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Interview with Michael Thomas Burns [11/15/2003]

R.J. Stuart:

This is the beginning of an interview with Mike Burns at his home at 654 Siesta Drive in Sarasota, Florida. Mr. Burns is 59 years old having been born on October 18, 1944. My name is R.J. Stuart and I will be the interviewer. Mike Burns is my uncle. Please state for the recording what war and branch of service you served in.

Michael Thomas Burns:

I was U.S. Air Force in the Vietnam War and I served between 1968 and 1972.

R.J. Stuart:

What was your Rank?

Michael Thomas Burns:

I was a second lieutenant when I went in and I was a captain when I came out in February 1973.

R.J. Stuart:

Where you drafted or did you enlist?

Michael Thomas Burns:

I went to college joined RO.T.C., went to ninety days summer camp they call it for R.O.T.C ... went to .. .I joined, I volunteered, I wanted to fly jets.

R.J. Stuart:

Where were you living at the time?

Michael Thomas Burns:

I was ah, in Greencastle, Indiana, DePauw University when I was RO.T.e. Went to summer camp in Kansas City, Richards Gabauer Air Force base and I went to pilot school in Enid, Oklahoma.

R.J. Stuart:

What was your main reason for joining the service?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Well, when I was a boy I can recall watching World War II films, watching P-51 ' s rolling inverted and diving through the clouds wondering how wonderful that would be to do that and in R.O.T.e. it just came up that I qualified for pilot training, it is the first, sort of, introductory test and I always wanted to serve my country, always most people wanted to serve some where and that's why.

R.J. Stuart:

Do you recall your first day in the service, what were you thinking on the first day, did you like it?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Well, I loved it. After, R.O.T.c. summer camp I went right into pilot school and that was pilot school is awesome. You get to first of all, it is a bunch of guys about your age and you learn how to fly these little props about twelve hours and then you start moving into jet engines and the whole idea of flying, the whole tradition of, flying and fighting really takes over, you really just can't wait to get up in the air.

R.J. Stuart:

Could you tell me a little bit about your training experiences?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Let's see, as I said we had about twelve hours in, it's a Cessna 1-72, and that's a piece of cake to fly. Then it's a real small straight wing T-37 twin engine jet we called it the "tweet" because its got a real loud scream to the engine when they're taxiing, its real maneuverable about five months in that airplane and then the last six months are in the TT38 which is the astronauts' chase plane and it's a white needle nose jet that follows the shuttle down and the combat version of it is the F-5. So the question was? Those were the airplanes that they fly in pilot school.

R.J. Stuart:

When you enlisted in service where exactly did you go?

Michael Thomas Burns:

First place, pilot school, Enid, Oklahoma for one year, fifty-two weeks of pilot training. Then Tucson, Arizona for F-4 training then to the state of Washington for two weeks of survival school up near the Canadian border. Then to Homestead air force base in Florida for sea survival and to the Philippine Islands for a week in the jungles, for jungle survival then to my base in Thailand.

R.J. Stuart:

When you arrived in Thailand, what was it like? _ Were the people friendly to you?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Let's see, I arrived in May 29, yeah the Thai are real friendly to the Americans, at least back then. I think they still are. It was hotter than blazes, I mean it was very humid and this air base is out it's a scraped out, I guess it's all jungle at one time but now it's all pretty flat. It's very primitive. There's a house for the officers club, there's a place for us to sleep called a "hooch", and the flight line where the hangers and where the jets were kept.

R.J. Stuart:

What was your job or assignment, your first job?

Michael Thomas Burns:

I was a back seater in the F -4. Out of pilot school in 1968, some guy named Robert McNamara, or someone like him, had this bright idea about two pilots in a fighter was better than one, but I promise you that two fighter pilots in the same airplane never works. They kept that concept up for about two years and then abandoned it to make it F-4's and the guys right out of pilot school about two years after I was out. So my job was to like kind of assist the guy in front, I ran the radar, I landed it from the back seat, I've flown formation from the back seat and you're a pair of eyes to look out for other airplanes, missiles or targets.

