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Back to Hanoi

February 24, 1999

Bill Sasser
Michael DeMocker

It is Hanoi, 1966. These flickering black-and-white images, preserved on video, are a time capsule from a world locked in a "cold war" that lasted half a century, and at the center of each frame of film is a crew-cut young man from Louisiana, his badly broken left arm dangling awkwardly in an improvised sling. He is a long way from home and wonders if he would be better off dead. Standing on the bed of a Soviet army truck, he is surrounded by boys in uniform carrying rifles. His face is bruised, and blood flows from gashes on his head.

Towering over his shorter captors, he ducks bricks and rocks thrown by the crowd but still tries to hold himself like an American officer and pilot. A press conference waits at the end of the truck ride, and the glaring lights of television cameras will be the closest he comes to seeing daylight for the next 143 days. He doesn't know it yet, but for Murphy Neal Jones, now a prisoner of war, freedom is another six-and-one-half years away. "We're going to have a good year this year," Neal Jones says with a booming voice.

Jones is upbeat about Tulane football's spring recruiting prospects after its undefeated 1998 season. "We've got two quarterbacks we're talking to who look really good. This one kid from West Virginia is unbelievable." With his silver hair, outgoing manner and linebacker's build, Jones (A&S '60) looks every inch a former athlete turned director of development for Tulane athletics.

A native of Baton Rouge, Jones was a two-way standout for Tulane from 1957 to 1960, playing nearly every minute of some games as starting center and linebacker. While his teammates included other stars--Richie Petitbon (BBA '60) and Tommy Mason (A&S '61), for example--the Green Wave often played in the shadow of Louisiana State University, led by Jones' high school football rival, 1959 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon.

But with or without a championship season, football gave Jones and his teammates the highlights of their college days and lessons that would last a lifetime. "I was fortunate to have very good coaches through high school and college who were like fathers to me," says Jones. "They taught me some things about teamwork and dedication. And it was a lot of fun." Football wasn't the only thing on his mind at Tulane. He married his high school sweetheart from Baton Rouge, Glenda Blythe Jones, during his freshman year.

His sights set on being a fighter pilot since he was in the first grade, he also was a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps and was commissioned an Air Force second lieutenant when he graduated in May 1960. He earned his pilots wings in August 1961. While Jones has added a bit to his college playing weight, at age 61 his 6-foot-2-inch frame is still imposing. His body, though, has scarsdamage done when he was a young man and that shows most readily in his walk.

Cartilage and ligaments are torn in both knees--inconveniences compared to some of his other wounds. While often a hallmark of a career in football, his decades-old injuries aren't the result of crashing pads and helmets, but of one fateful morning over Hanoi during the height of the Vietnam War and the following six-and-one-half years he spent in North Vietnamese prison camps.

Last October, Neal and Glenda Jones returned to Vietnam with 13 other former prisoners of war and their families for a journey they hoped would help both of them heal.

"It was fun, an emotional trip, but also a good emotion," says Jones. He had hoped to meet the Vietnamese doctor who set his broken arm and to retrieve the engraved .45 automatic pistol he surrendered to his captors the day he was shot down. While he found neither, they both found new friends and perhaps closed the circle of a path that started nearly 35 years ago. Also on the trip were Carl Warden (B '61)--a fellow teammate and ROTC cadet at Tulane--his wife, Vickie, and her parents, Jim and Coc Reynolds.

Vickie Warden's brother, Randy Reynolds, was a 19-year-old Marine killed in South Viet-nam in 1969. They hoped to find the spot where their brother and son had died so many years ago. The long, strange trip that would carry Neal Jones back to Vietnam started on the morning of June 29, 1966. On his third tour of combat in the war, Jones, 28, flew his F-105 fighter from an air base in Thailand on a mission to bomb a petroleum-storage facility on the outskirts of Hanoi, the first U.S. bombing raid over the North Vietnamese capital.

Just before dropping his payload, his fighter took a direct hit from an 85-mm anti-aircraft round. Ejecting through his canopy at only 300 feet, his parachute opened an instant before he slammed into the ground, a violent landing that blew out both knees, cracked three vertebrae in his neck, dislocated his left shoulder and broke his left arm. His right leg was full of shrapnel from the anti-aircraft round. Still strapped into his parachute, Jones watched as 30 North Vietnamese soldiers closed in on the crash site.

