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The Incredible Story Behind a Haunting Picture of a POW in Vietnam

6 minute read

The man in the picture keeps his eyes to the ground. Though there are no walls keeping him in — the image was taken in a rice field — there’s no mistaking that he is a prisoner. The rope that binds his arms is only just visible, but the militiawoman guarding him with her bayonet is plain to see.

And yet, 50 years after that striking photograph was taken, he remembers that the event it captures held for him a secret sense of possibility. That day was a breath of relief, and cause for a silent prayer of gratitude.

The man’s name is Dewey Wayne Waddell. Today, at 82, he’s retired and living in Marietta, Ga. Retired Air Force Col. Waddell (who goes by Wayne) spoke to TIME about the story behind the picture.

“It’s quite a shock when you’re zooming along and then all of a sudden you’re sitting on the ground,” Waddell says of what happened on July 5, 1967, when his plane was shot down on a mission over North Vietnam. Because his parachute did not fully open when he ejected from his plane, he knew it was possible the Air Force would believe that he had died in the fall. “One of the first thoughts I had when I was sitting on the ground was, Everybody I see from now on may be wanting to kill me. That focuses your attention. But conveniently they didn’t try to kill me. They just wanted to capture me.”

Waddell was imprisoned at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” and it was there that he recalls his captors playing him a few recorded “war crimes confessions” from other American prisoners of war. It was the era of Bertrand Russell’s war-crimes tribunal, in which the philosopher led an investigation in Sweden into U.S. actions in Vietnam, and Waddell was told that these confessions would be used at the tribunal — and that, like it or not, he would be confessing.

A little more than a week later, he was told that he was going somewhere “to be tested,” and that if he did not cooperate his life could not be guaranteed. He was given his own flight suit to wear, but it looked bloody; red ink had been splashed on it.

“I figured I was going to a kangaroo court, where you’re guilty when you walk in, to do one of those confessions,” he recalls. “So I was very pleasantly surprised when I got up there and they took off the blindfold, to see where I was.”

He says he knew right away what was going on, and why it was not a tribunal of any kind. Though there is no trace of them in the photograph made that day, there were two Caucasian men present, one with a still camera and the other shooting video. He would later find out that they were a team from East Germany, working on an East German television docu-series about the war, called Pilots in Pajamas.

“They had me walk up and down the rice paddy a few times, and said, ‘Keep your head down and don’t say anything.’ But I always got right at the camera and looked up real quick, hoping that if these pictures got out somebody would recognize me,” he says. “I was looking for any way for my family to know I was alive.”

That possibility — that the men with the cameras would produce some image that would make its way out into the world and into the hands of his loved ones, who might otherwise believe him dead — was enough to color the memory of that day with unexpectedly positive feelings.

It helps, of course, that his plan worked.

Pilots in Pajamas was shown on East German television in early 1968, at which point the broadcast was picked up by U.S. military monitoring of the Communist nation’s propaganda. Toward the end of one of the segments, there was Dewey Wayne Waddell, his eyes flicking up to the meet the camera, just as he had planned.

“Well this thing that showed up turned out to be exactly what I’d hoped for,” he recalls. “When [the Air Force] saw that, they pulled off several stills and sent them to my family, who identified me of course. So that’s what changed my status from MIA to POW.”

Waddell was released on March 4, 1973. But the story of the photograph doesn’t end there.

Years later, at a cartoon and photography convention, a friend of Waddell’s happened to meet the son of one of the German photographers, Thomas Billhardt, the man with the still camera. Later, on a visit to Berlin, that friend went to see Billhardt’s work — and there, hanging on the wall, was a picture of Wayne Waddell, taken the day of the Pilots in Pajamas filming. The friend arranged for the former prisoner and the photographer to connect. They met in Berlin in the late 1990s at a “nice little session” that was recorded for local television and the newspaper and, upon leaving, Waddell’s wife asked to purchase the picture to take home.

A few years later, Waddell was interviewed once again about his experience, this time for a piece in the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine about graduates who had been prisoners of war. The magazine ended up using that photograph on the cover; it also subsequently made the cover of a book about the POW experience. (It was at that point that Waddell discovered that he had been “reidentified” at some point along the way. In the caption information that travels with the photograph he is listed as “Pewey” Waddell.)

In recent decades, Waddell has returned to Vietnam several times, the first time in 1994 with his wife and children. Though he says he was apprehensive as their plane neared Hanoi — it “brought back memories of high-speed run ins on bombing runs,” he says — he has fond memories of the place from later trips. He has noticed the spread of capitalism and of the English language, and found the people he met friendly and accommodating.

During a visit to the Hanoi prison, when one of the Vietnamese officers present asked him what he had been thinking when he’d been there as a prisoner, Waddell responded that he’d been thinking “I sure would like to get out of here.” His hosts, he says, thought that was funny.

And now, a half-century after that photograph was taken, Waddell says he’s “intrigued” to see the nation’s eyes turn to Vietnam as a piece of history, as the subject of a documentary rather than daily news.

“That’s an interesting thing for me, that I’ve pondered a few times. The way I’ve described it, it’s like a movie that I saw, except I was in it,” he says. “As a matter of fact, it seemed I had a starring role.”

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com