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'An Eternity Away': Six Years In A North Vietnamese Prison Camp

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Garret K. Woodward
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Air Force Veteran Tom McNish at home in Franklin

As Americans commemorate the sacrifices of our soldiers this Veterans Day, one Macon man recounts his time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, which he called “an eternity away” from his boyhood Franklin home.

When Tom McNish finally returned to his 400-acre boyhood home, tucked up next to a babbling brook near the top of a broad mountain holler in rural Macon County, he found seven years worth of Christmas presents sitting under a tree.

But it wasn’t Christmas; it was May, 1973, and McNish had just returned from six years of captivity in North Vietnamese prisons after being shot out of the sky near Hanoi.

“I’m the eternal optimist,” he said. “It was never a thought in my mind that I wasn’t going to come back home. From the very beginning, once I figured out they weren’t going to kill me, I could always figure out a reason that I would be home within six months. I had to revise that at least 11 times. Maybe more.”

Sept. 4, 1966 started like any other day for McNish, but after his F-105 Thunderchief sustained a hit during a bombing mission, he couldn’t make it back to friendly territory.

“So out I went, with the ejection seat. About, oh, about 550 knots. It was a pretty stiff breeze,” he said. “I was coming right down close to a little collection of huts, and the closer I got the more it was obvious they were standing there with guns waiting for me.”

That was the start of exactly 2,373 days in North Vietnamese prison camps for McNish, who was subjected to periodic torture sessions that included solitary confinement, beatings and constriction.

“And then when they figured out I wasn’t going to talk very much, they started getting serious with what we later called the Vietnamese rope trick. It was where they would tie your elbows together behind your back with a rope. Believe it or not, your elbows can touch behind your back,” he said. “I don’t know if mine could now or not.”

The presence of other Americans in the Hanoi Hilton was a something of a blessing for McNish, who quickly learned the importance of having basic human contact with prisoners in adjacent cells.

“It turns out, the way that to make sure that there’s somebody there, and that they’re an American was just the old standard: [“Shave and a haircut” knocking bit, tap-taptap-taptap]. If it’s an American,” he said, “they’re going to come back with the two taps [“two bits,” taptap.]

One of them was the late U.S. Senator, John McCain.

“He was in the cell right next to me,” said McNish. “There were four to a cell in those 2 meter-square cells, so we communicated by tapping.”

That would be the closest McNish came to meeting McCain in prison, but eventually both were released to a world that after years of imprisonment was hard to recognize.

“The thing I noticed most was the new technology,” he said. “I could take something that was the size of a cigarette pack and I could calculate numbers all the way up to whatever, at least it was just four functions at that time.”

During his nearly six years in North Vietnam, McNish had missed some significant cultural events, like the assasinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Moon Landing, Woodstock, and Kent State. But perhaps the biggest surprise was how soldiers were treated upon returning home.

“They come home from serving their country, putting their life on the line and they come back to a country where they’ve got to take their uniform off before they go out in public,” he said. “They get spit on, they get yelled at, they’re called baby killers. It’s just absolutely atrocious.”

In retrospect, McNish thinks that was an important lesson.

“You know what? I think that one of the positive things that’s come from the Vietnam War, that we have learned from that experience is that you don’t blame the soldier for the war,” he said. “You see soldiers in uniform today, walking proudly in public in their uniforms and being told “Thank you for your service.” That to me is a great blessing."

McNish became a flight surgeon and physician upon his return, and coming full circle was sent to the Middle East in 1991 to bring back America’s 21 POWs from operation Desert Storm.

Smoky Mountain News Features Editor Garret K. Woodward contributed to this report. Read his print story about McNish at https://www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/25900-never-give-up-franklin-native-survived-years-of-torture-in-vietnam-pow-camp