stories about Vietnam -- some horrible, some funny. His left shoulder was dislocated and broken during the ejection from his RA-5C Vigilante at nearly 850 mph -- which at the time was the highest speed at which a man had ever ejected from a jet and still survived. Once on the ground, he was shot in the right tricep while trying to evade capture. The North Vietnamese simply put his arm and shoulder in a cast about three weeks later, thereby not allowing it to heal properly or in place. I remember him saying that the first three days were the worst, because of the unending physical torture. He said that it was his hate that got him through it. There was no way he was going to let ?those bastards? get anything useful out of him.
Shortly after Dad was captured, he was moved to the ?Hanoi Hilton? where he was thrown in a room by himself. His injuries were not taken care of and became infected. Both arms became totally useless and he was very sick. Continued torture of my father by the North Vietnamese didn?t get them what they wanted, so after a few weeks he was given a roommate. Ed Attebury was moved into his prison cell, walking on the sides of his feet, because the soles were gone (Ed had marched through fields of rice stubble while barefoot) and his left arm was hanging at his side, useless from nerve damage during the torture sessions. Ed immediately started using his water rations to help cleanse Dad?s wounds and Ed eventually nursed him back to health. Dad said that Ed saved his life, and saw to it that he was awarded the Air Force Cross after repatriation.
About a year and a half later, Ed and Ron Dramesi attempted an escape after midnight. They were caught later and that began what all former POWs refer to as ?Hell Week.? Most of the prisoners were tortured and beaten in order to find out who authorized the escape and who had helped plan it. It was during this time that Dad?s best friend in the Hanoi Hilton, Ed Attebury, was beaten to death.
Ron Dramesi was the heroic American prisoner of war that many people have heard about. Why? Because he?s the man that made the American Flag over and over again -- any way he could -- and he was beaten over and over again -- along with many of the prisoners that would salute it -- until finally the guards realized the futility of what they were doing and finally left him alone. Dad said the POWs would beg Ron to quit making the flag, because of all the torture that would follow, but he just kept on doing it. When you talk about American patriotism, you?ve got to talk about Ron Dramesi.
While at the Hanoi Hilton, my father jokingly earned the nickname ?Sunshine? from his fellow POWs because of his irascible disposition. Daddy said, ?If you let the guards know who your other POW friends are, the guards would sometimes decide to torture those guys, just to keep you in line.?
Dad was officially named an American POW in North Vietnam after a Japanese photographer took his photo receiving a Christmas package from home which he then sold to LIFE magazine. My father appeared in that magazine. Jackie Kennedy Onnasis was on the front cover, and they were the only pictures of Dad my family saw over those six years. All I can say is that when you look at the photo of my father, with his white and pink striped uniform on, you can see the disgust and irritation on his face for having to pose for the camera. Other pictures that were shown to us by LIFE magazine, but which were not in the photo layout, reveal Daddy ?shooting the bird? between his legs at the photographer. The constant barrage of propaganda over the PA system and the radio, particularly from Jane Fonda, was absolutely detested by the POWs.
Daddy and many others still haven?t forgiven Jane Fonda for the things she did and said about our involvement in Vietnam. I have prayed that he would forgive everyone that in any way hurt him while he was a POW, but the roots of bitterness are still deep. Only God can heal him and I believe one day my father will release it all to Him. In the interim, we just love him.
My children love their granddad and they are fascinated by ?Papa?s? stories, especially the ones about larvae in the rice, bugs in the bread, the cabbage soup, and rummaging through garbage while a guard ?turned his head.? His stories about Russian roulette and the various other types of torture he and others endured, equally fascinate them. It might seem odd that my Dad would want to talk about these things with his family and friends, but I?ve come to learn that it is the people who are unable to talk about the trauma in their past that have the greatest difficulties later in life. Talking about it is not only important for my father, but it is important for people -- and I mean EVERYBODY -- to know the truth. It is important for people to know history as it really happened. My son Joel is especially fascinated with hearing about how the POWs invented the tap code to communicate to each other through the prison cell walls.
