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News ::
Return With Honor - American VN PoW's (english)
22 Feb 2003
Modified: 11 Mar 2003
Went with Honor - Returned with Honor after internment as PoW
As for himself, Guarino had not been getting along at all well with the enemy. Debarking from an armored personnel carrier into the main courtyard of Hoa Lo prison, he had been met by Rabbit, shouting, "You dirty, rotten criminal! Why did you come here to murder my people? Now you are going to pay for your crimes!"

"Who do you think you're talking to?" Guarino demanded. "What are you, a corporal or something? I am a major in the United States Air Force. I demand some respect and proper treatment. I demand to see the camp commander."

"You are no major here!" Rabbit shrieked. "You are nothing here but a criminal!"

"I demand my rights under Geneva!"

"Rights? You have no rights! You are a criminal! We are going to hang you!"

"Horsecrap! "

Guarino was locked into Cell # 1 in New Guy Village. It was dank and dirty, perhaps sixteen feet long, seven feet wide. It contained a metal frame cot, and in back, in the corners below a barred window, stood two cement bunks. At the ends of these were ancient, rustcovered stocks, secured with large padlocks. It was obvious the stocks had not been opened in many years-probably not in modern times. Larry was glad that at least he had not been born into an era where such things had been used.

His flight suit was taken from him, and he was given a pair of blue and white striped pajamas. A guard indicated that a small can, about the size of a fruit can, was to be used as a toilet. Alone, Larry prayed for strength and guidance, pondered the strange, indeed mystical things that had been happening, and wondered why such things should be happening to him. True, he had been born into and raised in a devoutly religious (Catholic) family, but so had millions of others, and his own family's devotion to its faith had not been so constricting as to preclude certain of its male members from having bootlegging connections during the prohibition era. Larry had all his life been a regular Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation mass attender, but had pretty much taken religion for granted. Essentially, he had been a man of this world and was not yet anywhere near the stage of life where he was giving undue thought to the next. Still, things had been happening:

He had been flying F­105 strikes out of Korat, Thailand, since December, 1964. All the while, a sense of dark foreboding had been building in him. By the morning of June 14, 1965, he knew that his number was up. He had not liked anything about the day. The weather was marginal, and the mission and briefing had struck him as overly long and complicated. Prior to takeoff he had offered a gloved hand to his squadron commander, Bill Craig, and said so long.

"What do you mean, 'so long'?" Craig had demanded. "I'll see you in about an hour and a half."

"Sure," said Larry, heading for his aircraft. But he had known he was not coming back.

He was shot down somewhere in the countryside. He was captured by militia, wielding rifles and two­handed swords. His wrists had been bound behind him, and he had been marched through many villages, where crowds were summoned to jeer him, stone him, pull his hair, kick him, and knock him to the ground. He was bruised and bloodied, he was threatened, and he was frightened; at the same time, he knew with absolute certainty that he would be all right, that he would survive. But he was relieved when at last he was turned over to the Army.

Once, during the long, steaming hot trip to Hanoi, there had been a rest stop for the troops aboard the personnel carrier.

To ensure that the prisoner would remain one, his legs and feet had been tied together, and he was wrapped in blankets that completely covered his head and face. He was left alone in the enclosed back of the vehicle. Sweat poured off him and soaked into the blankets. He fought for air, could get none, felt himself beginning to suffocate. He thought, desperately, of the certainty he had had since the moment of capture that he would survive; somehow, the certainty was still there, yet he was dying, smothering under a covering of smelly, sweat­soaked rags at the side of a road far, far from home. He prayed. He sweated, he struggled for breath and life, he waited for death, and he prayed. He could not get clear of the smothering blankets, and no one came to assist. But suddenly there were breezes, cool, sweet, refreshing, swirling gently all about him. He breathed deeply, easily, gratefully. He had never been more comfortable in an air­conditioned room, on a beach, anywhere. He kept on praying, in thanksgiving. When the troops returned and unwrapped him, he felt cool and relaxed. Outside there seemed not a breath of air in the whole world.

He reflected that he had been to Hanoi before, in late 1944. Flying a P­S 1 out of Chungking, China, he had helped escort a flight of B­24 Liberator bombers whose mission was to knock out a bridge in the city, which was then held by the Japanese. Larry had not lingered long in the area that time. With 135 combat missions behind him in the European theater, where he had shot down three Messerschmitts, he had flown only twenty­one more in the Pacific war before going home. With his wife, Evelyn, his childhood sweetheart, he had settled down in Newark, New Jersey; had gone to work as a toolmaker for the Lionel Corp.; and had joined the Air National Guard, so that he could keep his hand in flying, which he loved. He was recalled during the Korean War, and by the time that duty tour ended he had decided to make a career of the Air Force. Things had gone well until now.

