Generations at War: SWFL Vietnam Vet and POW shares his story of survival after over 5 years in captivity
Vietnam is the most unpopular war of its time. Yet more than two-thirds of the armed forces volunteered to step up and serve their country.
On January 18, 1968, and Wayne Ogden Smith, an Air Force fighter pilot embarked on his 90th combat mission in Vietnam. “I was happy then,” he said, looking at a photo of himself just before he left on the mission. “You can see I’m all fully ready, got my flak vest on.”
But that mission would not end like the others.
“All of a sudden the plane just flips upside down, punched out, chute open, landed in a tree 12 feet above the ground,” Smith said. “And I bet it didn’t take 10 or 12 minutes before I was captured.”
Smith was dragged to one of the several prison camps in and around Hanoi where behind the fortified walls, Smith and many other prisoners of war endured torture, starvation, and unspeakable horrors.
Smith endured the daily agony for five years and two months.
“Usually when I was tortured,” Smith said, “they would keep you alive so you wouldn’t pass out. “I would get two bowls of soup. There were times when they’d deprive you of water and stuff like that. But for the most part, they wanted you to be cognizant. ”
Kept in isolation, the enemy waited for the POWs to break. Instead, the men found ways to outwit them. “Our captors did not know the hundreds of ways we found to communicate,” Smith said.
The late Sen. John McCain was among them. “I watched John McCain,” Smith said. “That poor man, gosh, he has two broken arms, a broken leg, he was next to me and trying to communicate, which we did.”
Using an alphabetical grid, they spoke in code assigning numbers to letters, tapping out words in ingenious ways. “They’d have us sweep the courtyard around these prisons,” Smith said. “And we’d go, ‘swoosh. Swoosh.’ We would always sign off with ‘GBU.’”
Translation: God bless you.
Powerful words to lift each other up when surviving each day seemed like a miracle. Smith told WINK News that every day during captivity was a new day to appreciate being alive. “You pray to God, get me through today,” he said. Until finally, freedom was on the horizon.
A peace treaty ended the U.S. involvement in the war in January 1973, and the POWs started coming home. Smith said within five minutes of the planes landing; they were on board. The engines stayed on, and they took flight.
Smith could not believe it until around 20 minutes later, when a crew member said, “Gentlemen, feet wet!” They were out of the Gulf of Tonkin. “We’re home, basically,” he said. They were over the water, out of Vietnam, and out of harm’s way.
After a special ceremony as part of Operation Homecoming, they returned to a hero’s welcome. Crowds jammed the streets for a parade. There was all smile sand waving flags. Smith will always remember that celebration and how different it was from the several protests other service-members faced when they finally returned home.
Now, we also cannot forget that over 1,200 Americans are still missing from Vietnam. The U.S. POW and Missing in Action investigators are continually pursuing leads in Hanoi until everyone is accounted for.
As for Smith, he donated a lot of his POW and other memorabilia to the Naples Museum of Military History, including a cup he used to pass messages to the other POWs. Smith told WINK that he would tuck tiny notes into the rim of that cup. He smuggled pieces of lead from interrogators and used that to write them.
After this decorated veteran returned to the U.S., he went on to become a highly successful business executive. He served at the helm of two global companies before retiring in Naples.