THE CODE

OUR  MEANS  OF  SURVIVAL  AT  HOA LO – By Gerald Coffee, Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret)

_____________________________________________________________________

The dismal echo of the door to my new cell clanging shut merged with the sharp slap of the guard’s sandals as he made his way with short, rapid steps out of the cellblock.

I heard the thud of another door shut and lock, then another, each one distantly punctuating my sense of desolation. Finally all that was left was silence, the harsh, pounding silence I’d endured for four long months of solitary captivity since being shot down on a Navy reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam in February 1966.

Silence like I had never known before. Silence I’d futilely tried to fill with thoughts of home, of my wife, Bea, and our children back in California, of other captured U.S. airmen I knew must be here, somewhere, confined in the grim reaches of Hanoi’s Hoa Lo prison.

Isolated, desperately alone, I was in a strange faraway place where I was the enemy. I’d had only two fleeting encounters with other American POWs. The first was with Colonel Robinson Riser after I’d heard him softly whistling “Yankee Doodle” in the courtyard outside my original cell. He identified himself as senior officer at Hoa Lo. Quickly the guards had approached…and that was the last I saw of Risner.

Late one night I heard them dump a badly injured pilot in the next cell. He moaned and wept deliriously as I pounded the wall. “Hang on!” I shouted. At dawn his voice faded, his breathing stopped with a heaving, rattling sigh. Later I caught the stench of bleach as the guards sluiced out the cell. Probably bled to death. A raw fury built within me. Kneeling in a fading slash of morning sunlight, I prayed for him, and for my own survival. They there was that letter I’d written.

When”Rabbit”, a young Vietnamese officer, had offered me the chance to write home, I’d been secretly elated, but suspicious. I’d learned my captors never gave anything away. “But Co“, he’d said, smiling reproachfully as he used the odd Vietnamese shorthand for my name, “do you not wish to inform your loved ones in America that you are safe?”

When I’d finished, Rabbit looked the letter over, “But wait“, he remarked smoothly, arching his brow and feigning offense, “what about our humane and lenient treatment?” My foot, I grunted to myself. It’d taken over a month to set my fractured right arm. Now that the grotesque swelling had subsided, the cast rattled around loosely like a giant bracelet; I’d stuffed paper and rags down it to keep the bone rigid. Still, I scrawled out another laborious, left-handed draft, including the bit about humane and lenient treatment. Bea will see right through it, I figured.

But Co“, clucked Rabbit this time, tossing his head like an imperious schoolmaster, “there is nothing here of your blackhearted imperialist crimes against my people.” I refuse“, I shot back, slapping down the pencil stub. “I’d rather not write“.

Rabbit’s face reddened to scarlet. He flew out of his chair and tore the letter to pieces as the guards hauled me back to my cell, where they flung me in a heap and administered a few blunt kicks to my ribs for good measure.

At midnight that night I was awakened by my cell door being jarred open. For the first time I glimpsed the ominous ropes and heavy iron bar with which I was soon to become so familiar, and it was in the ours near dawn, after they’d dislocated my shoulder and my hips, that I heard myself sobbing through, the violence and pain, “I’ll write it! I’ll write it! Oh, God, please let me write it!”.

Now, a month later, I was still punishing myself for my weakness. If only I had someone to talk to maybe I could shake this beast of shame. I glance around my new quarters and wondered what part of the prison they’d moved me to this time. Like all the others, this cell fairly reeked of human misery.

There was a dim, grimy light bulb dangling from the ceiling. A discolored slab of concrete served as a bed. At its end were ankle stocks and a roughly formed manacle. Lengthwise the cell could be spanned with three shuffling steps. I noticed some bloodied scraps of bandage in the shadows and reclaimed them from the rat that was gnawing on them, shoving them down my frayed cast for support.

And there, carefully etched in the wall, was the ever-present diagram, a neat little grid of letters and numerals. Since my first day I’d noticed them everywhere throughout the prison. Obviously they were put there by English-speakers. But why? What strnge things to see in a North Vietnamese jail. I couldn’t figure them out.

                    numbercodechartjpeg

I eased myself onto the slab, trying to protect my arm, and wondered what had happened to Risner and the others. It was siesta time for the Vietnamese. As I drifted off into a half-dream about a Fourth of July picnic back home in Modesto, a sharp, distant whisper pierced my reverie: “Man in cell six with the broken arm, listen up!”.

Was I delirious? I shot up and cocked an ear….”New man, can you hear?”

That voice…it was Risner’s!…”I hear you, Colonel. It’s me, Lieutenant Coffee.” The words leapt from my lips. The unfamiliarity of my own voice startled me.

Welcome to Heartbreak Hotel, Jerry, Try not to talk so loud. Communication is forbidden. The man in cell one is clearing for us by watching under his door for the guard’s shadow. If you hear a single cough or thump on the wall, stop talking immediately.”

Sir, how many of you are…”…”About forty in Heartbreak. Listen, Jerry, talking is very dangerous. You must learn to communicate by tapping on the walls It’s called tap code.”

The code is the only link we have,” Risner continued imperatively. “Look for a square of letters comprising the alphabet – except we use c for k – and numerals running along the top and one side.. To get the letter you want, simply tap the number of the row, then the number of the column.”…SO…THAT was what those maddening little diagrams were all about….Cough. THUMP.

