To this day Robert Flynn, a POW who spent more time in solitary confinement than any American ever, denies he violated Chinese airspace.
On August 21, 1967, A-6A Intruder bombardier-navigator Lieutenant Commander Robert J. Flynn was shot down by a MiG-19 over North Vietnam. Flynn’s two-seat Intruder operating from USS Constellation was one of three Intruders shot down on that mission. Press reports at the time and books published since the incident stated that after being hit, Flynn’s Intruder crossed into Chinese airspace 110 miles from Hanoi. Flynn has always emphatically denied that his plane went down in China. What happened to Flynn is unique and extraordinary: He spent the next 2,032 days as a prisoner of war in the People’s Republic of China. He was the only U.S. naval flyer to be held captive by the Chinese, and Flynn’s 2,030- day solitary confinement is the longest in American military history. Only a handful of men had more than four years in solitary.
Radio Peking claimed that Flynn’s A-6A had been downed after “flagrantly intruding” into Chinese airspace, and official U.S. sources repeat this claim. Flynn insists, however, that he was turned over to the Chinese for propaganda purposes.
Flynn’s experience is an inspiring triumph of the human spirit. He is an example of an American who never lost what some POWs called the “war inside.” Today Flynn lives in Florida with his wife of 48 years, Kathy, and he recently celebrated his 71st birthday.
Vietnam: As you were growing up, who influenced you the most in terms of defining your character?
Flynn: Besides my mother and father, there were two men who had an impact on me when I was growing up. The first was Father Michael J. Quislie, who was the priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Houston. If he had an errand to run, I would go with him and during these car rides we had lots of long talks. Father Quislie gave me my foundation in religion and spirituality––and this stuck with me. What I learned from Father Quislie was critical to my survival during the years I was in China.
The second big influence in my life was Fred Haver, my history teacher and football coach at Houston High School. Coach Haver said over and over to us, “You can do it.” The belief that he had in me was something I also kept with me, and it helped me survive when I was all alone.
Tell us about your early years in the Navy.
After I graduated from high school in 1955, I started classes at the University of Minnesota, but decided to join the Navy in July 1958. I had joined the Navy to fly, and during preflight training I met Marine Gunnery Sgt. Gus Aiken, who was our drill instructor for preflight class. Gunny Sgt. Aiken got us through by saying, “You damn well better do it.” Along with Father Quislie and Coach Haver, it was Aiken’s attitude that stuck with me and helped me later when I was being tortured by the Communists.
I finished training and became a naval flight officer on June 20, 1960. I then got my bombardier-navigator designation and joined Heavy Attack Squadron 8 in February 1961. In 1963 I was reassigned to Attack Squadron 42 at Naval Air Station Oceana. It was the first fleet squadron to receive the A-6A Intruder, and I joined 27 other pilots and bombardier-navigators as part of the fleet introduction team transitioning to this new twin-engine jet attack plane. Later, we instructed other attack squadrons on operating the new A-6A.
When did you go to Vietnam?
In 1966 I joined Attack Squadron 85 and flew 14 missions off Kitty Hawk. The next year, I joined Attack Squadron 196 aboard Constellation. During this time, I made sort of a reputation for myself by playing my trumpet as we would fly into battle. I would play it over the radio for the entire squadron to hear as we flew into North Vietnam.
What happened on August 21, 1967?
I was on my 71st combat mission as bombardier-navigator. This was the first day of a real escalation of the war, and Hanoi was hit hard. We were part of a bombing strike consisting of four waves of Air Force planes and three waves of Navy strike aircraft. My A-6 was piloted by Lt. Cmdr. James L. Buckley. We were one of four aircraft whose mission was to strike the Duc Noi rail yard four miles north of Hanoi.
Buckley and I got to the target, and we dropped our bombs. There were North Vietnamese SAMs to dodge, but that wasn’t what got us. Rather, we were with two other planes when all of us were attacked at 10,000 feet by eight MiGs. It was a dogfight between us and a MiG-19. At one point we were only 50 to 100 feet off the ground, following the contour of the ground up and down. The MiG pilot was so close to us that if he’d taken his oxygen mask off, I would have been able to tell you if he’d shaved that day.
Were you, as the official record says, in Chinese airspace?
We were east of Hanoi, about 20 miles from the border with China. I know that some claim we were over China when we were shot down, but that is completely untrue. We never did violate Chinese airspace. We were hit by an air-to-air missile that blew our left wing off and we went into an unbelievable roll. We were going about 600 mph when we ejected from the A-6. I suffered severe spinal compression fractures. My back was broken. I was not able to walk and I couldn’t lift anything.
What happened to Buckley?
