By Harold Wayne Hamlin
The fifth of an 11-part series sharing the very personal story of one Long Range Recon Green Beret and his time in Special Forces training.
My schedule said for me to be at the Motor Pool at 0400 the next morning. Gee… I would have to get up at 0300. I knew it was going to be a long, very long, day.
It had to be another 30 or 50-mile forced march. I dressed light for the march. I ate as much as I could hold because I knew there would be no food for how knows how long. They always gave us water at the midpoint of the march, so I took nothing with me.
They put me in the back of a deuce and half truck at the Motor Pool with 19 men I had never seen before. My gut told me we would not be marching.
We drove at least 30 minutes over a dirt road. I was at the back of the truck and was able to keep my sense of direction and see landmarks. I knew we were going somewhere I had never been before and started paying closer attention to things I saw out of the back of the truck.
I saw the red light on the top of a tall radio tower, and five minutes later, we crossed a river that was about 30-yards wide. Another five minutes later, we crossed the river, and the truck stopped.
The tailgate of the truck went down. I was jerked out of the truck and thrown to the ground by a black silk pajama dressed ‘Vietnamese’ wearing a straw cone hat and yelling in a fast-paced language that had a sing-song sound to it.
Unlike most people, my temper is very slow to rise. I stayed on the ground as my mind tried to comprehend what was going to happen. I never thought of needing to escape.
Later in class, they would teach us that the best time to escape is immediately after being captured. My first mistake was not escaping when I had the chance.
They were serious. 10 or 12 black-dressed men jumped in the back of the truck and were literally throwing men physically out of the back of the truck. Those who attempted to fight back were beat with nightsticks until they complied.
Special Forces did not play games.
When they got all the men out of the truck and under total control, a Vietnamese pointed his nightstick at me and started yelling in his language. I knew enough to get up. I smiled as I got to my feet. I had a plan; well, part of a plan. I was not prepared for the prison they would put us in.
It was called E & E: Escape and Evasion
They had a working Viet Cong prison camp set up. Complete with barbed wire, lights, guard towers, and dogs. They took us into the prison at first light, and we spent a rigorous day being treated very roughly, with no food or water. They had so many guards on us; there was no way anyone could escape during the day.
I had seen the red light of a high broadcast tower back to the East. When I escaped, I needed to head east. Cross the river and head for the red light.
About 20 of us were in the camp with 20 guards
Most people seek others; they need others. But I knew the truth. Other people will get you caught, or worse, killed.
As a result of the other men’s ignorance of this strategy, they formed into groups of two or four as teams to plot their escape.
I am a loner. I do not need people. I can tolerate people, but I do not need them.
I would do this alone. I trusted only in my ability
I analyze and observe things. I keep my mouth shut too. I noticed one of the fence posts did not have the barbed wire stapled to the post and that the outer fence had a tree limb lying across the wire. An easy way out, but also an easy trap. Overthinking. But what can I do?
There was a guard for every man. There was no way anyone could escape. The guards rode us hard all day. Forced us to dig holes 6 x 6 x 6 then cover it back up. They had rock piles we had to bust up with hammers.
They worked us late into the night. At about 0200, they put us to bed. Everyone was tired and worn out, but we had to escape. At 0210, the machine guns in the guard towers started firing as people began trying to get out of the fenced area.
I took a rake that we had been forced to use and moved quickly to the post with no staples. I used the handle to raise the wire as I went under on my back. I was walking on my shoulders, headfirst. I got through easy. Rolled over and crawled to the tree limb that was over the outer wire.
I took a quick look around, jumped to my feet, and leaped over the outer wire. I zigged and zagged as I raced across the cleared area and into the brush and trees. I heard feet running behind me, and I thought I was caught, but it was a guy who had followed me under the wire.
He had been around me all day, but I made no connection that he was sticking to me. I said nothing to him nor he to me. I was focused on getting back to our friendly lines.
I assumed that friendly lines had to be near the 250-foot radio tower with flashing red light on top. It was going to be so easy getting back. Just head to the flashing red light. In my mind, I put them down for being so stupid, making it so easy.
There was a 300-foot wide river between the prison and what I assumed was a safe camp. Just swim across then walk to the tower. This was a piece of cake.
Most of the guys tried just to follow the road across the river, and I heard the machine gun, set up on a jeep, as the men were being recaptured.
I lined up on the red light on the tower and headed into the river with my tag-a-long right on my tail. Mosquitoes by the trillions attacked us. No telling how many snakes and other critters we walked and swam over.
Mid-river, to my right, I saw the two ends of cigarettes glowing and heard the guards’ low voices in the jeep. We had just reached the other side of the river and started up the bank when the jeep turned on a spotlight and moved it slowly toward our position.
I dove into the mud on the bank, and my tag-a-long also did. The spotlight moved over us then on down the riverbank. We clawed our way up the bank and into the brush and trees.
It took me a little while to find the red light, but I smiled with pride at how easy they had made finding the friendlies.
It was two or so miles between the prison and our lines. We had been out about an hour or so, and I estimated a bit over an hour travel remained to the tower.
I lost the red light after a little travel time, and it took me about 10 minutes before I found it again, but I had gotten turned around and confused in my directions. I was so glad to have the red light to guide me.
I traveled toward the red light until I hit the river again. I was so confused and turned around. Something was not right. I had to figure this crap out.
Why were we back at the river? I sank to the ground, and tag-a-long sat down also. We still had not said a word to each other. I closed my eyes and slowly went over my route after I had escaped. My gut was telling me I should be traveling back behind me.
I burst out with a laugh. My tag-a-long was startled and said softly, “What?” I said, “Those damn jerks. Do you know what they did with the red light?”
He said, “No. What is wrong with the red light?”; as he pointed at it across the river.
I said, “We have crossed the river already; we do not cross it again. The b—–ds turned off the light on one tower and turned on the red light on another tower back on that side of the river. “
He asked, “How do you know?”
I replied, “That is the only answer once you eliminate everything else.” They were not so stupid, after all.
We were not the first to make it back to the safe area, but we were not the last ones either.
After sunrise, they were putting a search team together to look for those who were not accounted for. Only one other group was not recaptured. 12 people out of the 20 made it to the safe area.
A group of three were found back across the river at the second tower with the red light.
We finished out the day in class covering what to do if captured.
Escape as soon as you can because the longer you wait, the tighter their security and the harder it is to escape.
They told us that everyone breaks… everyone. What you do is hold out as long as you can. You pay close attention to the questions they want or verified.
Never give them all they want after they break you.
Submitted by Harold Wayne Hamlin, Lubbock, TX. Harold was a Sergeant in the US Army during Vietnam, serving 16 missions as a Long Range Recon Green Beret while serving with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) and Command and Control North (CNN); where he was awarded a Purple Heart. Harold is also a retired Lubbock Fire Fighter.