Seaman Apprentice Douglas Hegdahl

USS Canberra (CAG-2)
USS Canberra (CAG-2). (U.S. Navy photo.)

One night in 1998, during an appearance at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., human rights activist Douglas Hegdahl performed an unusual tribute to his former fellow prisoners of war in Vietnam: Hegdahl sang the names of over 200 of his comrades to the tune of "Old Macdonald Had a Farm."

Hegdahl's choice of mnemonic device makes sense given his background in South Dakota farm territory. The young seaman apprentice had seen little before joining the Navy, and as an ammunition handler on the USS Canberra, he was so excited at the prospect of seeing a night bombardment in the Gulf of Tonkin that he climbed as high as he could on the ship to get the best view. The shock of the guided-missile cruiser's 5-inch guns knocked him overboard. Hegdahl was an excellent swimmer and floated for five hours before being picked up by Vietnamese fishermen. While the fishermen treated him kindly, they also turned him over to the Viet Cong militia, who nearly clubbed him to death before taking him to the North Vietnamese prison known as the "Hanoi Hilton."

But the farm boy who, according to a Navy journalist, had never been "east of his uncles' Dairy Queen stand in Glenwood, Minn., or west of his aunt's house in Phoenix, Ariz.," had learned a thing or two in his limited travels. He exaggerated his country accent and manners to the point that his captors considered "he lowly fool." The guards wanted to punish the senior officer prisoner, Cmdr. Richard Stratton, and so made Hegdahl Stratton's new roommate. However, the two men bonded almost immediately and set about capitalizing on the guards' error in judgment. Hegdahl respected Stratton's education and adroit leadership, while Stratton admired his young roommate's common sense, decency, and courage. Together, they constructed a highly effective intelligence network with Hegdahl as courier and Stratton as case officer.

For many years, prisoners of war had lived by the mantra "the big four and nothing more," referring to the practice of giving the enemy name, rank, serial number, and date of birth only. However, the brutal practices of the Viet Cong violated all Geneva Convention rules, and the POWs had to determine for themselves what would stand. One rule they lived by was that all would be released, or none. When the North Vietnamese decided to offer early release to some prisoners, it was with the threat that, if the early releasees spoke out about their torture, the remaining prisoners would be tormented even further.

Hegdahl, who was considered by the Vietnamese to be worthless in terms of intelligence information, was one of the first prisoners offered an early release. He didn't want to go and tried to behave so that he would be detained — at one point, when Tom Hayden was touring the prison camp, Hegdahl gave him the finger.

But his roommate pulled rank and ordered him to go, knowing that Hegdahl's remarkable memory would provide the government invaluable information and the families of prisoners immeasurable comfort. Hegdahl memorized the names of more than 300 fellow POWs, along with their Social Security numbers and an identifying trait such as a pet's name for confirmation.

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