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How a Vietnam War POW used the Tune of “Old MacDonald” to Save Lives

Sylvain Batut
Doug Hegdahl
Doug Hegdahl

For American prisoners of war in Vietnam, the “Hanoi Hilton” was their hell. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, over 2,500 American military personnel were accounted for as either prisoner of war or missing in action during the Vietnam War, with many of them imprisoned in the notorious Hỏa Lò camp in Hanoi. But for seaman Doug Hegdahl, this notorious jail was his theatre of operations.

Hegdahl was born on a farm in Clark, South Dakota in 1946. As reported by Military.com, he once said he had never traveled “east of his uncles’ Dairy Queen stand in Glenwood, Minnesota or west of his aunt’s house in Phoenix, Arizona.”

Motivated by a desire to travel and hopefully realize his dream to visit Australia, Hegdahl enlisted in the Navy in 1966. He was assigned to the cruiser USS Canberra as an ammunition handler, according to Military.com. The Navy was patrolling the South China Sea as part of the American effort to blockade Communist North Vietnam.

The Hanoi Hilton in a 1970 aerial surveillance photo

The Hanoi Hilton in a 1970 aerial surveillance photo

On the night of April 6, 1967, USS Canberra was conducting an operation firing at targets on the shore. The inexperienced Hegdahl went on deck to get a good view and got knocked overboard by the shock of the ship firing its guns.

Hegdahl’s reason for moving to deck remains confusing to this day. Military.com reported that the young man was “excited at the prospect of seeing a night bombardment.”

USS Canberra

USS Canberra

War History Online provides a different story, saying that he could have been there to just “take a breath of fresh air,” or throw garbage from the fantail, pointing out that both actions were in violation of ship rules.

Thankfully, Hegdahl was a good swimmer. After five hours in the water, he was picked up by Vietnamese fishermen who, according to Military.com, treated him respectfully – but then handed him over him to the Viet Cong. The militia interrogated him and “almost clubbed him to death,” before he was sent to Hỏa Lò Prison.

Hoả Lò. Photo by thalling55 CC BY 2.0

Hoả Lò. Photo by thalling55 CC BY 2.0

His time as a prisoner of war was a rather uncommon experience. Hegdahl rebelled against his captors in a uniquely brilliant way – by making them believe that he was hopelessly stupid.

The communists showed him anti-American propaganda that some higher-ranking American officers had written and instructed the young sailor to do the same.

Hegdahl figured that these had been extracted from his fellow POWs under duress and did not want to face the same torture himself. So good-naturedly agreeing to his captors request, he explained to them there was one snag that he blamed on his rural upbringing – he didn’t know how to read or write.

Exterior view of the prisoner of war camp “Hanoi Hilton”

Exterior view of the prisoner of war camp “Hanoi Hilton”

His ruse worked. The North Vietnamese believed it, given that in these days, many farmers in North Vietnam were illiterate themselves. In truth, Hegdahl was quick witted and had a fantastic memory.

In the face of his situation, Hegdahl did an incredible job just acting dumb in front of his captors. He acted amazed at the sight of Vietnamese farms, and even played up his country accent.

The impressive success of Hegdahl’s faking stupidity lured the North Vietnamese into a false sense of security. They let Hegdahl do the cleaning and sweeping around the camp, as they believed he was mentally challenged. He was even given the nickname “The Incredibly Stupid One.”

Hỏa Lò Prison Rules. Photo by Ptrump16 CC BY-SA 4.0

Hỏa Lò Prison Rules. Photo by Ptrump16 CC BY-SA 4.0

Now allowed to move almost freely around the camp with no suspicion from the guards, Hegdahl used this new job to gather intelligence from within the camp. His performance as a spy within the prison was incredible: he located the buildings in which his fellow American prisoners were held and acted as a runner between them.

More impressive yet, he damaged five North Vietnamese Army prison trucks by putting dirt in their gas tanks, waiting for the moment when the prison guards would be taking their siesta.

Hegdahl’s first cellmate was Air Force officer Joe Crecca. A master of mnemonic aids, Crecca told Doug Hegdahl the names of 256 POWs detained with them at Hỏa Lò, using the tune of “Old Macdonald” as a way to remember these names.

Old MacDonald Had a Farm

Old MacDonald Had a Farm

Captain Dick Stratton was Hegdahl’s second cellmate and the highest ranking officer in charge of the American inmates within the camp. Despite a pledge that all Americans would leave the camp together or not at all, Stratton ordered Hegdahl to leave – he was the only POW at the Hanoi Hilton ever ordered so. Indeed, Hegdahl could with his knowledge help free all his brothers in arms at Hỏa Lò.

Related Video: 8 Things You May Not Know About the Vietnam War

After his release in 1969, Hegdahl delivered information on other detained Americans. Not just their names, but also their ranks, social security numbers, and even odd details such as the names of their kids or dog. He then took part in the 1970 Paris Peace Talks, accusing the North Vietnamese of torture.

Hỏa Lò Prison memorial. Photo by Helenakfronczak CC BY SA 4.0

Hỏa Lò Prison memorial. Photo by Helenakfronczak CC BY SA 4.0

Because of his accusations, the North Vietnamese became less brutal, provided better food, and global treatment of the prisoners improved, We Are the Mighty reports.

Naval Aviator Dick Stratton was among those held at the Hanoi Hilton who were forever grateful for the impressive work Doug Hegdahl performed. Stratton wrote in his memoirs: “’The Incredibly Stupid One,’ my personal hero, is the archetype of the innovative, resourceful and courageous American Sailor.”

Read another story from us: The Greatest Beer Run in History Happened During the Vietnam War

Hegdahl went on to become a human rights activist, eventually singing his version of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” at an event in 1998. His story is a formidable example of the American military tradition to “Leave No One Behind.”