R.J. Stuart:

Did you ever see combat?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Well, I had eighteen missions. I was shot down on my eighteenth mission. And some of those were the kind of missions where they drove you up and about 20,000 feet and they vectored you around and tell you to drop bombs now. And you just release your bombs through the clouds and somebody on the ground was planning, you know, a target down there that they wanted you to hit. But most of the flights were flying around at about five thousand feet driving up and down roads looking for anything moving. There was one or two times where we were bombing something in a valley, blowing up a bridge and we went down and I was flying with a guy, a Thunderbird pilot actually, and he went down in this valley, just under the mach, and dropped the bombs and pulled out about 7 G pull out and there was a ... we got below the hills and I could look out the side of me and I could see this white tracers of a fifty caliber. He was right even with us, but he wasn't leading us. And I could see the bullets coming out but going behind us. But this guy just hauled ass through that valley but. .. and I had a couple of other missions like that until the last one when I was shot down.

R.J. Stuart:

Were there many casualties in your unit?

Michael Thomas Burns:

No, you know I don't recall. It was the four 43rd tactical fighter unit, who were called "Satan's Angels," as our pack, I really don't I ... was there a month when I was shot down.

R.J. Stuart:

Could you tell me a couple of your most memorable experiences?

Michael Thomas Burns:

At the base?

R.J. Stuart:

Or in combat.

Michael Thomas Burns:

Well, I think the most memorable would be the shoot-down. Do you want to talk about that? Or is that later?

R.J. Stuart:

Yeah, Later.

Michael Thomas Burns:

OK, well, I've watched F-4's come back from missions with huge holes in them. The kind that in the wings that you could almost squirm up through, a man could squiggle through and that airplane kept flying. It was a rugged airplane, and if you didn't hit the hydraulics underneath the belly it would take alot of hits. Being there only a month, there wasn't alot of things happening except briefings. I flew a few night missions where we were driving around in absolute dark and you couldn't tell up from down except from instruments and you could see twinkles of light. People, soldiers shooting at you with their guns, but it didn't get heavy. I mean I just didn't get up, I didn't get to fly over Hanoi or anything like that until, well I never really got to. The most memorable experience was when I got shot down.

R.J. Stuart:

Were you a Prisoner Of War?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Yes.

R.J. Stuart:

Could you please describe what had happened to you in your accident when you were captured?

Michael Thomas Burns:

We were on an armed reconnaissance with one other F-4. We were two, lead was out about one mile ahead of us and we would look at the maps before we would go out and decide exactly where we'd fly up and down what rivers, so we were driving up and down this road at about 3:00 o'clock in the afternoon and my front seater, Major Crumpler, said he saw some guns at the base of this hill, down to our right, so we jacked up the airspeed and we rolled in at about 5,000 feet and as we came down lining up on the guns, we got pretty low, the guns were at the base of the hill and there was ... the hill was probably about a thousand feet. Anyways, we released the bombs about that time, all the traces came up, and they were red and they say the red ones are 35mm, so they all came up, and I could feel this thumping on the bottom of the airplane. We pulled out well over five hundred knots, right over the trees, right over that hill, and as we pulled out and banked, I looked back to see where a bomb hit. The last two-thirds of the airplane was a ball of fire. I couldn't see the tail and I don't think Crumpler noticed that we were burning .. .I mean he was getting ready to make another bomb run. So I told him that we were hit and head for the South China Sea and out there to the right, to the east. So we headed for the South China Sea and started driving that airplane and when we got to about eight thousand feet, at one point, one of the engines died, it was just zero. The other engine was on after burner and we got real slow, about two hundred knots, and then the airplane jerked down real hard and jerked up real hard, threw us around in the canopy and then it just fell out of the sky. I mean it just fell, because I could see the earth go by, then the canopies, then the blue sky, then the earth. Then we ejected and I came down through the clouds and I came down in a wide open field. Should I keep going?

R.J. Stuart:

Yes, sure.

Michael Thomas Burns:

So I came down in a wide-open field. It was a perfect parachute-landing roll. I rolled my chute up and hid it. And as I was down there I could hear this rat-tat-tat-tat. It was coming from all around. It was gunfire way out in the distance and they were shooting in my direction, so I couldn't see anybody. It was the fields, scrub fields, there wasn't, weren't any trees, so I started ... so once I hid the chute, I got my radio out and I pulled out the antennae. I called the other airplanes up there someplace, there were some low clouds now. I said, "this is Burns, I am on the ground and I am OK." And the voice came over and said we didn't see your chute. Give us a reading from that smoke in the hills. I looked over at the hills that we were bombing at one time and there was a black column of smoke burning and that was our F-4 burning. So took my compass out and dropped it on the ground and it said 045. So I said 045 about 2 miles. He said head west we will try a pick-up in the morning. So I started running to the west, and if you run for two weeks day and night, 24 hours a day, you might get into the hills but it was hope. So I started running to the west and at some point I got real tired and I looked down and I still had my G-suit on, the fast pants we call them. So I had to unbuckle that, throw it in the weeds and I kept running. I could still hear gunfire, this rat-tat-tat-tat, from different directions and so I saw this one bush, a huge stand of bushes, so I crawled into it and I pulled all the weeds up behind me that I bent like they teach us in survival school, and I sat there. It got as quiet as this room. And I could see the sun, sort of coming down, you know slowly going down, time is passing. I took my .38 out. We carry these loaded 38's. And I figured if there is someone between me and that helicopter I'll use it. But I didn't need it. So I put it in the dirt next to me and I just waited. Then, I don't know how much time went by .. , some, and then I heard this crackling noise behind me. So as I turned around to look and there was this little Vietnamese man, looked like about 60, with a black T-shirt, black shorts. He would take two cautious steps into the weeds coming right towards me and then he would bend down and look through the reeds, through the stems of the bushes, and he didn't see me. And he would take a couple more steps and finally his eyes met mine. He was about ten feet away and his eyes got real big and he kind of fell backwards and started screaming and as I turned around about five guys, Vietnamese, piled through the bush. They had crept up to it and were standing right on the outside of it. They had jumped through the bush and I was looking up the barrel of four or five AK 47's. They have great big barrels like a nickel or a quarter. So, that is how I got captured.

R.J. Stuart:

Alright, and could you teU me about your experiences in captivity and when you were freed and your experiences then?

Michael Thomas Burns:

I got captured, Crumpler got captured. My friend, see they took us. There was a couple of days where I didn't have enough water or something. I thought I was in a dream. We walked through the night. Walked and walked. Then they tied us up and we would have to wait and then we would get up and walk some more. They took us to a hooch and all, alot of those communities ... this community where I was held for twenty days, right near where I was shot down, every building was underground. Only the roof was above ground. The walls of the hut, the mud, they dug out. It was probably about seven feet deep because I could stand up without a problem. Well, this one hooch I had a cave about five feet deep and three feet high. And that is where I stayed for twenty days and Crumpler had a cave on the other side of the building. I do remember there was a little family of frogs back there and they sat right up over my shoulder[Hand-motions]. They sat up there. I was about six inches from them. We were eyeball to eyeball. They were my only friends for twenty days. They dragged me out and tied me to this pole, same as Crumpler. They would have a show-and-tell. The whole village would walk through and that went on for about twenty days. We had different guards. They took turns guarding us. Somebody was suppose to keep us alive and I remember this one guard came in, and I have to tell you about this guy, carne in, he was like what I thought a Vietminh soldier, like a professional jungle soldier. He had these spindly legs like a . runner, shorts, blue T-shirt, he had a rice sack, a roll of rice, they wear over one shoulder, that was his food, an AK-47, shock of black hair, high cheek bones. His eyes were just barely open, just slants. And he came in to this place, where I was held. I saw him coming in. He threw everybody out. He would just shood them all out. And threw them out. I was back in my cave. I was watching this and then he came over to my cave, got down in front and he motioned me out. And so I came to the opening of the cave, and he took out a bar of tobacco. It is just a hard bar, and some, a white paper and he took out a big knife and he scraped off tobacco in this piece of paper. He actually took two pieces of paper, he scraped off tobacco in both. He took mine. He took one rolled it up like an ice cream cone kinda licked it, glued it and handed it to me. Then he made his. Rolled it up, ice cream cone, licked it, then he found a match, lit my cigarette, lit his, and we stood there smoking and just looking at me, wasn't evil, wasn't mad. He was just looking at another soldier. It was quite a moment. Then we were finished with the cigarette, he kind of went, kind of in a sense, like OK. Everything OK? I said OK. He said get back in there. Then he let everybody come back down. He was my guard for a couple of days, then after twenty days, they loaded ... well no, another guy came down, F-I 05 pilot, Grover James. He bailed out at about 600 knots and his leg was broken. It was stiff. And he looked like he had been burnt. I thought, he was, I didn't know what had happened to him. He looked awful, but the three of us started north. And we ... could only drive at night because there are F -4's and F -1 05's up there driving around trying to blow up trucks on the roads and that is where we were now. So we came to a village after two days and they stopped and they took me off the truck and pushed me into this one village. They kept pushing and everyone was screaming and it was dark and there were torches and they shoved me into this hooch and it was all dark and smoky. I could see alot of forms in there and they pushed me over to the side of it and there was a body on the ground and they were shoving me down and it was an American. And he had a cast on his one leg and a cast, a cast on his left arm I think, and a cast on his right leg. (It was opposite.) And he was lying and his other hand was covering his eyes. He was lying on his back and they wanted me to take care of him, so they shoved me down to him and I got down close to him and people outside screaming and kind of forming up and he mumbled something. I got closer, I said are you OK? And then he mumbled something else and I said I can't hear you buddy. I said are you OK? He said, "do you like parades?" And he was referring to ... he thought, we were going to be paraded through this village. And that was the first words out of his mouth. Bobby Fat. .. he became a very close friend. He just had a way of looking at doom or looking at disaster and have, or coming up with these one-liners. He was great! So we didn't get into a parade. They just wanted me to wipe his butt, to clean him up. He was just a mess. He was lying in his own shit and they didn't want to touch him and that is what I did. I nurse maided him for a couple of years really. And he was a prisoner for five years like me. When he got back [home] his fiancee that he left was waiting for him, and I was his best man about a month after we got back, if you could believe that. But then the four of us ... they trucked us up to Hanoi and we arrived at the Hanoi Hilton, downtown Hanoi, thirty-five days after I was shot down.

