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Never give up: Franklin native survived years of torture in Vietnam POW camp

Just west of the town of Franklin, along a winding back road heading into the mountains surrounding Wayah Bald, sits a picturesque old farmhouse across the street from a babbling stream. Sitting on the porch of that farmhouse one recent afternoon, gazing out over the free-flowing, peaceful waters, is Tom McNish.

A towering figure, McNish, at 76, doesn’t resemble a person his age, more so someone a decade or two younger. Broad shouldered, with a handshake like a vise grip, and with a well-kempt head of white hair, McNish looks you directly in the eye — partly to figure out your intent in an instant, but mostly as to present a genuinely honest, matter-of-fact presence. 

He’s well-spoken, incredibly intelligent, but also radiates this air of calmness. This is someone who clearly remains calm in testy situations and takes a bird’s-eye-view of life, seeing it for what it is — fragile and priceless, but also with an inner strength of unknown depths. 

It is the culmination of these exact characteristics that kept McNish alive during his six-and-a-half years in a prisoner of war (POW) camp during the Vietnam War. From Sept. 4, 1966 to March 4, 1973, McNish spent approximately 2,373 days in captivity in the Hòa Lò Prison. 

Known to American POWs as the “Hanoi Hilton,” the prison was home to unspeakable horrors, where torture, starvation and humiliation were a daily routine. It was also the same prison the late Sen. John McCain spent five-and-a-half years, a timeframe that fell within McNish’s stay there.

“[Living through that, you know] not only the value of life and time, but you develop an appreciation for the little things you just kind of thought were to be accepted in the past. You learn those. You learn a real solid understanding of what your true personal values are, and what you think is important in life,” McNish said. “I have been, and all of us, have been more grounded in dealing with things. There’s always that one value that you get from going through situations like that. Look at the Holocaust survivors. One of the things it gives you is the ability to look at almost any stress, or challenge in life and say, ‘I’ve had it worse and I made it then, I’m going to make it now.’”

 

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A Vietnam POW in the “Hanoi Hilton,” Tom McNish spent 2,373 days in captivity (1966-1973).

 

The boy from Macon

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1942, McNish was 18 months old when his family moved to North Carolina during World War II. His father was head of the War Production Board for the Lumber Division of the Smoky Mountains. In 1947, the family purchased the Franklin farmhouse McNish still calls home to this day. 

“I wish I could’ve raised my kids the same way. You get a real understanding and appreciation of the realities of life without having to put up with all the mess of city life,” McNish said of his childhood in the farmhouse. “But, I was an only child. I’m miles from the nearest neighbor, just me and my dog. If I wanted to play with somebody my age I had to get on my bike and go three miles down the road. [To this day], whenever the word ‘home’ is spoken, this is where my mind goes.”

McNish graduated from Franklin High School in 1959. From there, he attended North Carolina State University in Raleigh. After one year of college, he was accepted into the Air Force Academy in Colorado in 1960. 

“I joined the Civil Air Patrol when I was here in Franklin and rapidly developed a love of flying or just riding at that time — just being around airplanes,” McNish said. “When I went to [N.C.] State, I was in the Air Force Reserve ROTC and then the only thing I wanted to do was graduate from the [Air Force] Academy and go fly airplanes. It’s the love of flying and the sense of freedom and total three-dimensional control.” 

McNish was at the Air Force Academy until graduation in 1964. At that time, the idea of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam wasn’t on really anybody’s radar. It was in the depths of the Cold War with more military and political focus on Russia, not Southeast Asia.

“Well, I took a course in Far East history and they talked about Southeast Asia, and somewhere in there they mentioned the word ‘Vietnam,’ which was part of Indochina. But, beyond that, I knew nothing about it,” McNish said. “I was so convinced that I was going to fly fighters in Europe, because that’s where all the action was at that time, that when we had a chance to go on an overseas field trip in the [Air Force] Academy, I intentionally chose the Far East field trip because I figured I’d never get there again.” 

From 1965 through May 1966, McNish finished his fighter pilot training. It was at this point where his — and the world’s — attention started to shift towards Vietnam.

“After I had finished pilot training and was going off to advanced pilot training in the F-105, I suddenly realized that all the assignments that used to be going to Europe to sit in nuclear alert [were] now all going to Thailand to fly combat over North Vietnam,” McNish said. “When I graduated, I came home for about three weeks and then left from here, went to Nashville to my grandfather’s funeral, and went immediately from Nashville back to Las Vegas where I trained in the F-105, and from there over to Thailand.” 

 

Heading into battle

Stationed at the Takhli Royal Air Force Base due north of Bangkok, Thailand, McNish and his fellow pilots were involved in one of two “typical missions” they would be assigned. 