I stayed with Buckley on the hill where we landed even though I knew he was dead. I could feel my pulse but I couldn’t feel his. I performed CPR on him, but I probably didn’t do it hard enough because I thought he might have a spinal injury. I stayed with Buckley until the NVA got too close to me, and then I started evading.
Who actually captured you?
Local militia. They were not wearing uniforms. One was armed with an AK-47, the others had hoes or sticks. I was turned over to some guys who came by in a jeep, who turned out to be Chinese soldiers who took me to the local military barracks.
At the time, I wasn’t aware that the military barracks in the northern area of North Vietnam were staffed by Chinese soldiers. But when I saw the portraits of Mao, I suspected the guys were Chinese. On the other hand, I also thought it was possible that Mao’s portraits were everywhere, because he was a man of great stature. I knew that I had been shot down in North Vietnam so I knew I was in North Vietnam, but I suspected these guys were Chinese.
Why were the Chinese there?
The Chinese were a military presence there because they maintained civil order on both sides of the border. This freed up NVA soldiers to fight down South. It was the same ethnic people on both sides of the border, so it wasn’t as if you could tell you were in China from looking at the people.
Why were you then taken across the border into China?
I was taken to China because there was an escalation of the war and the Chinese needed someone to use as a guest of honor at a rally. Hanoi had been hit by four waves of Air Force and three waves of Navy that day, and apparently some Air Force airplanes had intruded into Chinese air space. I was the closest American to the Chinese border and in the hands of Chinese already, so they took me to Nanning, where I was paraded into an open area with a big stage. There were probably 100,000 people there.
After a short stay in Nanning, you were taken to Beijing?
I was taken to Beijing, and for the next 2,032 days I was in a 12- by-16-foot cell, and all but two days was in solitary confinement.
My first winter, I really froze. I had no warm clothing, and I’m pretty sure I had pneumonia and bronchitis. I was tortured over and over again. Their favorite method was to put handcuffs on me and leave them there. Once for seven days, then again for 30 days, and the longest was for 60 days. You were handcuffed behind your back. This meant urinating and everything else with the cuffs on, and you did it the best you could. But the cuffs could be ratcheted down–– tightened––and they cut into the flesh. I later found out that these handcuffs were small to begin with because they had been designed for the smaller Asian anatomy. But what undersized cuffs meant for me was that my wrists and hands were swollen and excruciatingly painful. It really is indescribable.
There were other Americans held there?
Hugh Redmond, a CIA officer who was in the cell next to me, was tortured to death. He had been held since 1951. One day he saluted me, and I was just thrilled with that gesture.We communicated by Morse code, and he told me what the Chinese were doing to him. He knew he was on shaky ground with high blood pressure and could “cork off” if they tortured him. They killed him by torturing him with handcuffs. I really loved the guy. Redmond was my hero.
What did the Chinese hope to get out of you?
They didn’t torture me for military information; they tortured me so that I would make statements for propaganda purposes. They wanted me to sign a statement that I was a “culprit” and a “criminal” who had violated “sacred Chinese airspace.” I always refused. They also wanted me to sign a document in which I praised Chairman Mao. Again, I refused.
One time, however, after 21 days of torture handcuffs, I did sign a statement that I had intruded “into China’s sacred air.” But later, when the Chinese said they would use this as propaganda, I told them they would be laughed at because those were not my words and not the way an American writes. So then they tried to get me to sign another statement—but this time I refused.
What helped you get through more than 51⁄2 years in prison?
I played a lot of music. In high school and college I played trumpet, and I continued to play it in the Navy. In fact, on the day I was shot down I had the ship’s bugle with me in the A-6A and I played it as we were going in over North Vietnam.
In Beijing, I played an imaginary trumpet for hours and hours. At some point during my imprisonment, my wife was able to send me a mouthpiece in a Red Cross package. I played “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” When the Chinese figured out what I was doing, they took the mouthpiece away. But they couldn’t stop my playing.
What kind of music did you play?
One of my favorite songs was “Pennies from Heaven,” but I had many other tunes. Look, no matter what your mood is, you can always find a song to keep you in it or get you out of it.
What else did you do in your cell?
I exercised––tried to keep in shape. The food was terrible. The “meal of the day” was always the same: a small ball of rice and 11⁄2 level tablespoons of grease and meat. That was all we got during the period of the Cultural Revolution. Later, the food improved, but the Chinese alternated good food and bad food as a way to punish me.
How about keeping yourself mentally fit?
I was able to do some reading. At first I didn’t have anything, but then I was given a few English-language propaganda magazines like Peking Review. Later, I got a 1917 Oxford English dictionary. That book really got me through. I was also eventually allowed to write one two-page letter every month, and I was allowed to receive two Red Cross packages once a month. That helped more than you can imagine.
