Antiwar POW, son wage peace in Việt Nam

March 18, 2018 - 09:00

On March 19, a special exhibition commemorating an important element of the US movement against the American war in Việt Nam will open in Hồ Chí Minh City. The exhibit will feature details that have been “missing in action” from public memory about antiwar activities that arose within the military itself.

Now at peace: Planting rice in Thanh Chương District, Nghệ An Province, on the 45th anniversary of the Peace Accords, January 27, 2018, at the location where Walter Eugene Wilber entered Việt Nam in 1968. — Photo courtesy of Tom Wilber
Viet Nam News

by Thomas Eugene Wilber

On March 19, a special exhibition commemorating an important element of the US movement against the American war in Việt Nam will open in Hồ Chí Minh City. It is called “Waging Peace: US Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed America’s War in Việt Nam”. The exhibit will feature details that have been “missing in action” from public memory about antiwar activities that arose within the military itself.

A special section of the display will recall the voices raised against the war by American POWs held in Hà Nội. The exhibit will have special meaning to me because my father, Walter Eugene Wilber’s voice was one of those.

On June 16, 1968, flying off the aircraft carrier AMERICA on his twenty-first mission over North Việt Nam, Dad parachuted from the spent hulk of his burning F-4J, which had been hit by a missile. He landed on the bank of a rice paddy in Nghệ An Province. A week later, he was in Hà Nội, beginning his 56 months of internment, the first 20 months living in solitary confinement at Hỏa Lò Prison. He was 38 years old.

My father was born in rural Bradford County in north central Pennsylvania.  The son of sharecroppers, he joined the Navy in 1948 hoping he would be trained to fly. In his early twenties he made two deployments to Korea and continued to fly and deploy over the years. Always eager to do his job, Dad was confident in the Navy’s system of accountability for mission assignments and target choices, the chain of command that rose to the civilian leadership level of the President as Commander-in-Chief. “I was fighting for peace,” he would later remember.

However, in the mid 1960s things began to change for him.

By the time my father deployed to Southeast Asia, he was well aware of the questions and criticisms mounting among American citizens and the calls to end the war. He listened to the critical words of Martin Luther King, Jr, in 1967. In succession, he saw Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara inexplicably depart his post, and he watched his Commander-in-Chief, Lyndon Johnson, “quit”.

Imprisoned in Hà Nội, Dad had time to listen to his conscience. He thought through the things that he knew and examined them word by word: passages from the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, his King James Bible, and the words of the commissioning oath he took to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. He wanted to make sure he was fulfilling the obligations inherent in those words.

The religious, conservative, right-leaning, career military officer that he was, Dad worked through his own thoughts and concluded that the war was wrong: it was not declared through international or national protocols; it was being directed and sustained by a succession of executive orders, not by legal declaration of Congress.

To support and defend the Constitution of the United States as best he could from his room in Hà Nội, he decided to speak out. Through letters, taped broadcasts, and interviews, he called on Congress to stop the war, urged US citizens to voice their opinions, and exhorted all who might hear him to work for peace. On my 15th birthday in 1970, his taped voice, broadcast over Radio Hà Nội, told me that I was “old enough now to work for peace”.

On February 12, 1973, my father left Hà Nội with 115 other newly freed captives. Four days later my family and I greeted him at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Over the next few weeks and months, the state of our family would remain strong. However, Dad’s story had challenged the “official story” of the POW experience. While other prisoners who had spoken out against the war accepted an “amnesty” when they recanted before they returned, Dad did not recant; moreover, he announced publicly that the statements he made while in captivity were voluntary.

That is when the real controversy began. A fellow returnee initiated formal charges for collaboration with the enemy against my father and one other returnee. The charges were later dropped, although Dad was prepared for the trial. He remained steadfast; certain that we never should have gone to Việt Nam and that speaking out against the war had been the right thing to do. He remained steadfast in his personal values as well: religious, conservative, and always believing in the higher principles that our country stood for. At 85, Dad died three years ago in Bradford County, Pennsylvania.

Now 50 years from the tumult of 1968 and 45 years from the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, we need to remember the dominating presence that the war in Việt Nam had over people’s lives, and the courage that it took to speak out for peace. The “voices of conscience” that came out of Hỏa Lò Prison have a special place in that story. The Waging Peace exhibit in Hồ Chí Minh City will help restore those voices to our memory of the war years.

Following the exhibit opening, American and Vietnamese veterans of the war will gather at a meeting to share experiences. I will attend both events. Our next generations need to know the sacrifices that active duty servicemen were willing to make to help end the war, as we seek to wage peace today.

Tom Wilber researches documentation regarding US prisoners held in the Democratic Republic of Việt Nam from 1964 until 1973. His career includes 20 years of naval service. He has made dozens of trips to Việt Nam, locating sites and conducting interviews. Wilber is a visiting lecturer at Hà Nội University in the undergraduate course on American Foreign Policy. He assists Hỏa Lò Prison Museum with exhibits on POWs, and he has facilitated the return of  memorabilia from former prisoners to Hỏa Lò’s permanent collection for use in future displays.