I Love Life: A P.O.W.’S Story Of Survival
In February of 1966, while flying combat missions over North Vietnam, Navy Captain Gerald Coffee’s RA5-C reconnaissance jet was downed by enemy fire. He parachuted safely but was captured immediately. “Over a period of twelve days, I was taken in a jeep like vehicle at night through bombed out roads. We eventually reached the capital city of Hanoi where I was jailed in the old French built prison. “
For the next seven years and nine days, Captain Coffee was held as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war. While imprisoned, torture was constant and painful. “They would use a parachute nylon cord and tie it very tightly around your upper arms and then pulled them behind you until it would begin to pull the cartilage in your sternum and shoulder. Once it was tied as tight as possible, cutting off the circulation in your upper arms, they’ve throw the line back over your shoulder and down on your ankles and wrap you up like a tiny little ball until your ears were right between your big toes. That’s not all! They’d throw the rest of the line over a hook in the ceiling and pull you up until all your weight was on your arms. That was just for starters. After being in the position for an hour, you wouldn’t be able to use your arms for several days. That was their main means of torture. We would tell the new guys, ‘hang in there. It’s not so bad once you learn the ropes!’ That was our prison humor.”
While being held prisoner, Captain Coffee and his fellow soldiers talked privately with each other via a communication system they learned while in their individual cells. “We actually stayed in touch with one another through tapping on the walls. It was called ‘tap code. It worked on a 25-letter matrix. We were able to share orders, pass the time and encourage one another.” As extraordinary as it sounds, the prisoners learned foreign languages by using ‘tap code.’ “We became so proficient it was like being in a small university in downtown Hanoi. Aside from language, we studied science and mathematics. I learned so much French with ‘tap code,’ the University of California at Berkley gave me two years of credit because of what I learned during my imprisonment.”
Aside from ‘tap code,’ Captain Coffee says the prisoners stayed in shape in their tiny cells thanks to the ‘Hanoi Shuffle.’ “This was our daily walking routine.
The cells were three feet wide and six and a half feet along with a concrete slab for the bed. We had very little space to move around. But we could walk three steps and turn. We’d keep this up until we walked several miles a day.”
Aside from the physical benefits, Captain Coffee says the ‘Hanoi Shuffle’ provided structure to the lives of the POW’s. “Routine was very important for all of us. We would exercise in the morning, devote a period for prayer and communicate with one’s neighbors. We did a lot of things to improve our minds, like memorizing the books of the Bible, learn poetry and even planning our future. Honestly, we’d go to sleep at night and say, ‘boy, I didn’t get done what I wanted to do today.’ It was really crazy!”
Captain Coffee, one of the longest held POW’s in the communist prisons of Vietnam, say faith was the key to turning the devastating experience into an opportunity for personal growth. “The first two words that I saw scratched on the wall of my cell by the men who were in there before me. The little formula simply said ‘God = Strength.’ That really worked for me. I was never totally alone and I could always find more strength when I needed it. Every man had his own prayer routine on a daily basis. Every Sunday morning, the senior officer in each cell block would pass a certain signal on the wall—thump thump, thump thump– which was our church call. Every man in his own cell would stand up and recite the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag, the Lord’s prayer and frequently the 23rd Psalm focusing on the part that says ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies’ and ‘My cup runneth over.’ We realize in spite of our circumstances, our cup truly did run over because our minds were free in spite of the fact we were incarcerated at the time.”
Captain Coffee, author of his highly acclaimed book, “Beyond Survival,” says faith kept him alive during the darkest days of his captivity. “In fact during my public speaking appearances, I emphasize the four aspects of faith which enabled me to survive—faith in myself, faith in the men around me, faith in America and faith in God. Not only do this formula work in a prison environment, but they can be effective for all of us in our daily lives right here at home.”
Looking back on the seven years and nine days he was imprisoned, Captain Coffee isn’t bitter. In fact, he’s better! In his own words, “I vowed to find the purpose in my adversity and pain and come home better, tougher and stronger in every way. Our mission in prison was to not just survive, but go beyond survival and return with honor.”
Retired Navy Captain Gerald Coffee—a man who is a real life example of the invincibility of the human spirit!