Norris Charles

Fight or Flight: A POW's Story in the Hanoi Hilton

Profilers: Amartya Ranganathan, Kennedy Lollis, Michaela McMahon, and Peter Holmes

An Aspiring Officer

What was your life like before the war? When did you find out you were serving?

I went to work for General Electric as a cost accountant in St. Petersburg, Florida, which was right over the bridge. I was there for about seven months, and you know, dumb, fat and happy, living a good life, you know. Getting ready to stomp it down and stay for the next 70 years. I came home one day and my wife had my draft notice. So, you know, I didn’t want to get drafted, you know. I didn’t want to carry a gun. I didn’t want to kill anybody or anything like that. So, I went down to a Navy recruiter and he told me, “This would be the best thing to do to come into the Navy.” So I went up to Jacksonville to take the test to go into the Officers Candidates program for the Navy. And fortunately Morehouse taught me enough math that I could pass a test. So I passed the test and I was to go in as a naval flight officer, which is what I would become. From there, you know, I went into the navy and that’s how I got started.

How did you feel in the months leading up to your involvement in the conflict?

For me, it was something I could look forward to, you know, as far as exploring the world. I think the Navy would give me that opportunity to experience all the things that I wanted to do when I was growing up—to go out and see what life is really about in the world. So, I went into the navy and…and like I said I passed the test and things started happening, especially when you go in through an Officers candidate type program, you know at the time there were, there were very few Blacks in the Navy, still is matter of fact. And, you know, you were going through certain things that you had to be man enough or tool enough or well-rounded enough to try to understand that all the obstacles that were going to confront you, and that you had to overcome, overcome those things and still succeed, you know, you couldn’t let anything get in your way you know, you had to have a certain amount of stick-to-it-ness to get through this program in the Navy. So, I went into the navy and I went into Pensacola, Florida, where it was our training camp to become an officer into the Navy. So, you know, it was a good experience there, I met a lot of good friends, a lot of good white friends, you know, that were really good people. And, you know we socialize like it was you know nothing else out there, even though the whole world was going on around me at that time, you know. There was boycotting, picketing and so forth, and I had done a lot of that in college myself. You know, where I’d walk out of restaurants, you know it was during the time of Martin Luther King and we were moving trying to get things to become better for our race of people, and so I was involved in all of that stuff, too. But, like I said then we went to Pensicola so I passed that requirement and then I was stationed in Brunswick, Georgia where I had to learn how to become a real radar intercept operator.

A Captured Soldier

What were the events surrounding and how did you feel about your capture?

When I ejected at 14,00 feet, I was kind of floating through the sky, you know. I was in the ejection seat and it was turning over and over and over, it was like an infinite amount of times but I still had to do what I had to do because if the seat didn’t release me then I had to release myself and pull the chute to open up the parachute. But when I was stumbling through the air I did say to myself, I said “Well, I guess this is it” you know. But all of a sudden, my parachute opened and there I was about 10,000 feet floating in the sky. And when I was coming down, it’s really not a long story but that’s alright, I saw my pilot. He was below me because I came out of the aircraft first and he was floating down too. I reached up and pulled my parachute and I tried to drift toward the Tonkin Gulf, which was the water, you know. And I pulled it but nothing happened, so anyway I was coming down, it was a cloud layer below. When I came through the cloud layer I started coming down I didn’t see my pilot he was scooped up, they had gotten him I guess, but I was coming down and I saw these flashes. And when I looked at the flashes I was trying to figure out what the hell is that? And then I realized they were shooting at me, you know? And I was floating down they were shooting’ at me you know, so I had my radio and stuff and I took it off and threw it away to make sure they didn’t get it and when I was coming down and when I was about 20 feet off the the ground I was coming down in the middle of a rice paddy, in the middle of a village, ok? So, I was coming down and I looked and I saw these about 30 to 40 people running after me and they had hoes and rakes and guns and everything. And when I hit the ground I popped the chute. I turned around and I said hell with it, I turned around and said “peace, baby”. So they ran up to me and they started searching me for weapons or whatever, and I noticed that there were some militia there, you know, in that city in that little small hamlet or whatever you call it and they were saying “nay nay nay!” which was “no, no”. He was telling the people “no, don’t interfere with it because he is our pride”, basically that’s what he was saying because you know if you get captured and you’re a POW they have more negotiating tools for the United States, you know? That’s one of the tools they were saying they said, “hey, look if you stop bombing us we’ll send your POW home!” you know? So, we were a negotiating tool and I picked up on that right away. And they got ready to take off my boots and I learned at survival training that you didn’t want them to take off your boots because you didn’t know where you were walking. So, when they got ready to do that I said “nay, nay, nay, nay” I picked up on the language real quick. And so they got me and then they took me to a house and it was at night, you know, and my pilot was there too and he had a broken arm, a broken leg and they straightened his broken arm. And here’s the interesting thing that kind of got me was that I was gonna be interrogated. So they got me and they took me to this house. And this house, they had like 3 people in front of me, you know, negotiators or whatever to question me but I looked behind him and all I could see was heads of people. There was people in there and it was so crowded that you could only see their heads, you know? So, the guy said “Where are you from?” no, he didn’t say that, he said “What’s your name? What’s your rank, and what ship are you off?” And when he said what ship are you off I said “ohhh” I acted like I was sick because I didn’t wanna tell him any information, you know? So the guys said “Well, we understand that you might be in shock” he said, “Is there anything you need ?” and I looked at him and I said “he’s asking me what I need?” (laughing) I said “I’m your enemy, but he said what do you need?” And he was serious. And I said “man” I said, “it’s cold out there” I said, “I need some blankets, you know, I need some food.”. You know, and when I got back I had all my blankets, I had everything I needed but they were already conditioned that they would give you certain things.

