Mike McCuistion had made a career out of screaming through the sound barrier in the U.S. Air Force's sleakest attack jets, so he knew a little something about how exhilarating flying can be.
Still, one of the biggest rushes he ever had in flight came as a passenger in a lumbering C-141 transport plane that 40 years ago lifted off a runway in Hanoi. The plane was part of Operation Homecoming, ferrying McCuistion and hundreds of other American prisoners of the Vietnam War back to the freedom of U.S. soil.
For the Lincoln native who had been shot down over Vietnam in 1967, the flight marked the end of six long years of mental and physical torture, hunger, deprivation, despair and mind-numbing monotony, much of it as a reluctant guest at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
“When the wheels broke the ground, we all went nuts,” McCuistion recently recalled. “Everything went to hell in there.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the release of some 591 U.S. POWs. That included at least three Nebraska natives, among them McCuistion, an Air Force captain who grew up in Lincoln and attended the University of Nebraska.
McCuistion, now 76 and living near Dallas, didn't exactly grow up dreaming of becoming a jet pilot.
When the 1955 Lincoln High grad entered the university that fall, he faced two years of mandatory ROTC. Before him were two lines, one for the Army, the other the Air Force.
“I looked at the Army line and thought, 'Foxhole.' I looked at the Air Force line and thought, 'Airplane. I'm going over there.'”
After finishing school and then completing a five-year Air Force hitch as a flight instructor, he surprised even himself when he passed up a job as a commercial airline pilot and re-enlisted. “I was addicted to speed,” he said. “I liked flying fast.”
By then it was 1965, and with Mc-Cuistion's decision came a near-sure ticket to Vietnam. He was soon training in the F-105, a supersonic, one-man bomber, and by 1967 was bound for southeast Asia.
On his 21st mission, on May 8, 1967, he had just dropped his payload on a railroad line on North Vietnam's coast when he felt the jolt of anti-aircraft fire striking the tail of his plane. He looked in his rear-view mirrors and saw nothing but fire. All the other guys in his formation were yelling at him to punch out.
“I'll see you at the bar,” he said before ejecting at 5,000 feet.
He parachuted down to a scrubby ridgeline and made radio contact with his potential rescuers. But he was also surrounded by members of a local militia who combed the waist-high brush looking for him. He avoided the first line of soldiers that came through, but not the second.
Three rifle-toting soldiers grabbed him and started walking him down the ridge. Someone behind McCuistion then shot him in the arm, angering his other captors. They were set on taking him alive. They bandaged his arm and then re-enacted his capture for a propaganda photo.
McCuistion was marched for several days before being turned over to an officer with a jeep and driver. He was going north to Hanoi.
At one point during the weeks-long trip along muddy trails and bombed out roads, McCuistion was put on display in front of an angry, rock-throwing crowd.
At another stop, he faced his first interrogation by English-speaking officers. When he refused to tell them anything, he was tied to a tree in front of a pair of riflemen. McCuistion placed a finger on his forehead, showing his executioners where to aim. But it had been just a bluff. They dropped their guns.
He cheated death one other time when he was chained to the back of a truck that was hit by fire from a strafing U.S. plane. He didn't know his heart could beat so fast.
The truck soon after pulled up at the front gate of the Hanoi Hilton. McCuistion was immediately put in solitary confinement and tortured. They tied him and contorted his body so much they broke his shoulder. He numbly heard blood-curdling screams — and realized they were his own.
“You can't believe the pain,” he recalled. While his captors surely knew he had no useful information for them, they needed to take their pound of flesh.
Fortunately, his torment was cut short after just a couple of days. The North Vietnamese had shot down a bunch more American pilots and needed to go to work on them.
McCuistion would ultimately spend time in a half dozen prisons, each known to the POWs by a nickname: Zoo, Dog Patch, Zoo Annex, Faith, Plantation. The latter was the immaculate “showcase” prison where the North Vietnamese brought foreign journalists and others to show how well they treated their captives.
Prisoners in Hanoi were issued pajama-like prison suits and sandals made of vehicle tires (McCuistion still has his), a drinking cup, a reed mat to sleep on and two thin blankets that weren't much match for the cold winter nights.
The food could have been worse, usually white rice, vegetable soup and inconsistent French bread. When the bread was old prisoners had to pick bugs out of it. When it was hot and fresh it tasted like heaven. Still, at one point, McCuistion's weight dropped from 170 pounds to about 120.
The job, every day, was to stay alive. Guys would do whatever they could to help and protect each other, McCuistion said. They learned to recite the name of each prisoner — hundreds of names — just so there'd be a record if someone ever got out. One time two guys staying in the same room as McCuistion escaped, but both were caught the next day. One was never seen or heard from again — until his remains were returned by North Vietnam decades later.
One of the biggest challenges was the boredom. Prisoners would do anything to pass the time. They discreetly made playing cards out of the coarse toilet paper. In small gatherings someone would “tell a movie,” reciting a movie plot from memory. It was a treat if the guards gave you a broom and asked you to sweep up.
After three years in captivity, McCuistion was allowed to write a letter home, the first official word anyone had that he was still alive. His wife had been three months pregnant when he left. He soon found he now was the father of a nearly 3-year-old girl. He admits that as the years dragged on his faith in his nation was tested.
“It sure didn't seem like they were doing a hell of a lot to get us out of there.”
McCuistion was back at the Hilton in early 1973. That's when an Air Force colonel, in full uniform, one day walked into the compound. It was the first sign that freedom was near.
POWs not among the sick or wounded would be released based on how long they'd been held. McCuistion, with 2,127 days of captivity, just missed being in the first group. He instead led the second on March 4, 1973.
He and others were bused to the airport and were told the drill: They were to salute the North Vietnamese officer and proceed across the room. Going first, McCuistion blew right by the enemy officer without even looking at him. Everyone else followed his lead.
They flew to the Philippines, and McCuistion enjoyed his first American food in six years: steak and ice cream. That's what everyone wanted.
Before he knew it, he was on the tarmac in Alabama, reunited with his family and saluted as a hero.
He would go on to serve eight more years in the Air Force before retiring. After that he worked for two decades as a commercial pilot.
When he thinks back on his ordeal in Vietnam, he chooses to dwell on the lighter moments, not on the bad.
“I can't moan about being a victim,” he said. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot and do what fighter pilots do. That part didn't work out for me.”
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