Colonel Ted Guy- Lessons from a Former POW

BOONVILLE, MISSOURI- May 18, 1996

I am about to graduate from Kemper Military College Junior College. I am 20 years old.

Air Force Colonel Ted Guy was our guest speaker.

Background

COL Ted W. Guy was born on April 18, 1929 in Chicago, IL.

He is a short, squat man with round shoulders bulging in his gray suit jacket. He has a button nose and a low, bulging forehead.

His gray hair is swept back from his head. With his oversized glasses he looks like a retired mill worker and grandfather, not an ace fighter jock.

COL Guy entered Kemper as a junior in high school just after World War II. He graduated from Kemper Military Junior College in 1949. He turned down an appointment to the United States Military Academy so he could fly.

In 1950, he entered the Air Force. A year later, he got his pilot’s wings and a commission. He would serve in the Air Force for 25 years. COL Guy flew over 200 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam.

He was shot down over Laos in 1968. COL Guy attributed the skills he used to survive in captivity to his experience as a cadet at Kemper Military School.

Shot Down

On March 22, 1968, COL Guy was flying over an automatic weapons position overlooking the Ho Chi Minh trail in southern Laos. His F-4C took heavy damage. He went down.

He ejected from his plane. He was hurt after a rough landing. He got in a running firefight with a squad of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers as he tried to escape. He was captured a few hours later.

He got dragged to an enemy camp. He would spend five years as a prisoner of war. Four of those years would be in solitary confinement.

Captivity

COL Guy served one of the longest stints in solitary confinement of the Vietnam War.

One time he was beaten and tortured for 10 days.

His arms were tied tightly behind his back and hung him up for several days. His shoulders were dislocated. He said, “I almost suffocated from the pain.”

He had to kneel for hours at a time. His knees become the size of basketballs.

He remembered his torture, “All I could do was yell and scream to ride out the pain. The guards worked me over heartlessly, like a couple of kids pulling wings off flies.”

“Some of the guards hated the torture,” he said, “others were cruel and showed no mercy. They would beat you with rubber straps.”

The reason for his being alone in jail was the NVA thought he was a major trouble maker. He would repeatedly encourage fellow prisoners to resist.

He commanded 54 to 108 POWs, mostly enlisted men. He never saw them all until after their release. All communication was done through tap system and other covert means.

He got dysentery. He dropped from 160 pounds to 90 pounds.

He lived in squalid conditions. The room he was confined to was painted all black, no windows, little food and rat infested. The only light for four years came underneath his door during hours of daylight. It came from a small high window in the hallway outside his door.

COL Guy’s father was a big band leader of the swing era.

He sat in solitary confinement for 42 months. Most of the time he occupied his mind by recalling songs his father played. He was able to recall over 700 songs he heard his father play.

The POWs’ mind suffered no matter where they were. It was difficult to spend days, months with nothing to do. COL Guy said that, “…boredom and inactivity could prove deadly as a bullet.”

Lesson Learned

COL Guy’s personal account is both inspiring and educational. Many aspects of his story have helped me in my life.

COL Guy was exhausted, beaten and almost died from exposure. Through it all he never lost hope.

He talked about younger men being plunged into despair. Some men abandoned every part of their personal integrity, honor and loyalty. They sank to the levels of animals or worse.

Some of the American prisoners refused to obey orders of higher ranking inmates. Some officers abandoned their responsibility to take care of their men. It was a well-calculated effort by the North Vietnamese to destroy group cohesion and dominant the prisoners.

Some perished during captivity. They simply gave up hope. Too weak or injured to walk they quit eating and taking care of themselves. They soon died.

COL Guy decided early on he was going to make it tough for his jailers. He would not bow to them (a huge sign of disrespect in Vietnamese culture).

He refused to make broadcasts or sign paperwork. Once they broke his wrist when he wouldn’t sign a document.

He gave himself specific rules to live by. These rules saved his life. The rules were:

  1. Lead by personal example in everything you do.
  2. Make every effort to resist the enemy, so you can go home with dignity.
  3. Believe in something more than yourself.

Integrity

COL Guy said that the most important leadership value was integrity. He said, “Integrity means that you are honest and truthful in everything you say or do. As a leader of POWs, I put honesty and my sense of duty above all else.”

He said, “Integrity and honesty kept me alive during some very tough times. It gave me something to believe in when nothing else did. It allowed me to believe in something more than myself- my men and my country.”

“As a leader you’re integrity means everything. Your troops don’t have to like you. They will respect you if they know you will do the right thing. This worked even as a POW,” he said.

The Role of Faith

Many aspects of his experience was something he could not be ready for. Despair and depression was one such area.

