The ground was coming up fast as Bill Gauntt’s jet nosedived toward it.
The second man in the cockpit, the weapons systems operator, had already ejected; Gauntt was only seconds behind. But after his parachute opened, he looked down to see a bomb crater and a burning plane — his plane. And, like the plane, Gauntt came down hard and fast.
“I said, ‘Holy …,’” he recalls.
He slammed into the steep side of the crater, twisting his ankle, but still managing to ditch his ’chute and hobble into the nearby jungle, where he covered himself with leaves and underbrush and called U.S. forces with the radio still strapped to his body. They were on their way to rescue him when the North Vietnamese found him first.
“They had a dog,” he says.
Six weeks later, after walking most of the 250 miles to Hanoi, he was in a spartan, concrete cell in prison, where he stayed for the next eight months.
Now he’s going back.
A group of 10 — some Vietnam vets, some not — are now in Vietnam, spending two weeks touring the country and not just hitting Saigon — now called Ho Chi Minh City — Da Nang and Hanoi. The trip, organized by the UTC College of Business and Dean Robert Dooley, also will visit notable sites such as the city of Hue, home to one of the bloodiest battles in 1968’s Tet Offensive, and several firebases. Dotting the length of the former Demilitarized Zone, the 60-mile swath cutting the country into North and South Vietnam, the bases were stocked with artillery, troops and equipment, trying to prevent North Vietnamese soldiers from coming south.
Also on the agenda is a trip to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where captured POWs were held.
Dooley has visited Vietnam many times, including a trip with UTC students three years ago on one of the college’s international business programs. Going to the country this time is part of the university’s goal “to engage with the community and supporters.” Such travel programs are “education-focused and provide learning experiences for people outside the university.”
“For this trip, it’s an opportunity to spend time with some veterans and hear their stories and learn firsthand what they experienced,” Dooley says.
Bill Raines is making his first trip to Vietnam since serving there from June 1970 until June 1971. For decades he didn’t want to go back, he says, but began to soften on the idea when he was told by U.S. Sen. John McCain, a POW in Vietnam from 1967 until 1973 and tortured in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison: “If I can forgive and forget, so can you.”
“For a long time — and I’ve thought too much about this — it was just that going back was kind of an endorsement of their having ‘won’ and helping a communist regime monetarily,” says Raines, president and founder of the Raines Group real estate firm.
He eventually changed his mind after hearing from McCain and others that Vietnam has changed; Americans are welcome; the communist regime is a bit more democratic and capitalistic than he believed.
“I think of it sometimes in black and white, and now I think it’s going to be in color,” says Raines, who retired from military service in 2000 as a major general. “I think it will be dramatically different and will reinforce to me that we brought a democracy in its form there and that the free enterprise system is alive and well. It will endorse all the sacrifices that were made in all respects.”
After further consideration, he says, “Not sure how I’m going to react, quite frankly.”
Raines spent his time in Vietnam as an Army captain, working along the DMZ. Although he’d only been promoted to captain a few weeks earlier, his job was to make sure the many firebases stretching along the DMZ were properly supplied, not only with ammunition, food and health care but also efficient soldiers to run them and maintain morale.
“I didn’t realize it then, but that was the most responsible job I’ve ever had in my whole life. these people are on some remote firebases, you couldn’t get to them except by helicopter or airplane; they were out there by themselves,” he says.
Gauntt returned to Vietnam in 2013 on a cruise of Southeast Asia he took with his wife. The cruise included Thailand and China and also visited the major ports of Vietnam, including Hanoi and Hai Phong. While in Hanoi, he visited the Hanoi Hilton, although he’d only spent about three days there in 1972 before being transferred to Plantation Gardens, another prison in the city, where he stayed until being released on a date tattooed in his memory — March 27, 1973.
But those three days in the Hilton left an impression.
“I had that déjà vu moment where you walk in and say, ‘Hmmm, I don’t think I can take this’ and I walked out,” he recalls.
After a few minutes, he was ready again.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’m ready to go because I can now go in and out that door without someone slamming it behind me.’”
His goal on this trip to Vietnam is “to see the countryside around the DMZ” and “see the people.”
Gauntt, who retired from the Air Force in 1989 as a lieutenant colonel, recalls that, when he visited the country while on the cruise, “90 percent of the people were too young to have participated or to even be alive during the war. It’s something in history that happened to their ancestors.”
The morning he was shot down — another date he knows by heart, Sunday, Aug. 13, 1972 — he was carrying out his usual duties, taking photos and doing reconnaissance along the DMZ, keeping his eyes open for troop movements, ammunition storage sites, surface-to-air missiles, anything unusual. All normal and routine until the tail of his jet was torn away.
His mission partner, Francis Townsend, was killed trying to escape. Once he was captured, Gauntt spent two weeks in a tiny bamboo cage, hands and legs in shackles, before being taken to Hanoi, mostly by walking but once on a river boat and twice in trucks with canvas-covered beds, called “deuces” by the military because they weight two tons but most folks think of them as “Army trucks.”
He and the other prisoners, both American and South Vietnamese, had arrived at the Hanoi Hilton in a truck when Gauntt heard “a bicycle’s ding, ding, ding” on the street outside. They opened the canopy to find a man selling popsicles.
“As I’m being escorted into the prison, I was eating my orange popsicle,” he says with a laugh.
He wasn’t tortured as a POW, he says, and figures that, since the Paris Peace Talks were already underway to end the war, he and the other prisoners were bargaining chips in that deal-making. But he was interrogated and, like the other prisoners, his goal was to confuse, confound and generally irritate the North Vietnamese interrogators.
“They played some good cop/bad cop,” he says.
In one session, the “good cop” interrogator offered Gauntt hot tea and a pack of cigarettes at the beginning of the session. In 15 minutes, Gauntt says, he smoked the whole pack of cigarettes and drank all the tea.
“And he got mad,” Gauntt says. “He yelled and screamed at me and threw me out of the room and I laughed all the way back to my cell.”