Reflections from a Vietnam War POW

An American aviator finds his way to a meaningful life in a North Vietnam prison

Two U.S. Navy men in uniform--a pilot and an aviator — stand in front of the cockpit of an F-4B Phantom II military jet aircraft.
Halyburton (at left) and Stan Olmstead completed 75 missions with VF-84 before getting shot down. “Olmstead was an outstanding pilot—probably the best pilot I flew with,” says Halyburton. Naval Institute Press

Porter Halyburton knows all too well what it feels like to eject. On October 17, 1965, he was a radar intercept officer sitting in the backseat of a U.S. Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4B when it was struck by anti-aircraft artillery while flying a combat mission over North Vietnam. The hit damaged the airplane and killed the pilot, Lieutenant Commander Stan Olmstead, who was sitting in the forward cockpit. Halyburton then made the agonizing decision to bail out over enemy territory, and he was soon taken captive by villagers.

In Reflections on Captivity (Naval Institute Press, 2022), Halyburton gives an unsparing account of his seven years as a POW, most of it spent in North Vietnam’s Hoa Lo prison, infamously known as the Hanoi Hilton. Halyburton and the hundreds of other American pilots and aviators imprisoned at Hoa Lo endured physical and mental torture, a meager diet, and a lack of medical care. Despite the harsh conditions, the men created a vibrant community, spending hours in conversation and communicating by tapping on walls when speaking wasn’t possible. To the extent that they could, they all looked out for one another, and life-long friendships were formed. In Halyburton’s case, he spent seven months in the same cell with U.S. Air Force pilot Fred Cherry, one of the few Black prisoners. Cherry was badly injured while ejecting from his Republic F-105, and Halyburton dedicated himself to improving Cherry’s health. Their shared experience was documented in Two Souls Indivisible, a 2004 book by James S. Hirsch.

After serving in the Navy for 20 years, Halyburton retired as a commander in 1984. He spent another 20 years on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He recently spoke with Air & Space Quarterly senior editor Diane Tedeschi.

Why did you want to become a naval aviator?

Well, I graduated from college, and I did not take ROTC—unlike a lot of my friends who did take ROTC and were getting commissions as they graduated. So I was faced with a choice. I had a good friend who mentioned he had joined the Navy and was flying F-4B Phantoms. He thought that was pretty exciting, and he got me interested. I then enlisted in the Navy to go to flight school.

VF-84 F-4B's preparing for catapult launching. Boeing

What is your opinion of the F-4 Phantom?

It’s one of the greatest airplanes we’ve ever built. It had a very long service life. It was Mach 2-plus, and it flew two people. It was just a fine airplane, and very fun to fly in. I’ve flown in the Phantom at Mach 2 wearing essentially a spacesuit, and we climbed to above 60,000 feet. It was pretty exciting stuff, yeah.

What did you make of life aboard an aircraft carrier?

Life aboard a big carrier is like you’re in a city. It had 5,000 people, which was a lot more than the little town I grew up in [Davidson, North Carolina]. And a carrier probably had more facilities than the town I grew up in. It had everything you needed to stay at sea for a long time. In fact, I never got to see all of the interior spaces, that’s how big it was. Navy life was something brand new for me. We were going off to war, and I was getting to know everybody—it was just a wonderful experience.

During your imprisonment, what was the worst thing about being put into isolation?

Well, it meant you had nobody to talk to for one thing—no interaction, no friendly voice, nothing. In Vietnam, there was a difference between solitary confinement and isolation. In solitary confinement, we usually were able to tap on the wall or communicate in some way with another American POW. You were not completely cut off from everything. You knew you had a friendly guy on the other side of the wall. If you were in isolation, however, it was quite different. Over time, isolation does funny things to your mind, blurring your ability to distinguish between reality and your own thoughts. I was in isolation before I was moved in with Fred [Cherry], and I was starting to question things—not sure if I could trust my sense of reality.

Halyburton was held captive for more than seven years in a number of prisons including the infamous Hoa Lo Prison. Naval Institute Press

Did you and Fred Cherry stay in touch after you arrived back in the United States?

Yes, we became very good friends. Hardship draws people together. And Fred, aside from him being a friendly American, he was an extraordinary person. I respected his courage and determination. He thinks I saved his life, and maybe I did on a couple occasions. But, in a way, he saved my life. Every time I was faced with some difficult choice after we were no longer cellmates, I would think back and say, what would Fred do? And that helped me to do the right thing.