What was your experience like during confinement at Hanoi Hilton?

When I get into talking about being in prison, I remember when I was being paraded back after being captured. We passed this lady and this lady, it was like she just wanted to scratch my eyes out, you know? And then I tried to understand why and I think I know because my plane probably fell on her house, you know? It might’ve killed whoever was in there. You know what I mean? But the militia protected me, you know? They didn’t let nobody touch me. And I could remember being in a cave, they put in a cave for a while and this old man would come up and he would just look at me, you know? And the kids would come and they would feel my hair, you know because they probably never seen a Black person before, you know? And the kids would actually give me cigarettes and stuff, you know what I mean? You know, and the thing about it I was never afraid I had no fear at all, not from the beginning. Even when they were shooting at me, you know for some reason I knew I was gonna survive. You know cus I had survived jumping out of that plane, that was the first obstacle I had to overcome, so I figured I was brave from then on. But so they took me, I went through this process and then they put me on a Jeep to go to Hanoi. And my trip from I got shot down at a place called Vienh, just south of Vienh which was about in the middle of the country and I was a POW so they was gonna transport me to, of course, the prison camps which were in Hanoi. And on my trip up there you know, they would parade me and they would put me out on the street and people would act like they were gonna shoot me. You know, I was blindfolded all the way in the jeep, I was on the floor and people were sitting on top of us, you know my pilot and I you know. But they would take us out and display us to the people, say “Hey, we got one”. But then they took me all the way up to Hanoi, to Hanoi Hilton. Hanoi Hilton, which every POW goes through that, I imagine the first stage of the game. The first night, you know I got shot down on New Years Eve and the first night, you know they put me in this room in solitary confinement, but they gave me my ration. My ration was like two pairs of short pants, two pairs of long pants, you know, two jackets, six cigarettes, my chow, my food I’ll explain that later, and also a sweet pot.

We had a guard, his name was Nguyen. And Nguyen and I, you know, kind of had an understanding together. I remember one time that I had a headache, I had a lot of headaches, but I had a headache at this time and Nguyen didn’t go through the military system, his military system, but he went out and got me some Aspirin and brought me some Aspirin back you know, for my headache. And I remember I would use just half, I would cut it in half and try to hold onto it for another time. But he always was very conscientious about my wellbeing for some reason and it just showed the humanity among those people even though they were enemies, you know, they were still human beings, you know? And they would, you know it was just like being around another human being, you know? You would do what you have to do to try and help them out and that impressed me quite a bit and I’ll never forget that.

A Reflective Veteran

What is your overall perception of the war? What was life like when you returned home?

My understanding of people did make me feel more accepting to the fact that people are good, you know that people are good, you know. When I was like in an enclosed environment when I was a POW you know they were good people, the Vietnamese people, you know they were good people. When I came back you know, everybody treated me well, I thought you know here in America. I, you know, I know that wasn’t true during World War when Black soldiers came back from World War One and World War Two, you know that was doing Jim Crow and and all those times they were hanging people and stuff like that I know that wasn’t true then, but I guess I’m speaking on this for myself and and maybe I have this understanding of life as being good you know. That’s my understanding of life that life is good and life could be good for everybody.

Do you feel like the United States’ military involvement was justified?

No, we weren’t justified. You know, all the time it’s the person that has the biggest stick, you know and that want to maintain having the biggest stick is the reason that they go to war. You know, it’s the person that want the power, you know. You don’t have to go to war you know we went through the war with Vietnam right? We really destroyed them, wiped them out, you know and now they want help from this country, you know. We buy their clothes, we buy their food, their fish, you know, everything. That didn’t have to happen, you know. We didn’t have to kill so many people, however many it was you know we didn’t have to destroy that you know there’s other ways of existing. Of course people were scared of Communism, you know they were scared of socialism and they wanted our type of government to prevail. but you know we were probably one of the newest countries there are you know we’ve been around for 40 to 50 years as a country just in 1776. But you know we can’t go imposing our rules on countries that have been around like the Chinese for 5000 years you know. The Vietnamese people been around, you know, 5000 years. You know they have ideologies and things like that, and if you really want to know the truth about Vietnam, you know Ho Chi Minh came over to America to ask for assistance, you know, in developing their country but for some reason you know they were turned down, you know, by whoever was in power at that time. So, it’s real difficult but the bottom line is that you shouldn’t try to go and try to impose your ideologies on another country.

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