SA Douglas Hegdahl
By Garland Davis
On April 6, 1967, 20-year-old Seaman Douglas Hegdahl was knocked overboard by the blast from a 5-inch gun mount from the USS Canberra in the Gulf of Tonkin, three miles off the coast. He swam until he was picked up several hours later by Cambodian fishermen who treated him well. Trying to cover for him, his shipmates did not report him missing for two days, so the commanding officer did not know to look for him. Hegdahl was turned over to Vietnamese militiamen who clubbed him repeatedly with their rifles before moving him to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison.
The interrogators first insisted that Hegdahl was a commando or an agent. His story of being blown overboard seemed unbelievable to the interrogators. Hegdahl quickly realized he would be much better off if he pretended to be a lowly fool. Hegdahl was slapped around for a few days before convincing his captors that he was of little value to them. His bumpkin demeanor, youthful appearance, and country accent aided in his ability to convince them that he was no threat to them.
When asked to write statements against the United States, he agreed but pretended to be unable to read or write, which was believable to his Vietnamese captors. Thinking they had someone who would be easily turned to their cause, they assigned someone to teach Hegdahl to read. After Hedgahl appeared to be incapable of learning to read and write, his captors gave up on him. Later, he came to be known to the Vietnamese as “The Incredibly Stupid One”, and he was given nearly free rein of the camp.
Seaman Hegdahl “helped” the prison guards by sweeping up the compound each day. I once heard a talk by one of the Officer POW’s, a Navy Captain. During his speech, he said that daily he watched SA Heghdahl sweep the compound and deposit the sweepings into the gas tanks of five trucks parked there. Eventually, the trucks were towed away.
“I flew eighty combat missions over North Vietnam in a multi-million dollar aircraft and am not sure I did any damage at all. I watched a Navy Seaman disable five trucks with a broom and a dustpan.”
With the help of Joseph Crecca, a U.S. Air Force officer and fellow prisoner, Hegdahl memorized names, capture dates, method of capture, and personal information of about 256 other prisoners—to the tune of a nursery rhyme “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. Hegdahl is still able to repeat the information to this day.