TOYS AND GAMES: Hanoi Hilton Didn’t Win
Talk about an honor, I had the privilege, and pleasure, to catch up with retired Air Force Lt. Col. Barry B. Bridger at his home in Kansas City on Tuesday.
BarryBBridger Lt. Col. Barry Bridger as a young man.
I had not seen him since the early 1970s, a short while after he’d returned from Vietnam.
Though younger than my father and the others in his hunting and fishing group, Barry became their friend while stationed at MacDill Air Force base in Tampa during the 1960s. I remember as a young boy seeing how devastated everyone from that group was after receiving the news that Barry had been classified as missing in action.
He’d been flying an F-4 Phantom in a combat mission in North Vietnam on Jan. 23, 1967 when he was shot down over Son Tay by a surface-to-air missile. After his capture, he was sent to the infamous prison camp known as the Hanoi Hilton. At one point, Sen. John McCain had been in the cell next to him. All told, Barry spent 2,232 days in captivity before getting released during “Operation Homecoming” on March 4, 1973.
Barry Bridger Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Barry Bridger showing me his boat. “Your father would love this,” he said.
Barry’s wife, Sheila, fixed us tacos that we ate while we talked and looked outside the kitchen window at a marvelous variety of birds that included a Hummingbird, a Yellow Finch, and an Oriole.
He shared a story about his Labrador Retriever, Lobo, who had gone berserk while kenneled at a Tampa veterinarian’s office on the night when he’d gotten shot down.
I told Barry that one of the few times I ever saw my father cry was when Dad saw Barry on TV after stepping off the plane in the United States — alive. Of course, hearing him talk about how much he loved my father made my whole day.
Barry speaks freely about what he endured, and he believes the way he and the others were able to survive the torture — both mental and physical, came down to values. He noted that each of them were faced with a choice once they were captured: Provide the enemy with information or be tortured.
Individually, they all chose torture.
In his mind, the choice had been a simple one given the fact he and the others came from an American culture and virtue that saw them “raised with the values that built this country.”
They weren’t about to let each other down.
“We arrived in Hanoi with those values and those values are what brought us home,” Barry said. “Never, never underestimate the power of the human spirit.”
Today, Barry Bridger is 76, he’s full of life, and he maintains a marvelous half-a-glass full persona. Motivational speaking occupies his time on occasion, he’s trying to learn now to play the guitar, he still hunts and fishes, and he enjoys living a life in the Land of the Free.
Consider his story and it’s damn near impossible to have a bad day.