Pulling the .45 automatic he carried as a sidearm, he thought over his situation for half a second, then handed it, butt first, to the first soldier who approached him. "I decided I was no John Wayne," Jones says, although he punched and flattened another Vietnamese soldier who mauled his injured arm while he was being pulled from his harness.

In a remarkable twist of fate, former Green Wave teammate Terry Terrebonne--part of an elite Marine long-range reconnaissance team working covertly on the outskirts of the city--saw Jones' plane go down. (Terrebonne [A&S '63] was executive director of the T Club when he died from a heart attack in 1992.)

Jones' days as an athlete and his training as an Air Force officer would be crucial to his survival during the 2,420 days to follow. Nothing, though, could fully prepare him. Within hours of his capture, he was beaten, subjected to a mock execution, and paraded through the streets of Hanoi in the back of an army truck. His wounds untreated, he fought to keep himself conscious as angry mobs pelted him with rocks.

A Japanese news crew filmed the parade as well as the following news conference, where Jones was paraded before more cameras. In a few days the footage would be broadcast around the world. At one point in the proceedings, he stood at attention and fired off a salute.

"People asked me who I was saluting," Jones says. "I was saluting my country, and I was trying to look as military as I could. I was told from the time that I was first interrogated that I was not a prisoner of war but a war criminal and had no rights under the Geneva agreements. That was my way of showing them that I was in fact a prisoner of war. I was really hurting bad."

Jones' broken arm would go untreated for more than four years before a North Vietnamese doctor finally set it. In his job for Tulane athletics, Jones is always immaculately dressed and groomed, often in a Tulane sports shirt or sweater, so few peo-ple notice that his left arm is four inches shorter than his right.

"The doctor took a couple of inches of bone off both sides of the break," says Jones. "They operated on about six of us at the same time. There had been a bombing halt and they were thinking about the end of the war and our release. It was sort of like the 'gastro-politics' they practiced--the food always got better whenever it looked like they might be letting us go."

At the air base in Japan where they had been stationed, Glenda Jones, then 26, was awakened by a phone call at 5:30 the morning after his capture. Waiting for confirmation that Jones was now a prisoner of war, Air Force officials told her simply that her husband had been shot down over Vietnam. She found out that he was still alive later that day, when she heard the news on Armed Forces Radio. Within the month, she returned to Louisiana with their two children, 6-year-old Neal and 3-year-old Darla.

"I was fortunate," Glenda Jones says. "I had my mom there when I came home to Baton Rouge. Maybe I was just naive, but I always thought Neal was coming home. I dealt with it, saying, 'When he gets back, this is what we're going to do.' It never dawned on me that he might not come back."

After his appearance at the news conference, Jones was thrown into the infamous Hoa Lo prison--built by French colonialists, it became known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton--where after 10 days of beatings and torture he was forced to sign papers condemning U.S. actions in Vietnam. A doctor wanted to amputate his infected leg, but Jones refused. Placed in a solitary cell, he thought he was dying as his leg turned black and swelled to three times its normal size.

Hope came from an unexpected source. "I heard a voice come from another cell that said, 'Where is Neal Jones?' It was a friend, another Air Force pilot, Dave Hatcher, who had been shot down a few days earlier. We weren't allowed to be talking, but he gave me a piece of advice that probably saved my life: 'There is only one thing to do--pray a lot.'" So Jones prayed a lot. He also played a lot of footballat least in his mind. In addition to his faith, Jones made it through his 143 days of solitary confinement by mentally returning to his Green Wave days.

"I replayed all our games in my mind and we won all of them--the outcome was much, much different than what it was in reality. But it was a way to keep your mind busy. We did a lot of mind games." The hardships Jones and his fellow prisoners endured are hard to imagine: beatings and torture; seven-by-seven-foot cells that for much of the year were unbearably hot or unbearably cold; and malnutrition--at one point Jones' weight dropped to 130 pounds.

Their captors demanded absolute obedience, the most important rule being absolutely no communication between prisoners. Guards looked for any chance for punishment, the most common form being "the ropes," a brutal torture that involved tying a prisoner's arms behind his back, then to his ankles, for hours or days at a time. The unnatural contortions left no marks, but the technique quickly cut off circulation and came close to tearing a man's body apart--dislocated shoulders were a frequent side effect. The pain was horrific.

Virtually every American POW in North Vietnam was subjected to it, part of the methodical process of "breaking" a prisoner--forcing him to beg for mercy and give information beyond name, rank and serial number. When the prisoners did talk, however, it was usually evasions or outright lies.