R.J. Stuart:

WelL.When you were in prison, did you ever communicate in any way to your comrades?

Michael Thomas Burns:

My first cell was with Fat and James because they were both injured and I wasn't and I could take care of them, so I would carry them to the wash rag, you know, fireman's carry. Once a week we would go throw water on ourselves. We arrived in August. Lots of interrogations. They didn't get any because they were wounded. They would drag me up there and talk to me all the time and we heard coughing. We knew there was Americans around. I could hear men making these sounds. We knew this place was full of Americans, but we couldn't talk to them. We were not allowed to talk above a whisper, then January '69, we were just in our cell. It was freezing. We could hear this (the Vietnamese have a noon hour at 11 :00 o'clock) ... they ring a gong and the whole town goes to sleep for two hours. They take a siesta. At 1 :00 o'clock, the gong rings and everybody wakes up. The gong went off at 11 :00 o'clock this January about mid January '69, and got real quiet, and after a while I could hear, cell four get under your door, cell four [whispering]. And it was across the hall, dark hall that you have the picture. There was a guy named Jerry Marble. He was a captain in the Marine Corps. Captain Marble and he was under the door whispering, yelling for us to get under the door. And that was the first contact we had with anyone. So Fat got up in the window, stood on James, so to look out and see where the guard was and I got under the door, it is about a 2" rise from the door to the floor, and I could look across the hall, this dark hall, and I could see this bright, this bald head, and bright shining teeth, and bright eyes, and Jerry Marble. He was in there in solitary confinement. Just his big smile. He was smiling at us and he asked us who we were, when we got shot down, what was going on in the world. Then he told us the tap code and said practice it, memorize it and get on the wall tonight. We could hear this thumping and bounce and things that made no sense to us. But we practiced the tap code and that night we were ears to the wall after the guards cleared out and we could now talk. We were now communicating with the rest of the prison camp. You could talk to the next cell, they talk to the next cell, the next cell, the next cell, and word would get around, conversations, everybody would know who was there, who the ranking officer was. Everybody knew what the ranks were down to the lowest and who was being tortured. It was an amazing system it worked all night long.

R.J. Stuart:

Can you describe the surroundings you encountered in the prison?

