KINGS BAY, Ga. (NNS) -- CAPT Leo Hyatt, USN (Ret.), held as a Vietnam prisoner of war (POW) for more than five and a half years, was the keynote speaker at the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay POW/MIA commemoration, held Sep. 20 at the Subase Chapel.
On Aug. 13, 1967, during a high-speed photo reconnaissance operation over a railroad bridge just south of the China border, then Lt.Cmdr. Hyatt and his radar/navigation officer, Wayne Goodermote, were shot down by a barrage of fire from 37mm anti-aircraft guns.
At the time, Hyatt was attached to Reconnaissance Attack Squadron 12, homeported at Naval Air Station Sanford in central Florida, flying RA-5C Vigilante missions over North Vietnam off the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CV 64).
"I wasn't supposed to get shot down because I was good," said Hyatt.
He had already piloted 33 high-speed reconnaissance missions, but he told his audience that he believed, given the nature of the mission he was about to fly, that he probably wouldn't make it back to the aircraft carrier.
Hyatt suffered a dislocated and broken shoulder during the ejection from his aircraft at nearly 850 mph, and was shot while trying to evade capture on the ground. His injuries were never treated by the North Vietnamese. Within a couple of days of his capture, he was taken to the Hoa Lo Prison (commonly known as the "Hanoi Hilton"), where he was tortured.
"You were tied up," said Hyatt. "Your arms were lashed behind your back. The ropes come across your elbows. Your feet are shackled to a bar, and you are literally turned into a suitcase. It hurts. You can't breathe. This went on for about three days - day and night."
After one particularly brutal session, he tricked his captors into believing that he was telling them future targets.
"If they took anti-aircraft guns to all the places I told them, they burned up one heck of a load of fuel. I didn't know any targets."
When he was finally thrown back into a cell, he was in very bad shape medically. He credits his first cellmate, Air Force Capt. Ed Atterberry, with saving his life.
"He cleaned me up and gave me water to drink," said Hyatt. "I put him in for the Air Force Cross, but he never got it. He made an unsuccessful escape attempt a couple of years later, and they killed him."
Hyatt was released with the third load of POWs on St. Patrick's Day (March 13) 1973. He had been held as a POW for 2,040 days. After months of medical treatment he continued his career going on to command several Navy units. He retired in 1985 after 28 years of active duty.
Shortly after his release Hyatt said, "The 67 months of captivity will never be redeemable for me. However, it was a small price to pay to help guarantee the freedom of millions of people in South Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia."
"While I was in captivity, I was surrounded by men who displayed such fantastic fortitude, honor and devotion to country that it was impossible to be otherwise. God bless them, our country and those Americans who believe in America and do not spend their every breath criticizing her and trying to tear her apart."
Other notable Navy POWs held at the Hanoi Hilton with Hyatt included Rear Adm. Jeremiah Denton (held 2,766 days); Vice Adm. James Stockdale (held 2,713 days); Capt. Jerry Coffee (held 2,566 days); and Capt. John McCain (held 1966 days). Cdr. Everett Alvarez was the first American sent to the prison, and he was held captive for 3,113 days (more than eight and a half years).
For more news from Trident Refit Facility, Kings Bay, visit www.navy.mil/local/trf/.