Vietnam Captures Heart Of Man It Once Held Prisoner

Visit To Former Enemy Erases Remnants Of Pilot's Hatred

December 05, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

On his latest mission to Vietnam, Navy Capt. Ned Shuman landed gently at an airport outside Hanoi, stayed in hotels and ate generous meals of fish and pork. When it was done he found his heart shaken free of hate.

It was strange being back among the people who held him asa prisoner of war for five years after he was shot down on a bombingrun near Hanoi in 1968. They were still tough, still stoic, still intent on their purpose. But now they seemed proud in the face of poverty, hard-working and gracious as hosts. Their ways commanded Shuman'srespect.

"If you're over there for a while you get to like them," said Shuman, 60, of Annapolis, who returned late last month from a three-weekhumanitarian mission to Vietnam. "I like them. I never thought I'd like those people."

The trip was sponsored by Operation Smile International, an 11-year-old organization that conducts medical missions to impoverished countries and performs surgery to correct deformitiesin children. Shuman said he acted as a kind of go-fer, helping with currency exchanges, coordinating travel within the country, running errands for members of the medical team. On this trip, the team performed more than 140 operations on children with cleft palates.

For Shuman, it was a time to remember where he had been before, to put aside what remained of wartime hatred.

"I was real curious to see what it was like," said Shuman. "I didn't view this as a healing process. I didn't have anything to heal. I never had a nightmare. I don't dream about being a prisoner of war. I barely think about it. I didn't have very good feelings about the Vietnamese."

That started changing, though, as soon as he landed at the airport on Nov. 6, got into aToyota van and began the hour-long drive into Hanoi. Along the two-lane asphalt road the van competed for space with bicyclists and people leading water buffaloes.The road cut through rice paddies and vegetable fields and everywhere, said Shuman, people were "just working their asses off. Nobody was lying around."

In Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang and the countryside, he saw no signs of the destruction wrought by U.S.bombers. He found instead a society that had ousted the soldiers of capitalism, but adopted elements of the economic system they represented. The cooperative farms were gone and many stores were privately owned.

In a conversation with a member of the foreign ministry, Shuman said, "I remarked to him that this didn't look like the great socialist society to me. He said, 'It didn't work. They came (to work) late, they left early, and when they were there they didn't do much.' "

The government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam began loosening central control of the economy in 1987, but the United States maintains its ban on both trade and diplomatic ties with the communist country. Shuman believes it's time we resumed full relations with the country, which is "just stone cold broke . . . They're already on their knees, what's in it for us to keep them on their knees?"

Shumansaw hospitals without equipment and children begging in the streets.He saw that since the war, the Vietnamese unit of currency, the dong, had fallen to near worthlessness.

"They need help," said Shuman.

It might seem strange talk from a man who was beaten and held in leg irons off and on for five years in three Vietnamese prisoner of war camps, a man who figures he lost 70 pounds on the diet of watery prison soup. He's talked about that enough, he said, and would rather not discuss it any more.

"It's not productive to dwell on bad things that happened in the past. Being a prisoner of war is not supposedto be a picnic and it wasn't. . . . There isn't a society in the world that doesn't mistreat prisoners, including ours."

Still, Shumanfelt compelled to return to the prison in the center of Hanoi where he and his bombardier were taken after their A-6 Intruder bomber was shot down, probably by anti-aircraft fire, in the darkness before dawn on March 17, 1968. It was Shuman's 18th bombing mission off the carrier U.S.S. Enterprise in the South China Sea.

The prison camp, dubbed "Hanoi Hilton" by POWs, housed as many as 500 men during the warand still is being used as a prison.Shuman was held there and at twoother camps outside Hanoi and was released in March 1973.

Shuman had trouble with the words when he tried to describe the emotion of stepping into the yard where he was first interrogated.

"It was strange walking in there," said Shuman. "Some things are hard to explain."

When he ejected from the pilot's seat of the bomber at 400 feet, the jet still roaring along at nearly 500 miles per hour, the

force of the wind broke his right arm and shoulder. Vietnamese doctors did a poor job of setting the arm. They left Shuman with a disfiguredright hand.

That injury is permanent, but Shuman has left the anger behind. He has flown 18 missions to Vietnam in war, one in peace.

And he's anxious to return. Until recently, he said, "I never thought about going back. And if somebody asked me about going back in 1973, I'd say, 'Are you crazy?' "

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