Mastin shares Vietnam POW experience
The engineered violence U.S. Air Force pilots Ron Mastin and Tom Storey felt ejecting from an F-4 Phantom at 500 miles per hour was more shocking than impact of North Vietnamese ordinance that sent their jet crashing to the ground on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
On Mastin’s 34th aerial reconnaissance mission out of Thailand on Jan. 16, 1967, he was to photograph a modest bridge northeast of Hanoi. Their twin-piloted jet was cruising over rough terrain at 1,000 feet when it sustained the lethal blow while crossing over a deep valley.
“All of a sudden we felt a ‘thump, thump.’ Nothing more. I wish I could tell you a good shoot-down story. That’s all it was. We started losing hydraulic pressure. We started losing fuel. We started to get smoke in the cockpit. Before long, the aircraft went into an uncontrolled right turn. We had to punch out.”
Mastin, who grew up in Beloit and graduated from the University of Kansas before entering the Vietnam War, was deposited by parachute on a steep mountainside above a village. He eluded capture until daybreak when surrounded by outlandishly-armed peasants both curious and disdainful about the enemy in their midst.
“They looked like they were Daniel Boone-era rifles,” Mastin said. “These rifles, they looked like if they had pulled the trigger, they would have blown up.”
Mastin left his .38-caliber pistol in the holster, and joined a growing number of U.S. prisoners of war. He remained in captivity for 2,239 days. Not until 1969 did his family learn that he was alive. The aviator endured mental and physical cruelty for more than six years before released March 4, 1973.
This past Friday night, Mastin shared a first-person perspective on the defense of freedom for more than 150 family, friends and veterans at the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka. The audience included seven KU fraternity brothers and nine people he went to school with in Beloit, including two from his kindergarten days.
“I haven’t lived in Kansas since, well, for 43 years,” said Mastin, 76. “But my heart is still in Beloit and is in Kansas, and it will never leave. It’s the people.”
On the ground in North Vietnam, Mastin was driven to Hanoi and through gates of an old French prison known locally as Hoa Lo. To American service members, it was the Hanoi Hilton. He was interrogated in a room with a small table covered in blue cloth. A solitary light bulb dangled from the ceiling. He squatted on a low stool. Questions came from a soldier peering down at him across the table.
Mastin said he was aware of his obligation to reveal only name, rank and serial number.
“I figured I could handle that. John Wayne could. I figured I could, too.”
He declined to answer other inquiries and was introduced to a type of torture referred to as “the rope.”
“They would take you on the floor with your legs right straight out in front of you,” he said. “They would put ankle brackets around your ankles and put a rod through the brackets. They’d take your arms behind your back, put wrist locks on you to draw your wrists together. They would take a rope and tie your elbows together so they would almost touch. They would take that rope, take it up over your shoulder, down underneath the bar at your ankles and then they would stand on the bar and pull up on the rope.”
Mastin said it felt like his chest was being ripped apart. This rope-and-question cycle lasted a couple days. Under torture, he didn’t live up to John Wayne’s Hollywood courage.
“Funny though, the information they got was absolutely nothing that was helpful. They wanted to know if I was married, what airplane I was flying, where I was from. Stuff like that.”
He said a handful of prison guards, including a guy nicknamed “Mark,” used interrogations to refine English-speaking skills as the war dragged on.
“For every Mark, there were 10 others that were just the opposite. One in particular, he loved to torture and loved to put the rope on guys. You could just see it in his face. He lived for it.”
He was initially placed in Heartbreak Hotel, which was part of the Hanoi Hilton complex. Sections of the prison were given Las Vegas-themed names, because many early POWs trained at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Alone in a cell, Mastin said he felt like the “biggest traitor the United States ever had” for saying more than the Geneva Conventions required. One day, he was relieved to hear an American’s voice at his cell door. It was a simple question: “Do you know the tap code?” He did not, but a note was passed explaining a method of tapping on walls, moving a stick or waving a fan that allowed prisoners to covertly share information.
Here’s the trick: Picture the alphabet, without the letter “K,” displayed on a five-line chart of five letters each. The greeting “Hi” could be expressed by tapping two times, pausing and tapping three times for the “H.” Completing the word required two taps, a break and four taps for the “I.” In concrete cells, the open end of a cup was placed on the wall and the cup bottom next to an ear. An affirmative response was a single cough. Confusion was registered with multiple coughs.
“Communication was the whole story of our being able to survive. It kept us in contact. It kept us doing things,” he said.
From 1968 to 1970, Mastin was held with 50 U.S. prisoners at Camp Hope outside of Hanoi. The POWs were allowed to go outdoors in a courtyard. One day, two guys intentionally spilled their waste bucket. They were given brooms made of bamboo slivers. When scratched on the floor, it made a loud sound.
“The whole time they were cleaning up, they were passing code,” he said. “One of their former cellmates was in that compound and could hear them. They wanted to wish him a happy birthday.”
Mastin bounced from prison to prison, but at one point transferred to a section of Hanoi Hilton with more than 50 prisoners. There were enough people for golf and language classes. One evening, inmates heard a one-hour lecture on Beloit, Kan.
Mastin said POWs were fed twice a day, with a menu based on the vegetable prominent in that growing season. Pumpkin and cabbage soup was common. There was rice and bread. He craved peanut butter and milk. On Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, July 4 and Tet the meal might include meat.
“In fact, one of the best things we ate was pork fat. Man, that was like a piece of Godiva chocolate. I just loved the stuff.”
News of special-forces assaults on suspected POW camps in North Vietnam or B-52 bombing runs over Hanoi were good for morale, Mastin said.
“Even though we weren’t rescued, that gave us a tremendous lift. It gave us hope that by golly, we’re not forgotten.”
During a question-and-answer session, Mastin said he didn’t have an opinion about one of the prominent POWs that he met near the end of the war — John McCain, who has been characterized by President Donald Trump as something other than a hero because he was captured. However, Mastin said, POWs widely considered Richard Nixon one of the nation’s best presidents because “he brought us home.”
Release of prisoners of war in 1973 delivered Mastin to a reunion with his family in St. Louis and, eventually, a big celebration in Beloit. Living in suburban Atlanta, Mastin said he continued to draw strength from late basketball coach Jim Valvano, who said cancer would steal his physical abilities but couldn’t touch his mind, heart and soul.
“The Vietnamese took away all our freedoms, all of our physical pleasures and gave us a hard time. But they really didn’t really take away the spirit we have of being an American. It was that spirit in our hearts, minds that kept us going.”
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