Halyburton and Fred Cherry (in 2004) were cellmates. The two men remained close friends until Cherry’s death in 2016. Naval Institute Press

You and the other POWs built a tight, supportive community. I think that speaks to the caliber of people who were going into the U.S. military at the time.

I think there were several factors involved. One is that we were all professionals. We were all volunteers. Most all of us were officers. Most all of us had a stake in what made our country great—economically and every other way. We had been well-trained, and as a group, we were fairly homogeneous. We had the same values. And shared suffering brought us closer together.

Most importantly, though, we were determined not to be defeated. We could all see what our captors were trying to do with us. They were trying to break us down to convince us that we should oppose the war and speak out against it. We were told we were criminals—not POWs—and that we had no rights. We knew what we were up against, and we had to resist.

On July 6, 1966, 52 POWs (including Halyburton) were forced to march through Hanoi, where they were attacked and beaten by civilians. The event became a public relations disaster for North Vietnam. Naval Institute Press

What was the glue that held the POW community together?

One of the great lessons I learned in prison was that they can take away every freedom you have. They can do anything they want with you. But the one thing they can’t take away—unless they kill you or drive you crazy—is the freedom to choose how you’re going to react. That was a realization that occurred to a lot of people, and it brought all of us together. I control how I’m going to react to this situation—that gives you a defense, it gives you an offense.

What was your most prized possession during your imprisonment?

My family was initially told that I had been killed in action, but they later learned I was a POW. Several years in, we were allowed to communicate by mail. In one package, my wife sent several items, including a pair of socks and a photo of her and my daughter. That one picture of the two of them together became the most precious thing I had because it was the only link between me and my family. When I deployed, my daughter was five days old, and in the picture, she’s four and a half.

Halyburton treasured this photograph of his wife Marty and daughter Dabney during the years he was imprisoned. Naval Institute Press

How did it feel to attend the POW reunions once you had resumed your lives in the U.S.?

In Vietnam, I had memorized 350 names of the other guys that were there. I went over that list every single day, and I went over it with anybody else I ran into to make corrections, additions, deletions, whatever. I never lived in the same cells with the vast majority of the people on the list—I never even talked to them. The only thing I knew was the basic information of when they were shot down, what kind of airplane they were in, what service they were in, and what rank they were. But these people became part of the family even though I had never seen them. Meeting one of these people later on at a reunion was a strange situation. Here’s somebody you might know fairly well through hours of conversation, but you’ve never seen their face.

In your book, you mention that after you came home, you read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. What did you learn from him?

I think he was able to explain our behavior, and explain that even in the worst of circumstances, we were trying to lead a meaningful life—as much as we possibly could. Frankl says our most basic need is to discover the meaning in our lives. And if you cannot find that meaning, then you turn to other things—power, pleasure, drugs, whatever. Frankl’s premise explains our determination to build a society, to have as normal a life as we possibly could, to find meaning in our lives, even though we were in prison and had virtually nothing. 

Reading your book, I was surprised by how much humorous banter there was between you and the other prisoners.

Humor was a survival tool for us. Sometimes things get so bad, you just have to laugh at it. Things can’t get any worse than this. I’ve thought a lot about leadership since then, and I think humor can be a very powerful leadership tool. Of all the outstanding leaders I’ve served under or have known, not one of them was without humor.

Halyburton (at a lecture in 2016) has given many talks about what he learned from the POW experience and how it changed his life. U.S. Navy photo Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl

We live in a very materialistic society, yet you and the other prisoners had virtually no possessions, which seems to suggest that we don’t need all this stuff to survive.

Right. At the end of my imprisonment, I realized I had physically adapted to the diet—the low number of calories. And we had mentally adapted to our spartan environment. We had become a culture, and we had every attribute of a culture except our real families. But we had become a new family. At the very beginning, the Vietnamese said: “You may be here for five, 10, 20 years.” And we just laughed at that. No way. This war’s going to be over in less than a year. After about five years, we admitted our captors were right.

But I felt like I was leading a meaningful life. We had exercise programs and educational programs and spiritual programs. I was writing poetry and stories, and we were doing stuff all the time. I said to myself—as it seemed like we were moving toward release—I said, “I could stay here another 10 years.” Or I could stay here the rest of my life if necessary and still think I was leading a meaningful life. That would assume lots of things, though: We were all there together, and we could continue the activities and still communicate with our families through letters. But I was mentally, physically, and spiritually prepared to stay for as long as necessary—an acknowledgement that didn’t frighten me in the way it would have during the first few years of my imprisonment. 

This article is from the Winter 2024 issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.

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