“One was if you’ve flew from Takhli, go straight east, and you end up town and the lower end of North Vietnam, just right above the DMZ (demilitarized zone), that was an area that the Air Force was responsible for, called ‘route pack one.’ If you’re going on a ‘route pack one’ mission, you would fly out and hit your target, whatever was assigned, and then do road recon (reconnaissance) along the roads, looking for trucks and stuff, until you got low on fuel, and then fly back home,” McNish said. “The ‘Deep North Missions,’ up into what we call ‘route pack six,’ up in the Red River Valley, required you to fly out over Laos, hit a pre-strike tanker, fill up with gas, go in, hit your target, come back and hit a post-strike tanker in order to have enough fuel to get back to base.”

During his missions, McNish was “in the zone,” mentally speaking, where the slightest distraction, miscalculation or emotional reaction could spell disaster. 

“You are totally concentrated on flying the airplane or making sure that your weapons are armed, and that you’re flying the right route, and you’re paying attention to the radar detector to see if the enemies are looking at you,” McNish said. “The adrenaline’s high. You’d be a fool to say you’re not scared when using anti-aircraft puffs going off all around your airplane, but you still are totally focused on accomplishing the mission that you’ve been given.”

And then the calendar read Sept. 4, 1966. It would be a date and day that McNish would forever carry with him — physically and mentally. Getting up at 3:30 a.m. he was briefed for his assignment. It was a “Deep North Mission,” meaning McNish would be flying and bombing a target near Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and headquarters of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). 

During the briefing, McNish was informed the mission was a JCS-51. JCS stood for Joint Chiefs of Staff, signifying that the mission was specifically chosen by United States President Lyndon B. Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

“We had four ships of F-105s. I was in the second one. They were five minutes apart, coming in from the same direction, popping up. We were using what they call pop-up tactics at that time — come in low, pop-up, roll in, drop your bombs and go out low,” McNish said. “Everybody was coming in from the same place using the same pop-up point, rolling in in the same direction, on the same target, and the gunners didn’t have to be real smart to know that. They would just sit there and drink their tea and five minutes later, there’s going to be airplanes in that same piece of sky, so you start shooting there.”

Coming into position, McNish heard over the radio that one of the pilots in the first flight had been shot down. The pilots had no jamming capabilities available, thus they were flying and maneuvering without radar protection. At about 10,000 feet altitude, McNish’s fighter jet was hit with 85-millimetter anti-aircraft fire. 

“I felt the airplane bump, and everything seemed about normal. I’ve taken closer hits. I’d taken hits before and it seemed OK, so I went ahead and rolled in and dropped my weapons, and as I was going on the dive-bomb pass, I got a warning light in the gear handle, which indicated there was something wrong with the hydraulics,” McNish said. “I just went ahead, delivered my weapons, came off the target and started turning toward the northwest, which is where our entry and exit point route was, down an area we call ‘Thud Ridge.’ As I was getting ready to rejoin on lead, I saw the ‘fire’ light. [It was an] engine fire, and of course the F-105’s only got one engine.”

McNish was in trouble. Big trouble. The cockpit was heating up, eventually burning the pilot alive to his death if he didn’t hit the eject button. He was rapidly losing control of the aircraft. One of the pilots in McNish’s flight was nearby and saw how bad the damage was to McNish’s plane. He told McNish over the radio to get out. At about 2,000 feet altitude, McNish hit the eject button.

“It was plenty high. Now, the automatic parachute didn’t work like it was supposed to. [And] when I went out into that 500 mile-an-hour-wind, I got my knee injured pretty badly by being flailed by the wind,” McNish said. “When things kind of settle down, I looked and I’m falling at the same speed as my seat is, which means I’ve been kicked out from my seat, which means my parachute is supposed to open. So, I grab the D-ring and opened the chute. If I’d have lost consciousness during the ejection, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” 

Floating down into the Red River delta, McNish noticed he was descending into a landscape of rice paddies. He could see a small village of huts in the distance. He could also see several figures on the ground with guns pointed at him, awaiting his landing. 

 

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Tom McNish on the porch of his farmhouse. Garret K. Woodward photo

 

The First Day

“To be very honest, as soon as my chute opened, I looked down. I knew where I was, [and] I knew there was no chance of anybody coming to rescue me,” McNish said. “Very honestly, what went through my mind was three words — ‘Well, here goes.’”

But, the North Vietnamese villagers didn’t immediately shoot McNish. Rather, they captured him and began marching him towards a military outpost. The NVA knew the value of an American life, especially that of an American pilot. The POWs were bargaining chips that would prove handy towards the end of the war. 