Forced to identify other members of their flying squadrons, some of Jones' compatriots convinced their captors that Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Alfred E. Neuman were American fighter pilots.

Propaganda statements often held clues that they were made under duress--Navy Commander Jeremiah Denton Jr., shot down in 1965, was paraded before television cameras to tell of his humane treatment and blinked out the word "torture" in Morse code. Other small victories were won through guile and ingenuity.

"For the first four-and-a-half years I was in solitary or in a two-to-three-man cell. You weren't allowed to speak to any other Americans, but we communicated all the time," says Jones.

Their main method was a coded tap system based on a grid of the alphabet. They also developed a visual hand code and secretly passed notes written on toilet paper with improvised bamboo pens, using ink made from cigarette ash. Communication gave many the heart not to give up. For much of his captivity, Jones was held in another notorious prison in Hanoi called "The Zoo," a film studio prior to the war that the North Vietnamese turned into a POW camp.

Prisoners were often kept in shackles for months at a time, in cells where rats ran free at night. Loud speakers blared communist propaganda and news about the social and political turmoil back home in America. Isolation was the most potent psychological hardship. Jones says his thoughts often turned to his wife and children. "Every day you thought about themconstantly. Thinking about them and what they were doing. My wife did a great job with them by herself."

There were still moments of hope, like the morning an American pilot flying an F-105 buzzed the Zoo at 100 feet, rocking the wings of his jet as he tore overhead. "They knew we were there," says Jones. "I stood there and just watched him fly by while my guard was on the ground, trying to claw his way under the cement walkway." Neal and Glenda Jones expected an emotional experience when they returned to the place that had so marked their lives.

"I really didn't know what to expect," she says. "I was apprehensive, not knowing how it would affect him. I heard his stories and some of what he went through, but until you see it firsthand you don't fully understand it." On their first day in Hanoi, they walked the same streets where Jones had once been paraded as a war trophy, and visited the Hanoi Hilton. Much of the original structure has been torn down for a high-rise office building, but a portion has been turned into a museum showing the injustices of French colonial rule.

"Hanoi looks basically the same, only more vehicles on the streets, and quite a few Westerners and Japanese now," says Jones, watching a videotape he made during the trip. "The Hanoi Hilton still smells the same, even though they've cleaned it up and put a little fresh paint here and there. You can tell I'm a little emotional here as I step out of that cell--I knew guys who spent nine months in those leg irons."

In an impromptu ceremony perhaps marking a closure for the group, Jones and his fellow POWs lined up inside the main gate of the prison in the order of their shoot-downs and walked out, one by one, into the October sunshine. They posed for a group photograph holding an American flag.

"I knew the Hanoi Hilton was going to stir up some emotions, but not as much as it did," says Glenda Jones. "When we got back that evening I told Neal I had heard about it, but I never imagined." Jones says he has overcome any animosity he felt toward the people of Vietnam, and he was surprised by the warm welcome his group encountered. "They loved us. What's interesting is that 80 percent of the population is 40 years old or younger. Forty percent are age 20 or younger. The average monthly wage is somewhere between $50 and $100 a month. They don't remember the war--they just want a better life. "

The group also visited the Zoo, which is once again a film studio, and a small village called Son Tay, where Green Berets attempted an unsuccessful mission to rescue American POWs in 1970. Four members of their tour group had been held at the camp, which had been evacuated three months before the rescue attempt. During their visit they met a local woman who had been hired by prison guards to buy food for the camp. She insisted on hosting the entire group at her home.

"She was so glad to see us--she hugged every one of us and was the best host you could imagine," Jones says. In Da Nang, once an American stronghold in South Vietnam, the group's bus driver turned out to have been a North Vietnamese crewman on an 85-mm anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi during the war. "He had a big scar from shrapnel on his forehead," says Jones, who introduced himself as an American pilot who had been shot down over the city. "He cried when I hugged him."

At the seaside resort of Phan Thiet, Jones met a hotel waiter to whom he gave a large tip and a small American flag. The young man said good-bye as the Joneses were boarding their bus and asked for their address. He wrote them in January, wishing them a happy New Year and asking when they planned to visit Vietnam again. "I still hope that we will meet together one day, because the globe is a circle, is it right, Mr. Jones?" he wrote.

