ATLANTA VOICES: MEMORIES OF VIETNAM
Wayne Waddell: The Film That Saved A Vietnam POW
HOW AN EAST GERMAN PROPAGANDA FILM SAVED A POW
Ret. Colonel, U.S. Air Force
Wayne Waddell was an air pilot in the Vietnam War. He had 46 successful flights, but on his 47th mission, he was shot down. The U.S. government had no idea if he was dead or alive until they spotted him in an East German propaganda film. This is the clip from that film, “Pilots in Pajamas,” from which the U.S. gave confirmation to his parents that Waddell was, in fact, alive.
Wayne Waddell's Photos
WAYNE WADDELL'S STORY
In the summer of 1967 Dewey Wayne Waddell was flying an F-105 out of Thailand. One of his missions would typically include 24 aircraft in a large formation. They would fly to Laos, meet Strategic Air Command tankers to pick up fuel, and then head out to another part of Hanoi.
The missions over Hanoi and Haiphong were especially hazardous.
"Over the course of a one-year tour you had a 50 percent chance of being shot down. If you were shot down you had a 50 percent chance of surviving."
Colonel Waddell beat the odds 46 times. But on the 47th mission he was shot down.
As I dropped the bombs the airplane went out of control and started breaking up…When I realized I couldn’t do anything about it I pulled the handles and went out. The parachute didn’t completely open so nobody saw me get out and they figured I was gone.”
It was nearly a year before his parents found out he was alive.
Waddell ended up at Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, better known as the Hanoi Hilton. Once there he was subject to brutal interrogation.
“If they thought you were lying…they would tie you up with your head between your legs and you’d pass out for a while. And then they’d come right back and start at the top again.”
North Vietnam was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention. They took the position that if you broke a law of their country you were not a prisoner of war, you were a common criminal. They often referred to the captured pilots as “air pirates.”
The U.S. government had no idea whether he was alive or dead. But one day a few weeks after he arrived he was taken on a truck and made to dress in his old flight uniform.
“And there’s this little gal over here with a conical hat dressed in black clothes and she had a rifle with a bayonet on it.”
While he was walking along the dyke between two rice fields, two Caucasians were filming and shooting pictures on the other side.
“As it turns out that little episode was part of a rather extensive show called Pilots in Pajamas that was shown the next spring on East German TV and at the end of one of the segments, there’s Wayne Waddell walking along a dyke. And that’s how the U.S. Government was able to establish me as a prisoner, and my parents knew I was alive.”