It was all so long ago, and time for a final interview with nine U.S. Marines released from Vietnam’s infamous Hanoi Hilton prison in 1973.
Capt. William Kerr Angus was number nine, the last in line.
I called this group of Marines “The Pendleton 9,” a microcosm of men mired in what was once called a rumor of war, but certainly no rumor to them.
They would either come home to divorce, disease, charges of treason or the death of a loved one.
And now that PBS filmmaker/historian Ken Burns is bringing the Vietnam War into our living rooms once again, I was reminded of the soft-spoken 27-year-old Angus, who had spent 291 days in captivity, lost a beloved mother a month before he returned home; and vowed never to eat pumpkin soup again.
“It was what they gave us day after day after day,” said Angus at the Camp Pendelton Marine Corps base, where he was being repatriated before going home.
“The smell . . . nothing could make me eat it again.”
But it was there, in the hell hole called the Hanoi Hilton, Bill and his buddies would remake their world.
Angus called them sanity games. Tedium was an enemy. So they named their cell “Happy Valley.”
Angus, a war hero awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery, said his roommate would “drive” a truck around their cell.
“He would pull the imaginary truck out of his garage, rev up the engine, and go for a ride every night,” Angus said then.
“He liked to drive to the mountains, so he could use all his gears. What great sounds. Sometimes, I’d go for a ride.
“In a similar stunt, one guy drove a motorcycle around this prison yard. The noise got so bad the guards issued orders forbidding motorcycle and truck driving in prison.”
Sometimes they vacationed in the Rocky Mountains, shuttled to a nearby shore, recited poetry from heart, reviewed old movies.
“We’d even play the “Newlywed Game. My partner and I made it to the finals, but were beaten out by another ‘couple,’ he chuckled.
And their “Mummer’s Day” parade was a highlight.
“Imagine guys flailing their arms and legs in ‘Mummer’ fashion and going unnoticed. The guys in prison really enjoyed it.”
Angus, who spent nine months in prison, refused to hold a press conference when he returned.
“The enemy knew the war was winding down when I was captured,” he said. “I only spent one month in solitary. It was the guys who had been there longer who really suffered. I didn’t want to detract from their story.
“The only thing new when I got back was Watergate and bell-bottom slacks. The others had much more to get adjusted to.
“Our days were regulated by gongs that sounded like golf balls sliding down the sides of tin cans. One guy slept as much as he could, because he figured it would mean less time in prison. Man, could he sleep.
“When the bombing of Hanoi began last December, we knew it would be over soon. We watched the bombing by standing on top of stools in our cell. We were that close.”
Angus had been a lead bombardier/navigator in an air wing strike against a thermal power plant at Nam Dinh when he was forced to eject over North Vietnam in 1972. Deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea in December 1971, within six months he was a prisoner of war being marched into Hanoi with a broken arm tied behind his back.
Angus died in July, succumbing to brain tumors and melanoma, joining a long list of Vietnam vets who are disappearing.
“I learned to appreciate everything to a far greater degree,” Angus said during our interview. “To say ‘thank you.’ When I was released, I had all kinds of plans. Now I have no definite plans. I’m just enjoying being able to walk outside and know the door will open.”
I know almost nothing of Bill’s life since the early 1970s except his Vietnam War experience chronicled on “Fast Movers: Jet pilots and the Vietnam Experience,” written by U.S. Naval official historian John Darrell Sherwood. And that he had married to the love of his life, Mimi, the mother of his two adored daughters.
And not long ago, Bill and Mimi visited Nam Dinh, where his plane had gone down.
It was a stunner to learn of his death, but the young man I met in 1973 had died a man of honor, and it had been an honor to know him.
Sneedlings . . .
I spy: White Sox broadcaster Steve Stone spotted Friday afternoon at Harry Caray’s on Kinzie. . . . Ditto on Wednesday for former Cubs greats Gary “Sarge” Matthews and Bob Dernier. . . . Saturday’s birthdays: Bruce Springsteen, 68; Jason Alexander, 58; and Jermaine Dupri, 45. . . . Sunday’s birthdays: Robert Irvine, 52; Nia Vardalos, 55, and Stephanie McMahon, 41.