Other stops included Hue, the site of a major battle during the Tet offensive, and Ho Chi Minh City, the former South Vietnamese capital, then called Saigon. The group also visited Khe Sahn, site of the Marine base during the war that was laid siege to by communist forces. Randy Reynolds and two other Marines had been killed, four others seriously wounded, in an ambush a few miles from Khe Sahn in 1969.

Based on correspondence with a Marine lieutenant who survived the attack, Carl and Vickie Warden and her parents found the rocky creek bed where their son and brother had died so many years ago, a spot literally a few yards from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. "They always wanted to go back and see the area and get some kind of closure," says Warden.

"Neal spoke with me and invited my family to go along on this trip. The 13 POWs were extraordinary, and they treated Vickie and her parents with the greatest sensitivity. Not many people understand the heart it takes to get through what Neal Jones and these other men went through."

Warden's family held a memorial service on the creek bed, leaving three small American flags and a Buddhist offering of incense, flowers and a plate of fruit and cookies. Following tradition, local villagers promised to protect the site for the following three days.

"I really choked up when I was there," says Jones. "And I really got mad. I said that I hoped I could meet Robert McNamara one day so I could tell him what I think of him to his face, for putting us in positions like this, an untenable position where we were easily ambushed. When you fight a war, you fight to win. You shouldn't be fighting to maintain a status quo."

While Jones still has a few bitter feelings about the war and the era, there are a good memories, too. All American prisoners were moved to the Hanoi Hilton after the rescue attempt at Son Tay, ending their solitary confinement, and their treatment improved somewhat as the war wound down and a release grew near. In the months before his return, Jones was housed with 56 prisoners in a single dormitory. They entertained themselves with sock football and basketball games and, when their health improved, started an exercise regimen.

Jones taught Spanish lessons, dredging up from memory his studies at Tulane. A former Arthur Murray dance instructor taught ballroom dancing. They played cards and bet on sporting events, usually getting the results six months after the fact.

A sports high for Jones came when he heard about Tulane's 1970 Liberty Bowl victory over the University of Colorado in a letter from his wife. Near their release some of their most sadistic guards became friendly, one telling Jones that he would like to come to the United States and study a trade.

The 92nd American pilot shot down during the war, Neal Jones was part of the first group of American POWs released in February 1973 as part of the Paris peace agreements. "Our thoughts were that we were going to be as military as possible and not make a scene, but we were scared to death that something was going to happen," he says. "When we got on that C-130, the pilot told us we were going home as heroes, but we didn't think of ourselves as heroes. Other men were spit on when they came back from the war."

Back home in Baton Rouge, Glenda Jones was told by Air Force officials that her husband was being released. She got their children up at 5:30 the next morning to watch televised coverage of their planes landing in the Philippines. The next day, she got a call from Neal, saying he was on his way home.

"I told her I loved her and asked how the kids were doing and how she was doing," Jones says. "After five minutes she said to me, 'You sound like a Yankee.' A Navy pilot I lived with for a long time criticized my Southern accent and I guess I had changed it some."

Jones landed at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., on February 17, 1973. "Neal and the kids and I all did pretty well," Glenda Jones says, remembering their transition to a normal family life. "But when he first got home time meant absolutely nothing to him. He wasn't used to watching a clock. It took a while for me to get him to go to bed so I could get up and teach school in the morning."

She says that while the war changed both of their lives, her husband's experience gave him a knowledge of himself that most people never attain. "I think he had a tremendous strength he drew on and maybe didn't know he had. All the guys supported each other and helped each other get through. They all definitely carry something extra with them from being over there."

Jones underwent a multiple tendon transplant on his left arm to regain use of his thumb--his radial nerve had been cut by his broken bones during torture--and was hitting golf balls within seven weeks of the operation. Returning to full service in the Air Force, he commanded the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron and, later, the Air Force's War Mobilization Planning Office at the Pentagon before retiring as a colonel in 1982.

He left with a Silver Star, two Legion of Merit decorations, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star for Valor, two Purple Hearts and the Prisoner of War Medal. After a career as an aviation industry consultant in Washington, D.C., Jones returned to Tulane in 1990 to become director of development for Tulane athletics. "Tulane had been very good to my family when I was in prison," says Jones. "I wanted to be closer to my family in Louisiana and this opportunity came up so I took it."

Jones says his years as a prisoner of war--as well as his years as a football player and Air Force officer--taught him that success will follow effort. "You can do anything you want in life if you put your mind to it. I honestly believe that."

Bill Sasser is a local free-lance writer This article originally appeared in the spring 1999 issue of Tulanian magazine.


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