Michael Thomas Burns:

When I first got into that prison camp (you've got the picture there), it is all gray. It is like purgatory almost. It felt like life ended. Well, it doesn't, it's just you've got to make the big adjustment, either quit or you just kind of adapt to it. And they kept me in a small cell for a long time and then I was with these two guys who were wounded for a month or so, and then they moved us, these (Fat, James and myself) into Thunderbird Ford and that is where we stayed for about a year or year and a half. I remember that first time they walked me down the hall to ... down the courtyard to Thunderbird. I could hear this .. .I thought, God, where is everybody? I could hear sneezing and you know, just coughing, and I could hear men's noises, and I could hear the loud speaker. They had a loud speaker in every cell, and there was this tired old man. It sounded like reading. He was an American ... he was a P.O.W ... reading about how the glorious war was going in the south and how we lost 10,000 men today and had eighteen planes shot down and he sounded, (I just thought to myself), "God, what did they do to that guy?" It sounded awful and well, I got used to it. That is just the way he read and they put us in cells, 9x9, 9x12. There are several different camps. There is probably about twelve different prison camps. All different kinds of room situations. At the Hanoi Hilton, downtown in Thunderbird, it was a 9x 12 room. There was the three of us. Our bathroom is a black bucket. It's just a bucket. It is like, like, about a foot and a half high. Just, you know, I don't know, what the circumference is, maybe a foot and a half around and we called it the "black stallion," but that is where, what we used for the bathroom. And they would come in the morning, God, 6 o'clock or 5:30, open that door, you would have to stand up, somebody would take the bucket out, full to the brim, walk down to the ... there was a rack with a hole to dump the bucket in. You've got to use your drinking cup, throw some water in and slither around, dump that in, bring it back to your room then they'd put three bowls of soup down and slam the door and leave. And then we tried to communicate all day, umm in summer, well, in the summertime, the wintertime was different. We tried to keep up with who was being tortured and who was senior and what we were supposed to do if there ... keep up with the news, keep up hope. What was the question?

R.J. Stuart:

Well, I'll just go to the next one. What did you get for food?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Well, basically it was soup twice a day. And I can't remember what was in the winter and what was in the summer. But from November or October until like March it was boiled greens and pork fat. Little pieces of pork fat with the hair sticking up. And then, from ... March through the summer up until late October it was boiled pumpkin with pork fat. A loaf, a small loaf, a small like a half or a third loaf of bread ... (you know). The French were there for sixty some years, so it was their bread. They had these bole weevils ... we called them little black bugs in there that guys just ate because they said they were dead. It was probably protein anyway, so that was our basic food.

R.J. Stuart:

How did you feel inside ... did you have any hope, did you feel people were looking for you?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Well, the first year I was getting used to being in prison camp. [It] is extremely difficult where you are cut off from everybody. I mean, it is not that you are in j ail and you can go out in the courtyard and you can talk with one hundred guys. You are in ... you are in this cell with one person for a year and a half, or maybe a year with two people. You can't talk above a whisper. There is no TV. There's no distractions, just you. Y ou're stuck there. And you can tap on the walls to the cell mate next to you. And you'd better be careful. And, direct me that question again.

R.J. Stuart:

How did you feel inside?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Oh yeah ... that first year, I felt, I thought I was full of rage ... how I could be kept there. I've said it before, if someone had thrown an automatic weapon through the cell bars, and a fully loaded automatic weapon, there is a point in that first year where when they opened the door, I would have run out shooting and just trying to take as many people as I can, because that is how I felt. I felt that this was the end anyway. Well, at some point I started adjusting inside about this long-term event that might be coming up and tried to adjust my inner clock so that when it happens I am going to be together. I'm not going to be coming apart. I'm going to just keep my head and keep working in the future and taking care of my friends and staying in close touch with my comrrades. That was probably the biggest thing I think that is another question isn't it?

R.J. Stuart:

Uh, no ... what did you dream about the most?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Up there?

R.J. Stuart:

Yeah

Michael Thomas Burns:

It depended. First, it was food. We just dreamed about food to the point where we actually discussed let's not. .. oh, we talked about. I don't know about dreaming, but we talked about it, but it could, you know, it would create an illusion uh, where it was almost too much. And I don't know what, I can't remember any dreams up there. I really can't remember any dreams. I was just happy when I could get sleep because when you are sleeping, you are not there, you are someplace else and, I don't know that I particularly had any dreams. I had some when I got back. I had some escape dreams where I took out somebody and started running, but I don't remember any up there.

R.J. Stuart:

If any, how much weight did you lose?

Michael Thomas Burns:

I was about 178 or so, 180, when I was shot down. I don't know when I came back, maybe 155 or something, 150, 155, 165 so I lost about 25 pounds.

R.J. Stuart:

How did you stay in touch with your family?

