He remembers being shot down like it was yesterday.
On July 18, 1965, U.S. Navy Lt. Commander William M. Tschudy and his co-pilot Commander Jeremiah Denton were on a mission over Vietnam’s Song Ma river, with instructions to bomb North Vietnamese ships that were unloading supplies. At first, they thought the plane had malfunctioned. The two men had to eject, parachuting into the middle of a hamlet that seemed empty. But it wasn’t.
Suddenly, they were ambushed by a group of people with machetes, led by a man with an assault rifle and a badge that indicated his role in the militia, Tschudy, now 83, told TIME in a recent phone conversation ahead of National POW/MIA Recognition Day on Friday. Tschudy and Denton would become the 13th and 14th American aviators to be taken captive by the North Vietnamese side as prisoners of war (POWs).
“They unhooked me from my parachute and took part of my clothes away from me — shirt, trousers, boots — and walked me to a camp,” he recalls. “The next night, they blindfolded us, put us into jeeps and drove us to Hanoi and put us in the main prison [compound]. And I was there for seven and a half years.”
It was about five years into that ordeal that Tschudy’s face appeared in dramatic fashion on the cover of the Dec. 7, 1970, issue of TIME.
His name didn’t appear in the cover story, which was a look back at a failed attempt to rescue prisoners-of-war there, and was only mentioned in a note explaining that the cover image was composed of photos “supplied by Communist sources” to news agencies. (The other three men who appeared at smaller size on the cover were identified as, left to right, airmen James Hutton and James Young and Commander Charles Tanner.) So how did Tschudy, who goes by Bill, end up symbolizing what the magazine called “the plight of the prisoners”?
The photo was taken shortly after Bill Tschudy was captured. He believes “the enemy” took it while an interrogator questioned him about his name, rank and date of birth as part of a routine process. The Vietnamese took photos of some for propaganda purposes and used the prisoners as a leverage point.
As he recalls, his captors were hoping that their prisoners would offer information to verify what they thought they already knew. When he once just went along with their incorrect story — they asked if his plane had been an F4 Phantom, and he said yes even though he was flying an A-6 fighter-bomber — he later received a beating when they uncovered the lie. They were also highly attuned to information published about POWs in American media. In fact, Tschudy says he only started to realize how quickly word had spread about his capture when the guard rattled off his own biographical details: “You live in Virginia! You have one son! Denton has seven! I’m like, holy cripes, where did you hear all this? The Stars and Stripes newspaper.”
Bill Tschudy and his fellow inmates spent the next seven and a half years “in groups of one,” as he puts it, using an elaborate tap code to talk about everything under the sun — even to teach each other languages — and subsisting on rice and vegetables, sometimes with canned mutton. When they weren’t in their cells, they were in the interrogation rooms, curled up with their hands tied to their feet. Sometimes guards would tighten ratchet handcuffs on their wrists until their hands would blow up and turn black from burst blood vessels. Denton is actually considered the first to relay the message home of this torture, by blinking T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code in a North Vietnamese propaganda video.
Meanwhile, stateside, the effort to spread the word about the POWs was picking up urgency — and the photo was playing a different role. Tschudy’s wife Janie, now 80, says she experienced an “overpowering feeling” that something was wrong on the day of her husband’s capture, and she first saw the picture about a week after learning what had happened. “He looked very angry, and that I liked, because it meant he wasn’t beaten down,” she says.
Janie Tschudy thus became one of the first of a group of spouses and families of the prisoners who became advocates for the missing men. Initially, “we were told by the military not to talk to the press because anything we might say could work against them,” she tells TIME. But as the number of men taken captive or missing increased, so did the number of impatient loved ones demanding answers. Janie says she and the other wives really got riled up after learning that the POWs were being tortured from Douglas Hegdahl, a Navy sailor who was captured but relatively quickly returned. The Sept. 12, 1969, issue of TIME described him as “blowing the whistle” on Hanoi in a press conference. That’s when Janie and other POW/MIA families wives realized, “we were ready” and “being quiet doesn’t work.” The National League of POW/MIA Families formed on May 28, 1970.