“This was the first phase of learning that one thing that gave us a sense of some strength was that I learned very quickly that they didn’t want to kill me,” McNish said. “So, they wanted to keep us alive. They didn’t mind hurting us a whole lot, but they didn’t want to kill us. They took [my] guns, knives, survival vest, radio, everything off of me. Stripped me all the way down to my underwear, and then they wrapped a mosquito net around me because they didn’t want other American airplanes to be able to see the white underwear.”

On Sept. 4, 1966, Tom McNish was 24 years old. And now he was a POW across enemy lines in the depths of Vietnam. That childhood farmhouse of his seemed a lot farther away than the over 8,500 miles between Macon County and Hanoi. 

“They forced me to march on my injured leg, to walk-through several villages and I got hit with sticks, spit on and rocks thrown at me and stuff, until I got to what was like a small army encampment and they put me in a building there just lying on the concrete floor,” McNish said. “Just about dusk, they took me out on a flat-bed truck out on like a soccer field. [At] about midnight a Jeep showed up. Turns out it was from Hanoi, and they bound my arms behind me with regular handcuffs, and bound my legs and threw me on my back in the back of the Jeep and of course every time it bounced, the handcuffs got tighter, so that was my first significant unpleasantness as far as pain was concerned, but it didn’t amount to anything compared to later.”

 

The Hanoi Hilton

Around midnight on that first day in captivity, McNish arrived at the entrance of the Hòa Lò Prison (aka: the “Hanoi Hilton). For the next couple of days, McNish was housed in the Knobby Torture Room. The NVA asked McNish for all of his military information — who he was, rank, serial number, purpose of mission, and so forth. While sitting on a stool, every time McNish refused to answer the questions he would get beaten and slapped around.

“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,” McNish said. “Believe it or not your elbows can touch behind your back. Then, they put leg irons on your legs and leave you. That becomes a very painful situation because you lose all the circulation to your lower arms and you start losing feeling in your hands and that turns to pain, and then it gets worse.”

It would be another three months until McNish saw another American POW. Housed in a complex known as “Heartbreak” in the “Hanoi Hilton,” McNish and others were placed in cells two meters square, concrete bunks with stocks at the end of the “bed” where the POWs feet could be locked into place. 

“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, the [‘shave and a haircut’ knocking bit, tap-taptap-taptap]. If it’s an American, they’re going to come back with the two taps [‘two bits,’ taptap],” McNish said. “The Vietnamese learned that it was our signal for initiating communication and they would try and try to trick us by doing that, but they could never get the rhythm right.” 

To keep track of the time passing, the POWs knew the Vietnamese took Sundays off, so the Americans could figure out exactly what day it was, and were also able to recalibrate into the next week. 

“Oh, I knew there was nobody going to be coming to get me,” McNish said. “But, 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, but I was the eternal optimist.” 

So, what kept McNish going all that time? 

“Really what kept me going, first, was faith. My mother was very religious, and I’ve been brought up in the Methodist church here in Franklin, out on Cartoogechaye. I had a good background in faith,” McNish said. “So, faith in God, but I also had unwavering faith in my country that as long as I stayed alive, my country would get me home.” 

Beyond the “shave and a haircut” tapping to acknowledge fellow Americans, the POWs became very clever in how they were able to communicate with each other. 

“I guess the second thing I felt that gave me strength to get through [all of] that was good old American ingenuity. You take what you have, and make out of it what you need,” McNish said. “If you have the basis of the tap code, then if they send you out to sweep the sidewalk, you can sweep in tap code, and everybody can hear it. If they have you where you can’t tap on a mutual wall with someone else, you can develop a really bad cough, and cough in tap code. You can flash in code, if somebody could see a hole in the wall you can flash in front of it to let the light through or not.” 

The American POWs would communicate to each other about who they were and how they were doing, with newer POWs also telling the older captives what was going on in the outside world — militarily, politically and socially. 

Keep in mind, during McNish’s entire captivity, some six-and-a-half years, a lot happened back home in the United States. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s approval rating plummeted, leading to him stepping aside after a reelection bid (1968), Richard Nixon won the presidency (1968 and 1972), the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy (both in 1968), the Apollo 11 Moon Landing (1969), Woodstock (1969) and the Kent State Massacre (1970), just to name a handful of events. 

But, above all, the Vietnam War escalated into all-out chaos and bloodshed, with 58,220 American soldiers and an estimated over 200,000 South Vietnamese soldiers dead by the time the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975. And it was around January 1969 when McNish entered the lowest state of his mental stability and faith in his survival. 

“Before the elections in 1968, Johnson had unilaterally ceased bombing over North Vietnam with no conditions. We couldn’t believe that it was done without getting some condition for improved treatment for us, for improved food — for something — for more ability to communicate with our families, nothing. He got nothing for it. He was just trying to influence the elections,” McNish said. “And so, from 1968 until 1972, there were no new prisoners. Now, that’s a good thing. But, for us, it was a bad thing because that was where our information from the outside world was coming.” 