Michael Thomas Burns:

They didn't know what happened to me for the first year and a half. First eighteen months they heard nothing. All they knew was that I was shot down and there was some garbled information about whether they saw a shoot or not. So, it wasn't until, let's see Cora Weiss, from the ... one of those groups, came up and they allowed us to write these short letters where you could [write], "Hi I am fine, how are you?" So that's what I did and that is the first time that they heard from me.

R.J. Stuart:

I heard you say the black stallion once before, how did you come about it's name?

Michael Thomas Burns:

I don't know it was probably Fat or somebody. He just ... he never stopped coming up with one liners and people like him. Even James (Grover James), his first two cell mates of mine, they had one liners that like cracked me up. Like one time James was sick. He wasn't feeling well or something. He was sitting on the floor in the cell and it was me and Fat and we had a guard on duty. We called him alot of names and he was big, about six feet. He was in alot of the torture. He liked to taunt and harass. He punched me a few times because I wouldn't bow. Anyway he was on duty and we ... we were you say "bow cow"(talking in Vietnamese) you yell it through the bars ... to get help I don't even know what it means, but he came back. He came back. We were trying to get some help for James and he just gave us alot of crap. He just yelled at us, get in our face, slammed the door. He'd come back ten or fifteen minutes later, open the door you know, pushing and shoving and threatening. We were trying to get help for him. Slammed the door, come back, and one time he left and he was gone. And we could hear the keys jingling as he was coming back and we were all thinking, oh God, now what? So he opened the door and he had a plate, a metal plate, with some bread on it. And it was fried. It was fried in grease and sugar. So it was like a sugar bread. And he kind of threw on the floor for James and I put it down in front of him. And he goes and slammed the door, locked it, we could hear keys jingling away. We were just in this silence, this sort of stunned silence, Fat, James on the floor and me. And then after a minute James, who was sick and everything, he looks up and says, you know he is really a nice guy. And it just cracked us both up and I don't know where he comes up with that stuff. I am not sure what the question was. What was the question?

R.J. Stuart:

[sound] How did you stay in touch with your family?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Letter, well then we got to write a letter after that first one, about once, I don't know, about once a quarter or once every four or five months ... a six line letter. You can ... [say] you're fine. You really can't say very much. You can't talk about what is gomg on around you.

R.J. Stuart:

Before you were captured did you feel pressure or stress?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Yeah.

R.J. Stuart:

You did? All right.

Michael Thomas Burns:

[laughter].

R.J. Stuart:

Was there something special you did for good luck?

Michael Thomas Burns:

No. I was twenty-three and it...I never considered it would happen to me. I never even gave it a second thought.

R.J. Stuart:

How did people entertain themselves when you were on duty?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Injail?

R.J. Stuart:

Actually before.

Michael Thomas Burns:

Before?

R.J. Stuart:

Yeah.

Michael Thomas Burns:

Well, we drank alot at the officer's club bar, sleep, go into the town ofUbon,just a little smelly town, smelled of garbage. I actually met a Vietnamese woman who worked on the base there, named Cat, that was her nickname. She spoke excellent English. She was bright. .. knew alot of pilots, just knew alot of stuff and we were just sort of becoming friends when I got shot down and I went into the village, into the town a couple of times with her and in Thailand. You always go with a chaperone. She had a little friend that went with us everywhere. And there was one hotel about three stories high. And we went up in the top roof of it. There was a restaurant up there and ate Thai salads and hamburgers, something like a hamburger. And I was security officer for the 43rd fighter squadron I suppose to be a fighter pilot and something else. So that is what I got to do. So I started getting interested in it. I tried to find out what I was suppose to do with lots of records around and try to get immobilized.

R.J. Stuart:

And when you were in the cell what did you do to entertain yourself? If anything at all.

