Lest We Forget

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

A year and a half later, Halyburton's "widow," Marty, answered a knock at her door to find six government agents holding out their credentials. Porter was alive.

After his aircraft had been hit by a surface-to-air missile, Halyburton's radio had been destroyed, and when he ejected, no Americans had seen his parachute floating down. But the enemy had seen it, and so began a terrible odyssey in places known as "Heartbreak Hotel" and "The Zoo."

Much has been told of the horrors endured by American POWs in Vietnam, and Halyburton's ordeal was typical in many ways. Like others, he spent long periods in total darkness, competing with hungry rats and roaches for the little bit of food provided. He was periodically beaten, paraded through the streets of Hanoi to be stoned and spat upon by angry mobs, and subjected to various forms of torture as the enemy tried to break his will.

Eventually the North Vietnamese devised a new way to break this native of the American South. They moved him out of solitary confinement to share a cell with another POW—a black man. Major Fred Cherry, U.S. Air Force, was the first African American to become a POW in North Vietnam, and the Vietnamese—knowing about the racial problems then plaguing America—believed that forcing a white Southerner to share a cell with a black man would be a fate worse than being alone.

It might have worked with lesser men. Cherry was descended from a Virginia slave, and Halyburton's forefathers had fought for the Confederacy. But the two men instead became life-long friends, each crediting the other with saving his life. They not only helped one another survive under incredibly arduous circumstances, they became role models for others as they proved that their shared humanity transcended all social and physical differences.

Seven years and four months after launching from an aircraft carrier named Independence , Porter Halyburton at last regained his freedom. He and Fred Cherry came home along with 589 other Americans. At least 84 of their fellow POWs did not survive the ordeal of captivity, but those who did return were hailed as heroes at a time when such accolades were not often given.

Porter Halyburton continued his career in the Navy. Today, retired, he still gives talks that, despite his soft-spoken, self-effacing manner, are soaringly inspiring and edifying. In the garden of his home beneath a grape arbor is the tombstone that once marked his "grave." With a wry smile, he tells visitors it is wonderful to be able to look down on it, rather than looking up.

Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets .
 

Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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