There was one story about how Dad and his fellow cellmates finally got the Vietnamese guards to give them more toilet paper with their daily rations. All they got at first was a piece of raw rice paper about 20 inches by 14 inches. This single piece of paper had to be shared by three guys for a whole week! They all had to defecate six or seven times a day because of dysentery, so that tiny amount of paper wasn?t nearly enough.
So they smoked their cigarettes down to the butts, and then they secretively mixed some of the tobacco with water and smeared the compound on their shirt tails. After a while, it began to look like the POWs were using their entire shirts to wipe themselves. The interrogators thought this sight was so disgusting that they ended up giving them more paper to use. To us it might seem like a small triumph, but to the POWs in the Hanoi Hilton it was a huge and spectacular victory, one that raised morale that day to an all-time high. It all sounds so surreal. ?How can anyone live through all that and still be normal?? my oldest child asked me. Only God knows. But my Dad says simply, ?So, who?s normal??
Many of the men came back home to ex-spouses who had divorced them while they were MIA/POWs and this was not the homecoming that these men had been dreaming about or were expecting. The Department of Defense worked to prevent the POWs from being told negative news from home because it was -- and still is -- widely believed that it is the thoughts of coming home that these men most clung to for their sanity and strength. Otherwise many would have lost their will to live.
My father was released in the third load of POWs on St. Patrick?s Day in 1973, which was the first time in almost six years that he had set foot on American soil. He was flown to the Philippines first where he received medical attention at Clark Air Force Base and was debriefed. We met him at NAS Jacksonville with banners and lots of friends. Daddy was so skinny. It was all a blur to me, I was just so glad to see my him again.
My father came home to his family, but also to a wife who no longer wanted to stay married. So much happened to her -- and to us -- while he was gone. Mom had changed, and so had he. My parents divorced a year later and each remarried within a couple of years. Unfortunately, because of this, as much as my father and I loved each other, we did not spend as much time together as he or I would have liked, while I finished out my high school years at the Bolles School in Jacksonville.
When we were together, however, he did share many stories with my younger brother and me about his experiences in Vietnam as a POW, and he once addressed an assembly at my high school on the topic of patriotism. Daddy was awesome -- he is an absolutely amazing public speaker.
My father?s career in the Navy placed him in many relationships with other heroic and well-known men. Roger Staubach was a midshipman and the quarterback of the football team at Annapolis when my dad was an assistant coach there. My father became friends with future astronauts Gene Cernan and Ron Evans while Dad was trying to get into the Space Program. Both men went on to walk on or orbit the moon. Senator John McCain was one of Dad?s roommates in the Hanoi Hilton, along with approximately 20 other military aviators. John McCain and Dad are still in contact today. Ron Evans died a few years ago of a heart attack.
After Vietnam, Daddy remained attached to the Navy Regional Medical Center in Jacksonville for several months, where he received treatment for the severe injuries he incurred during his ejection from his RA-5C over enemy territory. But my father is a very tough man, and by May of 1975, he was the Commanding Officer of Attack Squadron Forty-Five. Four years later, he assumed command of the Mine Warfare Training Group in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1982 he became the Director of the Management Assistance Center at NTEC, Orlando. This was his last position prior to retirement.
By the time Daddy got out of the Navy, he had earned a lot of medals. The ones I remember are the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit with a combat ?V?, the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, a bunch of air medals, and the list of awards and decorations goes on and on.
And let me tell you this about my father too -- he earned each and every one of those medals, decorations, and awards through his incredibly selfless acts of patriotism and heroism. The greatest thing that ever happened to me was getting my father back from Vietnam alive and in one piece. Because -- as I said from the beginning -- I love my father. And my father loves me. Although I?m no longer a little girl, I am still my Daddy?s little girl ... and I?m very thankful that he made it back home to America -- a place he loves with all his heart -- and to me.
? 2003 Lt. Commander Bill Goss. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.
[><] Dixie born and proud of it.
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