Risner stopped in mid-whisper. I heard the door at the end of the cell-block rattle open and the guard shuffle in. I could sense his suspicion through the dimness of the passageway. There would be no more talk today.

I was ecstatic to be in touch with the others – finally. It was as if I’d tumbled out of a long, black tunnel. Over the next few days we had sufficient clearing for me to become adept with the code. I told of events back home. Men in other cells tapped in and out of the “conversation,” eager to know who won the World Series or what politicians were saying about the war. One thing still haunted me, though – that letter. Finally I told Risner.

Jerry,” he tapped back, “we have all been made to do things here against our will. The folks back home can see through the propaganda. All the Code of Conduct asks is that you resist to your utmost, make them fight you for what they get, and give them as little as possible. You fought.” “But I can’t forgive myself,” I tapped.

You must. It’s how we recover that counts. That’s how we get back at ’em. Remember, whatever they do to us, we have the code. We have one another. None of us could have made it this long otherwise.”

Day-to-day survival, I found, depended on the code. We’d spill a little water under our doors in the morning; the reflection would alert us to an approaching guard. A crude alarm system was devised by dropping bits of rice to attract the rats; they’d squeal off a the first sign of trouble. When we couldn’t use the walls, we’d signal by coughing, or flashing our fingers, or tapping our feet. In the worst of times we’d yank threads from our clothes and tie tiny knots that corresponded with the code. The nature of the code forced us to be direct and honest. We’d argue, we’d commiserate, we’d comfort, we’d joke, we’d tease, we’d tap out hymns, we’d pray…Always…we prayed through those grim walls, prayed for strength, for hope, for our families back home, but mostly for one another.

Nothing infuriated our captors more than to discover we’d been transmitting messages, especially to men in solitary like Robbie – Colonel Risner – who spent years in isolation and months in total darkness. They were not sopisticated enough to stop us – besides, nothing could have – but Rabbit would undertake periodic campaigns to break us. Then the torture would start as they fried to find out about our communication methods, or chain of command, who was telling whom what.

We did our best to resist, and some men died from the brutality. But nothing was more anguishing, not even the hated ropes themselves, than to be carried back to your cell after a session and have to tell a man what you implicated him in some way in the communication network. It sometimes happened, and we understood, we forgave. As long as you made them fight you for it. It’s all we asked of one another.

One night a man was brought back after a couple of days’ absence. I’ll call him Eddie. I could tell by is grunts and moans as they heaved him on his slab that he’d been through it. I immediately tapped in: “Welcome home, Eddie.” There was no answer. I tapped again. Still no response. For hours I tried. I didn’t want to lose him. “Stay with me, fella,” I tapped. Then, late into the night, he tapped back weakly: “I’m so sorry, Jerry. They wanted names. I gave them yours.”

My name!!!!…I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if I could stand the ropes another time, the agony of torn muscle and cartilage, of twisted limbs. I’d be next, and nothing was worse than waiting for it.

Eddie kept tapping “I’m sorry,” over and over. But I was thinking about faith. And about the code. What is this inextinguishable need we humans have to communicate, to reach out and be reached, to share faith? If there was one thing Hoa Lo had taught me it was that faith was never a more powerful instrument of survival than when it was shared.

Finally, urgently, forcefully, I tapped back…”Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” A minute later Eddie responded, his tapping now stronger, more confident, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.”

They came for me at dawn. Eddie switched from tapping to coughing Psalm 23. Others were able to signal too. I tried to tear my mind away from reality. I thought about Bea and the children, and dredged the back-waters of my memory to summon up the kindest moments of my life to cling to. I could feel the strength of the others reaching through the dimness, and I knew that when I returned, numb and battered, my brothers in the cellblock would be checking under their doors to see if it was safe to start tapping out support, to gather close and bring me back with love and prayer from the abyss we had all faced.

It would be seven years before I’s taste freedom, seven bleak years of uncertainty. There were times I thought I couldn’t hold on any longer. Then those gorgeous, curious little diagrams I’d puzzled over for so long save me.

Thinking back on my years in Heartbreak hotel, I am reminded that human communication is a never-ending source of comfort and strength. Through the dark, impenetrable prison walls of Hoa Lo, the code kept us in touch with our faith and with one another…and kept us alive.

POSTSCRIPT:

I’ve found that the worst experiences in our lives can often be put to use later, even in the most unexpected little ways. For instance, the first Christmas I was home, my family and I spent the holidays at a ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho. It happened that Navy Commander Ted Kopfman, with whom I’d shared many an hour on the wall at Heartbreak Hotel. was staying in the suite above us. On New Year’s Day we were both in our rooms watching the Rose Bowl football game between the Pacific Eight champs and the Big Ten. Ted was a Big Ten man and naturally I favored the Pac Eight. Right before kickoff I heard a knock from above…The Code!!!…It was Ted rapping out a good-natured taunt: “The Pac Eight will fall.” To the kids’ utter astonishment I leaped on the bed and began knocking back: “We will never be defeated!

Source: GUIDEPOSTS – August 1990

Submitted by: Former Crewmember John Postick

John and this *editor, were neighbors in Collingwood, NJ and sad to say, John is no longer with us.

Former  Intrepid  Crewmembers  Will  Never  Forget  Those  Who  Have  Gone  Before  Us

*John Simonetti, Past President, USS Intrepid Association, Inc.

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2 Comments

  1. mike karakostantis

     /  January 12, 2013

    What a story, sad but very very good.

    Reply

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