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Vietnam War POW Porter Halyburton '63 on Honor

Porter Halyburton
Porter Halyburton '63

Davidson College invites the public to a talk by alumnus and former Vietnam War POW Commander Porter Halyburton '63, at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 17, in Duke Family Performance Hall. Hosted by the Davidson College Honor Council and cosponsored by the Vann Center for Ethics, Halyburton will discuss "Honor Under Pressure: Reflections of a Former POW in North Vietnam." The talk is free and open to the public.

Halyburton was raised in Davidson, and graduated from Davidson College in 1963. After joining the U.S. Navy, he was trained as a Radar Intercept Officer and sent to Vietnam in May 1965.

Five months and 75 missions later, his plane was shot down 60 miles north of Hanoi. For 18 months he was thought to have died in the crash, and was even memorialized in a funeral in Davidson. In reality, he had been captured and spent the next seven-and-a-half years as a captive of the North Vietnamese, residing in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" and other prison camps.

Halyburton's experience as a POW also marked the beginning of his lifelong friendship with Fred Cherry, an African American Air Force pilot also shot down by the North Vietnamese. Halyburton was placed in a cell with Cherry, who badly wounded, under the assumption that racial tension combined with torture would lead one or both men to reveal military secrets.

However, the opposite took place – the two men gave each other a reason to live, and forged a brotherhood that no enemy could shatter. In 2004 author James Hirsch wrote a book, titled Two Souls Indivisible, about the relationship between the two men.

Halyburton is professor of strategy emeritus at Naval War College. For more information about his talk, call 704-894-2122.

In advance of his talk, Halyburton sat down with us to provide insight into his experience and the role of honor in his life.

Q: You spent more than seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. How did you survive?
The first thing that sustained me was my Christian faith. Secondly, I relied on my sense of patriotism and the military code of conduct. Honor was central to our survival. Our agreed-upon motto was "return with honor." That meant we couldn't simply return from war, we had to return having done the right thing.

Q: How exactly was honor central to your survival?
The Vietnamese constantly tried to get us to fight amongst ourselves. Their interrogation techniques were not very sophisticated, and they didn't speak English very well, but they still resorted to violence to get what they wanted. In that situation you're constantly faced with the question: how do I protect my integrity and still not give the enemy what they want?

We relied on what's called the "second line of resistance." That meant if you were tortured to the point where you were broken, then you couldn't stay broken forever. If you couldn't physically resist any longer, then you had to come up with other ways to use your strengths over their weakness. That could mean using their ignorance of American slang and vocabulary to try to negate what they were trying to force you to do. Even under the worst circumstances, you couldn't give up.

There was one thing they couldn't take away from us, and that was our free will. No matter what they did to us, we could choose how to react to it.

Q: How did you maintain your honor in the morally complicated environment of the Vietnam War?
I got to Vietnam early in the war. There is always opposition to war. We thought we were doing the right thing. I was very young, just out of college and flight training. I didn't know a whole lot about Vietnam, and I don't think a whole lot of Americans did. We were fighting for the freedom of South Vietnam and to stop the spread of communism. We were trained and paid to do a job, and that's what we were doing.

But when I became a prisoner, we did not discuss the rightness or wrongness of the war. Our captors wanted us to do that, thinking it would lead us to fight amongst ourselves and make us more vulnerable to interrogation.

Also, as Navy pilots flying over Vietnam, our experiences were very different than those of soldiers on the ground. They had very different choices to make. They had situations in which they were fighting an enemy who didn't wear a uniform, who fought in churches and hid behind children.

Q: Did you often dwell on your home at Davidson and Davidson College while you were a POW?
I grew up in Davidson, my grandfather was a professor, my mother worked there, I was a student there and then I worked there. So my connection with Davidson is very strong. Being from a small liberal arts school, I was also somewhat different than my comrades. Everyone else had studied hard sciences, while I was an English major. And if you know more on a subject than anyone else in your group, you become the expert and teacher. My education put me in that position.

Being a prisoner wasn't all interrogation and torture; a lot of it was just boredom. Every day was the same routine. We weren't allowed paper, pencils or books-only the occasional propaganda. Maintaining our mental, spiritual and physical health was a challenge. We tried to stay as busy as we could in those three areas. To do that, we taught each other what we knew and learned about each other.

Everyone had their own skills and things to share. I shared my knowledge, and I think I awakened a new interest in a lot of people's lives. I told them about the books I read in college, and we memorized and wrote poetry.

Q: How Did Davidson's Honor Code prepare you for your experiences in the military?
The Honor Code was an important part of my development. My Boy Scout troop had an honor code, my fraternity had an honor code and my military prep school had an honor code. Davidson's Honor Code was a part of that tradition. It instilled in me the idea that honor, honesty and ethical behavior are vital in order to lead a decent, productive life.

Q: What is your current opinion of the Vietnam War?
In retrospect it was a terrible mistake. Even if we had won militarily, it wouldn't have ensured anything. The political situation was very bad. There was no government in South Vietnam that could bring the people together and achieve what needed to be achieved.

But I don't have any regrets. I regret that our country went through the war, and that POWs like myself spent so much time away from their families. But I don't dwell on that. Much of our current curriculum at the Naval War College is built around trying to avoid the problems we ran into in Vietnam, both in policy, strategic and tactical aspects. Hopefully the Vietnam War will continue to serve as a valuable lesson to us.