Guards came and took him to a room where he met Owl. Interrogation began. Frightened though he was, Larry knew that he dared not show it; military interrogators would know how to exploit fear. He refused to supply more than name, rank, and serial number.

"We know that you took off from Korat," he was told. This information had been on his parachute pack and in his flight suit.

"I did like hell!" Larry answered.

"We know you did!"

"No," he said. He decided to try to confuse his captors with misinformation. "I took off from Da Nang."

Indeed, Owl was thoroughly confused, and the interrogation ended. The next day it began again. "You say you took off from Da Nang . . ."

Larry interrupted to deny having said this.

"But you said yesterday. . ."

"I don't know what I said yesterday. I was tired, or sick. I didn't take off from Da Nang."

"From where did you take off?"

"I didn't say."

Frustrated, Owl began lecturing him on the justness of the DRY's cause and on how Guarino had been misled by his political leaders. Larry interrupted to ask, "Who do you think you are talking to, a five­year­old kid? With a line of crap like that?"

Owl glared at him. "You are very impolite," he said. "Very impolite. "


The session ended.

After dark, alone in his cell, he heard a door slam and then someone whistling the tune "Up in the air, Junior Birdmen..." He jumped up on a bunk and looked out a barred window. All he could see was a high, thick wall with jagged glass implanted along the top and laced with electrical wires. He could not see the ground below but knew from the whistling that an American was there.

"Yank!" he whispered loudly.


"Who is it?"

"Bob Peel."

"Bob! This is Larry Guarino!"

"Larry! What a place to meet you again!"

Guarino and Peel had known each other at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines before either had come to Vietnam. Larry had read about Bob's being shot down on May 31.

"How are you?" Bob asked.

"Okay," Larry answered.

"What happened to you?"

"The same thing that happened to you, Bob. Listen, your name has been released as definitely captured."

"Oh, God, that's a relief. I was so worried about my parents!"

"Well, no sweat. Your name is out, and they say you're okay. Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Shh! Someone's coming."

Larry jumped down off the bunk. He heard Bob move away.

"Do you know that your people have bombed our country with B­52s?" The interrogator was a man of about forty­three, Larry's own age. He kept chain­smoking and running his hands through bushy, graying hair. The prisoners would come to identify this man as Colonel Nam, or the Eagle-he wanted the POWs to think he was a Mig pilot but kept saying things that showed he knew nothing at all about flying.

"On what date did the B­52s come?"

"June sixteenth."

"Where did they bomb?"

"Very close to here. Why do you think your side did that?"

"It's very simple: retribution."

"For what?"

"You shot me down. They are not going to let you get away with that."

Eagle, in a sudden paroxysm of rage, came snarling around his table to the stool where Larry sat and landed a roundhouse open­palm slap on the American's face that knocked him from his stool, sending him sprawling across the floor.

Back in his cell, Larry wondered whether the blow was in punishment for his sarcasm or whether the interrogator actually believed the B­52s had struck in retaliation for Guarino's shootdown-it would not have surprised him.* He was certain only that this interrogator was not going to put up with any more nonsense.


*B­52s did not bomb anywhere near Hanoi until December, 1972.


He stared at the wall, not seeing it, absorbed in his thoughts about the situation. Then, suddenly, three English words scratched onto the wall swam into focus: "Look under bench."

His heart was pounding! What bench? He looked frantically about the cell. In a corner stood a tiny wooden stool. Stuck into a crack on the underside was a small piece of folded paper.

"Hi, Yank," the message said, "this is the interrogation center. You will be here four to six weeks. No torture yet.

Pray, trust in God." It was signed "Yank."

Larry was elated at hearing from another American. He moved about the cell excitedly, searching the walls for more messages. He found a calendar scratched onto the wall near the cell door. The days were marked off one by one, starting with April 28-about six weeks earlier. And etched into the black paint on the cell door was the name Storz. He did not know Storz but was grateful to him. He looked forward to meeting him, so that he could tell him how much his message had meant to him.

For two days the meals served to Larry were excellent, so delicious that he thought he might have trouble keeping his weight down. Even the first night, after he had traded shouts and insults with Rabbit, there had been a savory soup, an entree of three slices of wellprepared pork, a serving of green beans, and two kinds of bread.