 

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Tom McNish followed his time in Vietnam with an impressive military career.

 

Changing Course

By September 1969, the president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), Ho Chi Minh, would pass away at age 79. The key political and spiritual leader of the North Vietnamese was now gone. But, McNish would only begin to finally see a light at the end of the tunnel coming into 1973. Would this be the year he’d be released and sent home?

“In 1972, Nixon resumed bombing North Vietnam, started bombing Haiphong and around the Hanoi area. We knew it was going to take military pressure to influence [the North Vietnamese],” McNish said. “Which then of course led to the Christmas bombings with B-52 raids and so forth, which absolutely forced the Vietnamese to their knees, and forced them to sign the [Paris] Peace Accords (signed Jan. 27, 1973) and let us go.” 

The Paris Peace Accords stated that all POWs would be exchanged within 60 days of the signing. Soon would come the other date that McNish would forever remember — March 4, 1973.

“As it turns out it was one-fourth [of POWs exchanged] every 15 days, but we didn’t know that, we just knew within 60 days where we’re going to be home,” McNish said. “We stayed pretty reserved because too many times things had changed too dramatically at the last minute. We didn’t get really excited until this C-141 actually lifted off, and we knew that we were on our way home for sure.”

The American POWs were flown to Clark Air Force Base in Philippines for debriefing. Truth-be-told, McNish immediately assimilated back to a normal, everyday reality. He wasn’t going to be defeated by the torture camps for all of his time in captivity, so why would he now be defined by it back in society? 

“I find no value in regret or hatred or thinking ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda,’” McNish said. “You take where you are and you go with it. You make the best of what you’ve got, and I have been blessed so many times.”

Though he literally just got out of the “Hanoi Hilton,” McNish already had his next move planned out. 

“I had decided some time before I was released that I wanted to go to medical school when I came home,” McNish said. “So, when the airplane out of Hanoi lifted off, first thing I went and did was go looking for the flight surgeon, and I said, ‘OK, how do I get to med school?’ He says, ‘You’re crazy. You just got out of jail.’ But, that’s what I wanted, and the Air Force supported me all the way completely. I got home in March and started summer school in [Cullowhee] in May.”

 

Home Sweet Home

But, before he made it back over the Macon County line, McNish had one last thing to do — meet his future wife. 

“A month-and-a-half later, we flew back to the states to the nearest medical center to our home and for me that was Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, [Alabama]. That’s where I flew into an we had two weeks air of continuing debriefing, medical follow-up, trying to bring us up to speed on what had happened while we were gone,” McNish said. “And that’s where I met that that beautiful woman you saw just walk across the porch. I met her eight days after I got to Montgomery.”

When asked about seeing Macon County and his farmhouse again, McNish paused for a moment, an ear-to-ear grin rolling across his face. 

“There’s two stages of it as you come in, up from Loafer’s Glory [you] come over the hill and look down the valley, that’s one thing. And the same sensation of, ‘Oh my God, I’m finally home’ as you turn that corner right down there, and look up and you can see the house, it was just unbelievable. And I got here, and the community had set up a welcome for me and there were a lot of people here,” McNish said. “You see that tree right there, the one what’s got a few limbs that look a little scruffy on it? (Points to a nearby tree on his property). That tree was about six feet tall [back then]. It was in our dining room area. Decorated from top to bottom with red, white and blue decorations handmade by the school kids here. And there were presents under it all wrapped in red, white and blue, to make up for the seven Christmases that I had missed. As I came up the valley, [there was a] big sign that said, ‘Welcome Home Tommy’ strung across Wayah Road.” 

From that day to where he stands now, McNish has truly lived a life of 10 men. He graduated from Emory University School of Medicine in 1978, began a residency in Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, was commander of a military hospital in South Carolina and remained an Air Force flight surgeon until 1991. In 1994, he retired from the United States Air Force. Currently, he and his wife split their time between Franklin and Texas, where McNish still is greatly involved in the medical field as a biomedical consultant. 

In all actuality, McNish has received enough military awards to fill the entire left side of his chest. His never-ending list of personal and professional accomplishment are numerous. Mindboggling, actually. It’s as if each and every single accomplishment signified one more day McNish was able to get back from his time in captivity at the “Hanoi Hilton.” 

“My friend Paul Galanti said, ‘You learn that there’s never a bad day when there’s a doorknob on the inside of the door,’” McNish said. “You can take a prison cell and turn it from a place of despair because you’re there, you can’t get out. Now, they only controlled our bodies, [but] they never controlled our minds. And that was another great victory that we had. But, if you put a doorknob on that door so that you now have the choice of staying or going, it turns everything into a good day.”

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