POW shares the lessons he learned from captivity
He spent nearly seven years at the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. One Navy pilot talks about his life behind bars and what it taught him about other people.
ANGIE MILES: It was 50 years ago in February, 1973, when 600 prisoners of war were released from captivity across Vietnam. Many of these POWs had been held for years. Paul Galanti is among them. He survived 2,432 days in what has become known as the Hanoi Hilton. He joins us now to talk about his ordeal. Thank you for being with us.
PAUL GALANTI: You're welcome, Angie.
So I'm sure you shared this story many, many times over the years, but if you would once more for us, what was it like to be an experienced Navy pilot and then to be shot down and captured by the enemy?
When I was in pilot training, just starting the stage down in Pensacola, there's this young guy, narrow of waist broad, broadest shoulders, big shiny gold wings on his chest. He stood up there and said, "Everybody looked to your left." And we all looked to our left. "Everybody look to your right," and we all looked to our right. He said, "One of the three of you is not going to be with us in three years." 'Hm, that's 30% odds of - that's not surviving.' Every single guy in that room was wondering which one of the other two guys it was going to be, and they captured the biggest bunch of optimists in the entire world.
Yeah, well it seems that optimism had quite a bit to do with your surviving that ordeal. Tell us about the conditions at Hỏa Lò, also known as the Hanoi Hilton.
Well, Hỏa Lò was actually pretty good. It was dry, had a roof over our heads. The POWs that were kept in the south was much worse because they were out in the jungle and their skin was rotting and falling off. And by comparison, I mean I had a nice concrete bed to sleep on and in case I was going to roll off it, I had nice little leg irons that would clamp my ankles had to keep me from rolling off.
I got two meals a day, totaling about 900 calories. A little bowl of either greens, or pumpkin soup, which is pumpkin meat and water, and then usually some rice. And so, you know, but I made it. And in fact, I often thought, in my entrepreneurial mood, I could come back and start a weight reduction program using that. I went from, I wasn't fat, I went from 165 pounds to 120 pounds in three months and I wasn't even trying.
And your sense of humor is clearly intact now. The conditions that you described certainly don't sound ideal, and we know that more than 100 Americans did die at the Hanoi Hilton. What are the characteristics? What are the qualities that kept you going, that kept you optimistic as you say? That kept you alive?
Well, first, I didn't like 'em. I got mad at the way they were treating us and I wasn't going to give up and die or quit or anything 'cause they made me mad. And the only way I could keep 'em mad is by doing that. And it kind of sounds like reverse logic, but I just wanted to make certain that they never thought I was buying their line of nonsense that they were trying to sell to us.
Famously, John McCain was one of the people who was there at the time. Now, you didn't know him personally during that time, did you?
No, at the time we had the entire POW population were in cells, small cells, solitary, or one roommate, cellmate, I don't remember ever as a group. Of course, we couldn't see each other all at the same time for a long time. But, whenever getting down the whole time in Hanoi. I knew sooner or later we'd get out and it's just, you know, it goes, you don't realize that you've been there for four years. 'Hm, four years.' I think that's a long time.
Well, I wanted to talk about you specifically and your career the Silver Star, Bronze Star, two Legions of Merit, nine Combat Air medals, two Purple Hearts, and more. You are so decorated, it's uncommon to be so decorated. What does it say about you, about your resilience, about your character? What does it say about you?
There are a whole lot more people with a lot more decorations than I had. And I mean, it was nice to have 'em. I've got a little bar I wear sometimes for formal events, but after I retired from the Navy in 1982 nobody knew anything about 'em. And I really didn't care. I came home in 1973, the medals were awarded in 1975 and it took a long time to put 'em all together and who gets what and they're really nice.
What I brought back from Vietnam was the memories of about 500 really good guys. And we went through a dickens together. We turned from young guys to old guys in that camp and came back with a lot more gray hair, all the scars had healed by the time we got out. But all those memories, a lot of 'em hilarious and they don't really mean anything except when we get together at a big reunion.
And you came home to Virginia. Now of course, you grew up in a military family, lived all over the world, but you came here to Virginia with those memories of your support system in Vietnam. But you had a support system here too in the form of your wife, Phyllis. You had only been married for a little over a year, less than two years when you were captured, but she was a Tour de Force in trying to get you home. Tell us about that.
Well, when in the hospital we, I was in the first group that got back to the East Coast and all the press wanted to get to us and they were hold it off. No, no, we don't want to say anything till everybody's back. Well, after when that was over we were going down by the first ones released, had to go out and offer a press conference. And when, for mine, they wanted Phyllis there too. And I said, 'Oh, you want Phyllis?' I said, 'No, no, she can't. She can't do that.' And they would ask me a question and I hesitated for just a second. Phyllis said, "I'll take that one." Grabbed the microphone and (mumbling). Just off running. And they, someone got a picture of that, my mouth is, my jaw is down about here. And I said, 'Ah, something's gone on here that I don't know about.' And especially when we walked in that room and she knew all the pressies, all these photographers, and all these cameramen and the whole room was just full of 'em and she knew 'em all. I said, 'Hm, this is very interesting.'
Well clearly, you have a wealth of information and experience that can be truly helpful to many people. I want to just summarize or wrap up by asking you about what you learned from the ordeal in Hanoi and your life since then. What has all of that taught you about survival that you can impart to other people?
The biggest thing I learned was appreciation. There are just a ton of things I, as a, you know, typical spoiled American took for granted, but nobody else has those. And I had more fun in a POW camp than any of those poor North Vietnamese are going to have in their entire lives. Just reliving the stuff we were doing, building cars in my mind, houses, airplanes, flying airplanes. We were all, you know, flying, we were all pilots, so each one was better than other guy he was talking to.
But I like to when I'm speaking about this, I've done a lot of speaking around Virginia. I always summarize with the three things I learned. And the first one, I wasn't as tough as I thought I was. And the second was, no matter how bad I had it, somebody else always had it worse. And I think about them, I say, 'Everett Alvarez was the first one captured. I was there six years and eight months. He was there almost nine years, in solitary for about the first 18 months.' And that is a really rough thing. So, I wasn't as tough as I thought I was. Mr. Tough Guy, I was like, I could do anything I wanted to do. Uh, maybe not. No matter how bad I had it, somebody else always had it worse.
But the thing that stood out most was every day when I get up, I go over, open that bedroom door and walk out and I'm free. I can go anywhere I want. My last thing is there's no such thing as a bad day when you have a doorknob on the inside of the door.
That sounds like wisdom and thank you so much for sharing that and all of your comments with us. We're talking with Paul Galanti, of course. Former Vietnam POW and definitely a survivor. Thank you so much.