The other thing that I did was to relive every single incident in my life. I tried to remember every person I had ever known in the town where I grew up. I replayed every single football game. I had played baseball in high school, and so after I got a softball in a Red Cross package I taught myself to fast pitch. I put a broom in the corner of my cell and then I would pitch at it.
It’s been reported that you once joined your captors in singing “The Internationale”?
Yes, that was in prison in Beijing. I had my own lyrics though:
“You rotten vermin of the earth…You filthy slogan-shouting scum…you can rant as damn you please in red hot flames in hell….” Editor’s note: Flynn can recite several verses of his own profane lyrics to the Communist anthem.
What do you think was the most important factor in your survival?
I couldn’t have made it without the help of God. I certainly learned that with His help you can live through a tremendous amount of adversity.
Tell us about the end of your days as a prisoner.
When it was obvious that the war was winding down, the Chinese told me that they wanted to take my picture for a passport. They also said I needed to get some inoculations. But they dragged this out for a couple of months. They never said that I was going home, rather they said, “You might go somewhere.” Finally, in early March 1973, I was informed that I was going home.
The Chinese took me to what they called a “formal releasing ceremony.” I was put into the backseat of a 1941 Chevrolet and driven from the prison to another building, where I was marched into a room with a big table. There was a pen sitting in the middle in a holder. There was a Chinese political commissar and an interpreter who said something like: “The highest organ of the People’s Republic has said that Culprit Flynn shall be expulsed…His hands are stained with the blood of innocent Vietnamese people…Culprit Flynn has violated sacred Chinese soil.”
I was asked to sign a statement admitting to this and other crimes. I told the interpreter I would not sign the statement. The Chinese official then asked if I was really refusing to sign the statement. I replied, “I am not refusing but rather I cannot sign the statement because that would be something for someone from the American government to sign.” I was then taken back to my cell. My stomach was churning as I thought I might have lost my one and only chance to be freed. But my faith in God was such that I refused to give in.
I ended up being released after all, on March 15, 1973. I walked across a bridge connecting China to Hong Kong and was met by an American Red Cross representative. Air Force Captain Philip Smith, an F-104C Starfighter pilot who had been held by the Chinese since 1965, was with me. We flew to the Philippines and joined other released POWs at Clark Field. Then we flew back to the United States, where I was greeted by my wife and children.
How were you recognized by our government for your time as a prisoner?
I’m told that the State Department did not want much said about my case. But the Navy at least recognized me for my honorable conduct as a prisoner, and I received a Legion of Merit and three Bronze Star Medals––all with the “V” Combat Distinguishing Device. I also have the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Purple
How does it affect you to know the official U.S. position remains that you were shot down in China?
When we went to the Nixon White House for the dinner and recognition in 1973, a Navy intelligence officer took me to Langley, where they have all the SR-71 and satellite photos of North Vietnam, China and other areas. Three Army sergeants asked me to describe the architecture of the buildings where I was shot down and captured. All of them concluded that I was in North Vietnam, because the architecture is so different—it changes markedly from North Vietnam to China.
Do you think the official record will ever be changed?
I am a professional navigator, so I do care what the official position is. I was the lead airplane, I got a fix, and it was confirmed by the other two guys, so I know I was in North Vietnam. In the dogfight we didn’t use up much airspace, and there was no way we could have intruded into China.
How did you feel about not getting the Silver Star, and the circumstances surrounding that decision?
It bothered me. All the “good” POWs in Hanoi got a Silver Star, and I felt bad about not getting it. I did some things that were heroic and I deserved one. Just because I was in China rather than in Hanoi should have made no difference.
What about the rest of your Naval career?
I continued it. I was in Training Squadron VT-86 in Pensacola from 1979 to 1981. I was the executive officer first and then the commanding officer. After that I was the Director of Aviation Warfare Training at the Naval Education and Training Headquarters in Pensacola. I got a medical retirement in 1985.
What do you think about the current U.S.–China relationship?
I think the more we have to do with the Chinese in business and culture and everything, the better off we will be. China is changing, and in the long run we might be able to be partners. Things changed as China opened relations with us because they were afraid of the Russians. I think we should have the best possible relations with the Chinese.
How did all the gushing coverage of the Beijing Olympics make you feel?
I wasn’t bothered at all. I liked it. I am not mad at the Chinese—even the ones who tortured me. They had a job to do and I had a job to do.
What is the greatest lesson from your experience as a prisoner of war?
With the help of God, you can live through a tremendous amount of adversity.
Fred L. Borch retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. He and Air Force veteran Robert F. Dorr are frequent contributors to Army Times. For more see: Honor Bound, by Stuart I. Rochester and Frederick Kiley.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.