In fact, a 1969 meeting between 26 POW wives and President Nixon was the starting point for the raid that provided the news for the 1970 magazine story; “it imparted a human dimension to the problem that Nixon had not felt before. Some of the women, he said, had been separated from their husbands for nearly five years, but they showed no bitterness and did not demand an end to the war at any price,” TIME reported.
The efforts to keep the prisoners at the forefront of the national consciousness were varied. Janie Tschudy personally got her family friend Ross Perot, the Dallas computer mogul and future presidential candidate, involved; she asked whether he might request that his employees sign a petition for better treatment of POWs. “He wrote back right away and said he would be in touch. Couldn’t be more than a week later, every major newspaper in country had a cut-out petition where you as an American could ask friends to sign it,” she says. And in 1970, Perot flew her and a few other spouses to New York City to meet with media outlets, including TIME. That year, Veterans Day was renamed “Prisoners of War Day” by a presidential proclamation. The League launched a campaign to deliver “100 tons of mail” to Xuan Thuy, chief North Vietnamese negotiator in Paris, by Christmas, TIME reported. A group of students at (then) San Fernando Valley State College are credited with creating POW awareness bracelets after hearing a story about a South Vietnamese villager who sided with the Americans and wore a sliver of aluminum from an American plane that had crashed around his wrist. The manufacturer in Santa Monica was at one point churning out 40,000 of these bracelets a week, selling them for $2.50 or $3 a piece, and celebrity wearers included John Wayne, Bob Hope and Cher, in addition to President Nixon.
Despite these efforts, homecoming for Bill didn’t come until just over three years later in Feb. 1973, after Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords.
“[The North Vietnamese] read this note which said they had had an agreement that prisoners were going to be released in accordance with date they were captured,” Tschudy says. “Unlike what you’d expect, there wasn’t a wild cheer or a hurray. There was dead silence. You just didn’t want to go bananas, you didn’t want to over-believe. There wasn’t wild jubilation until the airplane was in the air. That’s when the cheering started.”
Re-entry had its highs (“X-rated movies, men with hair to their rear ends, discovering that astronauts had landed on the Moon”) and lows — depression and PTSD, as well as a bitter feeling that fellow Americans who opposed the war lacked compassion for the ordeal of the prisoners. When Tschudy went for his MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, he struggled to keep up with the undergraduates after not being allowed to read a book for years. He later went on to work in the Pentagon and serve as a liaison with the Navy to the House of Representatives, at the same time that fellow former POW John McCain was a liaison with the Navy with the Senate. After a stint teaching at the Naval War College, where he aptly taught situational awareness, he worked in the aerospace industry and then eventually started a business helping people buy and sell businesses in Raleigh, N.C. His co-pilot Denton was elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama.
And nowadays, while Vietnam is often referred to as the unwinnable war, he didn’t see it that way then — and still doesn’t.
“We could have made it a military success. There was more America could have done. I felt that America gave up on the war and its mission too soon,” he says. “There could have been a better ending.”
Families of prisoners of war see each other in person at least once a year at an annual reunion in Texas, and keep up year-round online. So for Tschudy, National POW/MIA Recognition Day is “just another day.” But every now and then, he’ll meet a new person someone who recognizes his name from the time of the campaign to bring them home: “People say, ‘Oh, I wore your bracelet all through high school, or ‘Oh, I was cleaning out my grandmother’s jewelry box, and there was this bracelet with your name on it.’ That’s the kind of thing I get a lot. The more people who tell [me that], the more I understand who was involved or concerned.”
And yet, looking back 45 years later from his retirement home in Fairfield, Calif., he says even through the loneliness of those years, even not knowing what was going to happen next, he always knew help would come. It was always just a matter of when.
“The whole time I was up there, I never had a feeling that I would never get out,” he says. “In fact, I hadn’t thought about death then as much as I do now.”