Nineteen-year-old Douglas Hegdahl joined the Navy in 1966 to see the world. He soon got his wish. Within a few months he found himself on the gun line off North Vietnam in the cruiser USS Canberra (CAG-2). Wanting to get a better view of a night bombardment, the young sailor went out on deck and was knocked overboard by the blast from a 5-inch gun mount. After spending a few hours alone in the South China Sea, Hegdahl was picked up by North Vietnamese fishermen and ultimately delivered to a Communist prisoner of war camp in Hanoi.
At first, he seemed out of place as a seaman apprentice among the other POWs who were mostly aviators, older and more senior in rank. But before long, his fellow captives realized they had a real asset in young Hegdahl. That he was able to commit small acts of sabotage without being caught was impressive enough, but more significantly, he had a phenomenal memory that enabled him to memorize the names of the more than 250 POWs then imprisoned in North Vietnam.
The enemy had tried on several occasions to release some of the POWs for their own propaganda purposes, but the Americans had made a pact not to accept early releases. The senior leaders, however, began to see a real advantage in making an exception of Hegdahl. As his roommate Dick Stratton explained: "You are the most junior. You have the names. You know first hand the torture stories behind many of the propaganda pictures and news releases. You know the locations of many of the prisons."
Doug Hegdahl was very reluctant to agree, fearing that his going home early would ultimately dishonor him. In the end, it took a direct order. Hegdahl accepted an early release, taking his head full of names and other accumulated intelligence back to the United States.
There was no question that the POWs had made the right decision in making an exception to their pact for Seaman Apprentice Hegdahl. As predicted by Stratton and the others, Hegdahl's ability to recite the names of the other POWs proved invaluable, providing information that until then was largely unknown. His revelations about the terrible conditions and torture being inflicted on the POWs also had previously been a well-kept secret. In the end, the most junior POW in Hanoi had been able to strike a significant blow against his enemy without ever firing a shot.
Launched on 17 December 1941, just days after the United States entered World War II, the cruiser USS Columbia (CL-56) was commissioned on 29 July 1942. The Columbia quickly went into action when she joined patrols off Guadalcanal in December 1942. On 29 January 1943, she came under intense air attack off the island and was able to shoot down three attacking enemy aircraft. In June 1943, she carried out bombardment and mining missions in support of Allied operations in New Georgia.
On 1 November 1943, the Columbia bombarded targets on Bougainville, and on the following day she played a major role during the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay, where she contributed to the overwhelming Allied victory by helping to sink an enemy cruiser and destroyer. During the early months of 1944, she searched the Pacific Ocean for Japanese shipping.
In September 1944, the cruiser covered the assault on Peleliu, and in October she assisted with the assault on Leyte Gulf and later took part in the battle following the landings. Her intensive fire assisted in sinking the Japanese battleship Yamashiro. Following the battle, she continued to guard reinforcement convoys operating in the area.
On 6 January 1945, while supporting the Lingayen Gulf landings, the cruiser was struck by two kamikazes, setting her on fire and killing 13 crewmembers and wounding 44. She was, however, able to continue bombardment activities with her two remaining turrets. On 9 January 1945, just days after the previous attacks, the cruiser was hit by another kamikaze. This third air attack did terrific damage, killing 24 sailors and wounding nearly 100. Because of inspirational damage control and repair action, the cruiser was made ready to sail that very night and completed her mission of transport protection before undergoing repairs at Leyte. Her crew's courageous actions during January 1945 won the cruiser a Navy Unit Commendation.
Following the cessation of hostilities with Japan, the cruiser sailed for Philadelphia and was decommissioned into the reserve on 30 November 1946. The Columbia was sold for scrapping on 18 February 1959.