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Meet the Hero: Douglas Hegdahl

Douglas Hegdahl was born in Clark, South Dakota, on September 3, 1946. Douglas joked with a reporter that he’d “never gone east of [his] uncles’ Dairy Queen stand in Glenwood, Minnesota or west of [his] aunt’s house in Phoenix, Arizona” because he grew up in a tiny town. When a military recruiter approached Douglas in the 1960s, he saw an opportunity to travel the world and responded by joining the US Navy.

Douglas began his military duty in 1965, when he was assigned to boot camp in San Diego. He was later deployed to the USS Canberra, a missile cruiser stationed three miles off the coast of Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. A burst from the ship’s weapons knocked Douglas overboard on April 6, 1967. For two days, his shipmates did not report him missing. Douglas was presumed dead after falling overboard without a life preserver or identification, and the crew organised a memorial service for him. What they didn’t realise was that Douglas had been floating for 12 hours before being discovered and rescued by Cambodian fishermen. Douglas was handed over to Vietnamese militiamen when he arrived in Vietnam and taken prisoner.

Douglas’ tale about being knocked overboard was dismissed by the interrogators at the Hanoi Hilton, who insisted he was a CIA spy. Douglas claimed to be an ignorant fool in order to avoid giving information to his captors. He promised to compose anti-war statements against the United States, but assumed he couldn’t read or write. The Vietnamese were taken aback, but believed they had identified the ideal candidate who would be duped into openly supporting their cause. Douglas’ captors appointed someone to teach him to read and write, but when he showed incapable of learning, they abandoned him. “The incredibly stupid one,” as Douglas became known. He was granted practically complete control of the camp since he was deemed non-threatening.

Douglas was assigned to sweep the jail grounds during his time in the Hanoi Hilton. He took advantage of the situation to do everything he could to stop the Vietnamese. When no one was looking, he filled the gas tanks of five army trucks with mud and leaves so they wouldn’t run. While sweeping, Douglas would take advantage of his freedom within the camp, sharing notes and chatting with other inmates. His greatest achievement, however, was saving the lives of hundreds of captives and giving the United States with a trove of knowledge about Hòa Lò Prison. Douglas has a great memory, recalling the names of detainees, the dates they were apprehended, and the dates they arrived. Using the nursery rhyme “Old McDonald Had a Farm” as a mnemonic device, he memorized over 250 prisoners’ names.

Douglas refused to leave the camp when the Vietnamese chose to release three detainees. The captive American soldiers had established a “No Go Home Early” deal, agreeing to return home either jointly or not at all. Douglas was released with two other POWs on August 5, 1969, when his commanding officer ordered him to return home in order to transmit the critical knowledge he had gained at Hòa Lò.

Douglas returned to the United States and delivered the names of military and intelligence officials who were believed to have died. When he challenged the Vietnamese during the Paris Peace Talks in 1970, he had a global impact. The information Douglas gave, including the locations and appalling circumstances of the detention camps, as well as the Vietnamese torture tactics, was finally made public. Because the Vietnamese were exposed in this way, they were able to keep POWs alive until the war was over, saving hundreds of lives.