Things changed abruptly after he had maintained his defiant posture for a second day. A turnkey opened his cell door and indicated that Guarino should stand at attention when he entered. Larry remained seated on his bunk and invited the guard to go to hell, observing that U.S. Air Force majors did not stand for North Vietnamese corporals. Finally, the hungry prisoner was persuaded to go out into the corridor and pick up his dinner, which had been rolled in on a cart. It was in two bowls. One contained a mixture masquerading as a foursome water and what appeared to be swamp grass; there was an odor of steel about it. The other bowl contained a serving of rice-old, stale, hard, and liberally sprinkled with dirt.

Larry returned the meal untouched. Immediately he was taken to an interrogation with Owl.

"Why have you not eaten your food?" Owl asked.

"I have no intention of eating such filthy stuff as was served to me tonight," he answered.

"You are being punished!" Owl shouted. "All the others, all of your friends cooperate with us. Only you do not cooperate."

Larry recognized this as the military interrogator's ruse; it was so transparent. He did not believe other American prisoners were cooperating. His overriding concern was to abide by the Code of Conduct, to be a good officer, to do an honorable job as an American prisoner of war.

"Well," said Larry, "I ain't gonna cooperate! I gave you my name, rank, and horsepower, and that's all you're gonna get! Now, I wanna eat, and I'm not gonna eat that crap you sent me!"

But the slop kept coming; every meal, every day. Larry refused even to try to eat it. He would take only water.

The ropes that had bound him during the trip to Hanoi had opened numerous small cuts, and these became infected. His captors would do nothing about the festering sores. Larry bit them open, sucked out the pus and spit it on the floor of his cell. The infections did not alarm him; he had always had strong recuperative powers.

What did begin to bother him was the hunger. The pangs were severe. He had had an ulcer operation a few years earlier, and he worried that there might be a recurrence.

The interrogations continued. One day Owl was joined by a senior officer whom he treated with great deference. This man, whom the POWs would identify as Dog, remained utterly impassive. He was handsome, obviously intelligent, and, although he did not utter a sound, Larry felt certain that he understood every word that was spoken. The next day the interrogation was conducted by Dog alone.

"You must understand," he told Larry, ''that your position here is and will always be that of a criminal. You are not now or ever going to be treated in accordance with the Geneva agreements, because this is an undeclared war. You have criminally attacked our people, and it has been decided that you are always to be treated as a criminal. You must cooperate and show repentance for your crimes to earn good treatment. Sooner or later, you are going to show repentance. You are going to admit you are a criminal. You are going to denounce your government. You are going to beg our people for forgiveness."

Thus, by mid­June, 1965, Hanoi had determined to treat its American prisoners as common criminals.

The food did not improve, and Larry continued to fast.

There were interrogations by a number of different interrogators. Eagle, the interrogator who tried to suggest that he was a Mig pilot, wanted to know, "How do you bomb in an F­105?"

"Oh, about the same way you do in a Mig," Larry said.


"Yeah. You know, just kind of point the airplane down and then pull up and let the bomb go. Just kind of by guess

and by God."

"From how high do you bomb?"

"Depends on the weather. Just kind of pick out your own altitude and go ahead and let 'er fly."

"How do you navigate the F­105?"

"Oh, we do the same thing you do in a Mig."

"What do you mean?"

"You know, just DR [Dead Reckoning]. Just time and distance, the same way you do."

"Yes." Eagle nodded his head knowingly. Larry was convinced the man had never seen the inside of an airplane. The session ended.

There was another session with Dog, who seemed terribly nervous; he was actually trembling and kept glancing toward the door. "Sit down," he told Larry. "Now, I am going to ask you some things, and I want you to answer loudly and clearly, do you understand? Loudly and clearly!"

From Dog's manner, Larry decided that the meeting probably was being tape­recorded, ­and that the interrogator's health and welfare depended upon a productive session.

"Now," said Dog, "loudly and clearly, give me your name, rank, and serial number."

Larry gave these.

"Now, tell me, how were you shot down?"

"Okay," said Larry. "I took off from Da Nang. I flew up here, and when I got close to the target I think my engine crapped out."

"Say that again!" Dog shouted. "Say that again!"

"I think my engine just kind of crapped out over the target," Larry said, "and I bailed out."

Dog's nervousness became even more pronounced. He did not understand what Guarino was saying. What did he mean "crapped out" ?

"Augured in," Larry explained. "It bought the farm. "

Dog fidgeted anxiously. He was pale. He muttered to himself. "Tell me how you were shot down?" he pleaded.

"Well, my engine crapped out...."

The session ended. But for Larry the propaganda war had just begun.

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LARRY (english)
11 Mar 2003