Prisoners of War: Stolen Freedom
A photo of Giles Norrington when he was a POW in Vietnam
Drawings by Giles Norrington, recalling his captivity in Vietnam
Giles Norrington said when he came home after four years, 10 months and nine days in a North Vietnamese POW camp, he and other ex-POWs were treated like American heroes. But, he added, "We were not always brave."
"What we did was survive in difficult circumstances through faith in others, faith in ourselves, faith in God and faith in our constitution," the retired Navy captain said during the recent DoD POW/MIA prayer breakfast in Arlington, Va. The event highlighted the 25th anniversary of the return of the first Americans held captive in Vietnam.
"There were times I could have died a happy man, but there was never a consideration of wanting to die, praying for death or considering killing myself," Norrington said. "Suicide wasn't part of the equation for any of us. There was never a time when I didn't believe I would come home. The thing was to come home with our honor intact." He said the POWs' motto and way of life was "Return with honor."
Shot down during a bombing mission in May 1968, Norrington said he received severe burns on both hands, a leg and the back of his neck and he couldn't fully close his hands for about a year. Initially, his North Vietnamese captors threw him into solitary confinement at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" POW camp and used his wounds to intensify his pain and suffering.
"They used every kind of torture that can inflict injury," Norrington said. "They abused my wounds -- beatings and things of that nature."
When they realized the severity of his wounds prevented him from taking care of his basic human needs, the North Vietnamese moved him to a room with two cellmates. In 1972, Norrington was incarcerated in a large room with 56 other navigators and pilots.
"I was very lucky, or blessed, whichever way you want to look at it, in that my wounds healed completely," Norrington said.
He said in addition to bad treatment, nutrition was poor. "Each day they'd go to the local market and purchase the cheapest, most abundant vegetables they could find and boil them into a soup for us," he said. "Typically, we had pumpkin soup for four or five months and cabbage soup for three or four months. We called one weed 'sewer greens.' It wasn't very tasty, but was probably very iron-rich."
The first year was the most difficult because Norrington heaped enormous guilt on himself for having been shot down. "It wasn't my fault, but I felt it was," he said. "Probably the most difficult day was in October 1972 when I found out my mother had died.
"It was a learning lesson from beginning to end," he noted. "Faith in God, faith in our country, faith in our country and its constitutional underpinnings, faith in one another and faith in yourself were the things that sustained me. Prayer was a very important component."
Sometimes Norrington prayed for hours during his captivity. "I discovered in lengthy prayers, it's a little like poetry," he said. "It reminds you of the glory of the nature of God." He said God hears all prayers and answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is "no" sometimes "not yet" and sometimes "wait and see."
Since retiring from the Navy in 1988, Norrington has been involved with the Salvation Army, an executive director of an American Red Cross Chapter in New London, Conn., and director of the AIDS Service Agency in Norfolk, Va.. He's now writing crime prevention training courses for the Washington-based National Crime Prevention Council.
"I don't know what road I would have walked had I remained free. I don't know what changed. But I can say, when I came out I was different from the person that went in," he said of his nearly five years as a POW. "I had a greater appreciation of life and a wonderful appreciation of people about me. I discovered resources in myself I'd never had to tap in freedom. Among them was a perfect willingness to depend on the person beside me and to allow that person to depend on me.
"Prayer helped me get through a lot of the tough times -- still does," Norrington said.