Doug Hegdahl was only 20 years old when he decided to join the US Navy. He just wanted to explore and see the world, however, his adventure turned out to be a nightmare.
In the 1960s, the Vietnam War was raging. His country called and Hegdahl answered. He joined the US Navy in 1966 and at first, he became a postal clerk, before being stationed on the USS Canberra as an ammunition handler in 1967. One night in the Gulf of Tonkin, Hegdahl, trying to get a better view, was knocked overboard by blasts from the Canberra‘s guns. He swam for about five hours before he was found by fishermen and turned over to the North Vietnamese Forces. No one was aware, and no one alerted the ship’s captain to Hegdahl’s disappearance. This is where his nightmare begins, but also, where a new hero was born.
Heghdal was brought to the infamous Hỏa Lò Prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton,” where many American POWs were detained and tortured. His captors believed that he was an agent or commando, mostly because his story about being blown overboard wasn’t convincing enough for them. Surprisingly, Heghdal reacted to his situation in a very unique way; by pretending to be an illiterate fool. Using his accent and his country manners to be more convincing, he succeeded and the Vietnamese even started calling him “The incredibly stupid one.”
He was tortured for a few more days before his captors finally were convinced that he was nothing more but an illiterate US Navy apprentice. He even succeeded in convincing them that he couldn’t read, so they assigned someone to teach him how to read. In the end, they concluded that he was too stupid to learn how to read and they gave up.
“The incredibly stupid one” had probably the best memory of anyone in the prison, and he knew how to use it. Doug Hegdahl was able to memorize the names, other personal information, and even capture dates and methods of the capture of some 256 fellow POWs, all to the tune of the old nursery rhyme “Old McDonald Had a Farm.”
His exceptional memory wasn’t the only his only skill, either. He sabotaged five trucks by putting dirt in the gas tanks, and on one occasion convinced his captors that he was in need of glasses -when they took him to the city of Hanoi, he memorized the route from the prison to the city.
The North Vietnamese considered Heghdal worthless as a means of getting information about U.S. maneuvers, and Hegdahl was pressured to take early release. He refused and said that he would wait in solidarity for every one of his POWs to be released. His fellow captives told him to go.
The information that Doug memorized proved to be very valuable and he was sent to Paris to confront the North Vietnamese Peace Delegation on the conditions, torture, and brutalities in the prisons. He might never have fired a gun against the Vietnamese, but his story amazes us, even today.