Michael Thomas Burns:

Well...it was difficult by yourself or with another person. We talked a lot. We talked about every single thing you can think about in your life and ask that person every single thing they can think about. Talk about God and religion and I soon found out there was alot of bright people out there. Some of them had European commands and they just remembered lots of things and so I learned poetries I mentioned. I learned Shakespeare. We told movies. We ... there was a guy who was a butcher once, before he was in the navy and he could draw a cow on the floor with a rock and we talked about the pieces of meat and just spend hours discussing the pros and cons. There was a couple people who knew wines and where they came from, the different parts of France, and Germany and Italy. And they knew this stuff and so we spent hours listening to that and talking about it. There was a [type of] math, people taught math. People knew the Bible up and forwards, so that was something else that we talked about. Alot of times, RJ, alot of days were this: where they'd open the doors at 6 o'clock, put the food in. Somebody would go empty your bucket, the shit bucket, bring it back, and close that door and that was the last thing that happened in your life until about 6 o'clock that night when it opened again and they'd take those two bowls and set down two other bowls and slam the door. So you had twelve hours somehow to pass with nothing but yourself and maybe one person, or maybe two if you're lucky. Twelve hours and the time went by like ... the clock seemed to ,like ... a second seemed to take an hour. It just, this one cell, the golden nugget where I could lay at the back of my bed. This wood bunk and with my head, I could look up through the glass out across the wall, outside of the prison and there was a tree, a full green tree on the outside of the prison. And this one summer, I think it's 1969, I watched that tree in the morning, when light came up, I just stared at it for hours and I could see that when the sun came up, that Hanoi sun in the summer, and just beat that tree, I could see it actually wrinkle, I mean actually droop under the beating of that sun. At least it appeared to me [laughter ... chuckle]. I mean that's how we'd pass time. And in the morning it would be all sprit zed up again with the dew and everything was ready to go but passing time was hard.

R.J. Stuart:

Do you recall any particularly humorous or unusual events that happened to you?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Yeah, I mean sometimes I couldn't tell you one crack now, that thing about what I just told you about, Grover James, one of my favorite people in all of the world. His oneeliners .. .1 couldn't think of one now, but there where times when I held my gut and laughed as hard as I could quietly, if you have ever done that, tried not to make a noise and I couldn't tell you what it was about.

R.J. Stuart:

Do you have photographs from your P.O.W. camp?

Michael Thomas Burns:

I've got. . .I've got some that you have, and I have a book that has an overview of the camp. I've even got a color photo of that somewhere of the big camp downtown, someplace but...the answer is yes.

R.J. Stuart:

All right.

Michael Thomas Burns:

The answer is yes.

R.J. Stuart:

Who are the people in these photographs that were with you at the time?

Michael Thomas Burns:

I don't have photographs like that.

R.J. Stuart:

Did you have a personal diary?

Michael Thomas Burns:

No. I had nothing to write with.

R.J. Stuart:

Do you recall the day your service ended?

Michael Thomas Burns:

March either 13th or 14th, 1974.

R.J. Stuart:

Where were you?

Michael Thomas Burns:

I was in Warsaw, Indiana.

R.J. Stuart:

What did you do the days and weeks afterwards?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Well, I came home from Vietnam, in March 12th or 13th of 1973. I promised that I would stay in the service, I promised myself for one year to the day' cause I knew I was getting out but I knew I was crazy so I just wanted to wait one year and that is what I did. When I was ping-ponging around the country, I was, I hadn't settled, I had no idea what I was going to do. today I've still not determined why I was in Vietnam. I don't know what the war was about. I don't know why we spend so much treasure and blood, this blood loving we do every twenty or thirty years and so I've gotten a kinda very cynical outlook about the United States in war anywhere.

R.J. Stuart:

Do you attend any reunions?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Yes, I attend, I've attended about every two years we've had a reunion. I've missed a couple but since 73 I've been to nearly all of them and they're great fun.

R.J. Stuart:

How did your service and experience affect your life?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Well, I think that the P.O.W. experience, not so much the service, yeah, the service in this way, the P.O.W. experience, I've had to look at myself, come face to face with myself and in a cell, in a place where there is no place to hide. That's then quite an education. In the military, there is a brotherhood, really it's a tight brotherhood in the military that I recognize it exist. I think it extends to me to some extent but I got out pretty soon. Most of my friends stayed in, 95% of the guys stayed in. So I recognize that the military has some strength that way. And, I don't know if I took advantage of it or not.

R.J. Stuart:

Is there anything you would like to add that we have not covered in this interview?

Michael Thomas Burns:

Nope, except flying jet fighters it's fun. Everyone should get a chance to do that.

R.J. Stuart:

All right.

Michael Thomas Burns:

[laughter]

R.J. Stuart:

Thanks alot.

Michael Thomas Burns:

Yeah, thank you. [laughter]

 
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  October 26, 2011
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