COL Guy never used the word “God.” He did say he owed his own survival and his mental and emotional health to a deep, abiding faith in something, “larger them myself.”

He said, “In a dark and dirty underground hole with no light I had to grasp onto something.”

He said, “Let me paint the picture for you. Here I am wounded, weak and without any hope of ever going home. I am inside a cramped, concrete, windowless cell in a state of near-total solitude for between 22 and 24 hours a day.”

“The cell is painted black. It has a filthy bucket for a toilet, no shower, and a slot in the door large enough for a guard to slip a food tray through,” said COL Guy.

“I was deprived of all human contact except when the slot in the door opened twice a day to give me some foul rice and cabbage stew,” he said.

“Recreation” involved being taken, often in handcuffs and shackles, to another solitary room where he could pace alone for an hour twice a week before being returned to his concrete cell.

Sometimes he would catch glimpses of other prisoners, sometimes not.

He described the experience as “hell on earth.” He said, “I read Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and could actually picture it because I had spent four years there.”

“It would be easy to give up hope,” he said, “but I knew I had a duty to the men under my command to thrive. It all came down to a choice. I think reminding myself of that duty every day. It really helped with that.”

“My duty to my country and my men helped to relieve my fears. It made me worry more about my men than myself. It gave me faith that no matter what happened I would see my family again. Once that was settled I never worried again,” he said.

COL Guy recalled the Lord’s Prayer. He would pound on the wall, every Sunday morning, cueing other prisoners to say the Prayer softly or silently.

“I would hear someone pound back in unison and I know I was not alone,” he said. “That little bit of inspiration would keep me going for a week,” he said.

COL Guy said that the role of faith was very meaningful even to “non-religious” POWs like him. “I’m not an overly religious person. In fact, I don’t practice going to church regularly…but I found that…faith was very important and strengthening,” he said.

COL Guy said, “Religious faith aside- faith in something is important. It allows for common bonding and gave everyone something to focus on and relate to. Believing in something larger than ourselves allowed us to instinctively turn to something for strength and comfort.”

“We needed it in that awful place,” he said.

Homecoming

He was only one out of only 10 out of 600 lost in Laos to eventually return home. After his long, painful ordeal as a POW, he was released as a part of Operation Homecoming in 1973.

COL Guy came home to a changed world. He had trouble adjusting after so long as a POW. His first marriage didn’t work. When everything else failed he went right back to his three rules of success.

The Reason Why

 

COL Guy had a few theories about why he and some of his POWs thrived and why other prisoners fell apart.

He talked about the fact that most POWs were commissioned officers who were college graduates. They had all been highly selected and trained by the Navy and Air Force.

He said maybe that their mindset and training was the reason they were better prepared to handle the tough circumstances of confinement. Most of his fellow officers were career minded and they had high IQs.

By their very nature they were type aggressive Type A personalities who were defiant to their captors.

He said, “We saw ourselves as élite military warriors. Whether we were flying or in prison,” he said, “All of this was temporary. How you viewed yourself has nothing to do with your surroundings. That is a personal choice you make every day.”

He said, “Flying jets is the ultimate goal of an ambitious officer who wants to fly, but only a few get to do it. I was lucky.”

COL Guy said, “An officer proves worthy of command by performing well as a subordinate officer in a variety of duties. One of my duties happened to be as a POW commander for five years in Vietnam.”

He concluding by saying, “It was not something I asked for, but it was experience that changed my life forever because it made me question and test everything I believed in”

Then

After hearing COL Guy’s story I was filled with a deep, dark sadness. I tried to brush away the sadness because his voice held a steadiness and pride that moved me.

He was proud of what he had seen and done. He relayed his experience to help the next generation of Kemper cadets.

As I looked around I saw bright, eager faces of my classmates. Faces filled with the most fierce and exultant pride. We were proud that COL Guy was one of us.

He looked a lifetime older than when he had started talking. His eyes were still bright and steady but tired.

We were all changed, all of us. COL Guy’s values came from Kemper he said. His values were our values. He had learned what we had learned. So we could do what he had done so bravely.

Another feeling grasped me. A violent surge of pride, vainglorious and holy.

I was about to set out on a vast adventure. I had flung myself for two tough years at Kemper. I had studied and marched and put up with the endless boredom and routine of a military school. Two whole summers since high school were filled with yelling and mandatory army training.

In a few short hours I would be free. There were whole worlds to conquer. I was 20 years and a 2nd Lieutenant of Infantry. I was immortal and indestructible.

Now

I still think of his words 20 years later. They have given me hope when there was none. I only wish I could have told him how much his speech meant to me throughout the years.

COL Guy died on April 23, 1999. He died six months after his diagnosis of cancer.

Hopefully you were inspired by his words.