The Genius American Sailor Who Played Dumb To Save Over 200 Prisoners of War in North Vietnam

Jhemmylrut Teng
Sailor Douglas Brent Hegdahl Returned to U.S.(Source: Navalhistory)

Whenever the subject of our Veterans' gallantry was being discussed, it is always fascinating to know all the tactics they had used to survive the battlefield. Most of the time, those physically strong with expertise in weaponry utilize their skills for combat.

However, one Veteran from South Dakota, Petty Officer 2nd Class (E-5) Douglas Brent Hegdahl, used a different tactic to survive and save his comrades held in the Hanoi Hilton Prison in North Vietnam.

His genius strategy was merely playing dumb. But his acting was so good, to a point he convinced the enemy that he was no threat at all. During the Vietnam War, he was dubbed by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), his captors, as the "incredibly stupid one."

Enlisted in the Naval Force

On September 3, 1946, Hegdahl was born and graduated from Clark High School in Clark, South Dakota, on May 24, 1966. When he was 19, the Vietnam War broke out, and just like any other young man, he got enlisted in the U.S. forces to serve the country. In 1965, he joined the rank and file to be part of the Navy force. He was sent first to a boot camp in San Diego, and he completed the course.

In 1967, the 20-year-old Hegdahl was deployed as a sailor onboard a missile cruiser, the USS Canberra. The warship was sent to the Gulf of Tokin, operating north of the demilitarized zone. Canberra's task was to use the 5-inch and 8-inch guns against the enemy's shore installations and communication lines, which were used to supply the enemy troops in the south.

The Incident Turned to Nightmare

On the morning of April 6, 1967, Hegdalg witnessed the mighty of the Canberra's guns, either unaware or simply neglecting the rule to keep clear while the guns were operating, he was knocked overboard the blast from a 5-inch gun.

By the time he realized what had happened, he was already in the sea, and his ship was sailing away. His shipmates possibly didn't notice that he was missing, as they only reported about his absence two days after the incident. Therefore, the commanding officer did not organize a search.

Without a life preserver, Hegdahl can do nothing but float in the sea and wait for any rescue. He could see the outskirts of the shore, but the currents were too strong for him to be able to swim there.

After over 12-hours in the sea, he was finally saved by some Cambodian fishermen. He was treated well, but later on, he was handed over to the Vietnamese militiamen who clubbed him repeatedly with their rifles before moving him to the infamous Hanoi Hilton Prison in North Vietnam, under the NVAs.
Hanoi Hilton Prison in North Vietnam(Source: Wikipedia)

Survival 101: Playing Dumb

Hegdahl explained his story that he was accidentally knocked overboard by a weapon while sailing on a ship. But the NVAs didn't buy his narrative because Hegdahl's height is above the average. The NVA authorities believed that the scenario he was saying only fit for a pilot or an aircraft operator. But since Hegdahl is a lot taller, the NVAs convinced themselves that he was more of a spy or a soldier on a covert operation.

Hegdahl realized the seriousness of the situation. And since the NVAs find his true story ridiculous, he decided to play along with it by literally acting mentally slow and stupid. It turned out this was a genius tactic after all.

The prison was unpleasant; American prisoners of war (POWs) were tied down with iron stocks inside their chambers and were beaten and tortured every day. The NVAs even had special torture rooms where most of the interrogations were held savagely. Prisoners' hands were tied to their ankles and suspended on meat hooks, left them hanging for days.
Inside the Hanoi Hilton Prison(Source: Naval History)

Hegdahl compellingly pretended to be a dumb son of an impoverished American farmer. He created a narrative that his parents were so poor that they could not afford to buy carabaos for their farm, unlike Vietnamese farmers. His acting was perfect, that the NVAs believed he could be a good material for their propaganda activities.

Little the enemy knew that the stupid poor boy was actually a genius one.
Douglas Hegdahl in prison, used as propaganda material by the NVAs(Source: Naval History)

The Incredibly Stupid One

Hegdahl continued acting dumb; he even told his interrogators that his parents' penurious living was the reason he can neither read nor write because they cannot afford to send him to school.

Such a narrative came out when the communist officers ordered him to write an anti-war statement. He didn't refuse, but when the officers started dictating him what to write, Hegdahl was merely scribbling. It was a lie that sat perfectly within his role as a poor stupid farmer son. Fortunately, the NVAs believed him.

His captors even assigned him a tutor that was supposed to teach him basic literacy. All their efforts were futile because Hegdahl was just playing along. After some time, the tutor and the officers gave up on him, believing that there was no chance he would ever learn anything. He was even nicknamed by the North Vietnamese Army as the "incredibly stupid one."

The Dumb Boy's Sharp Memory

Making his captors believe that he was no threat was Hegdahl's plan all along. Because of this, he managed to avoid interrogations, which were often accompanied by torture and convinced the enemy that he was incapable of doing any harm.

Considered stupid, Hegdahl was allowed to move around the prison freely. Due to his reputation as a fool, he was the only prisoner allowed to stay in the courtyard while everyone else was confined to their cells. He was tasked to sweep the courtyard and the perimeter outside the prison gates.
Sailor Douglas Brent Hegdahl sweeping outside the Hanoi Hilton's gate(Source: Flickr/Public Domain)

One time he convinced the guards that he needed new glasses, and on the way to the shop, he memorized the prison's location and the landmarks within the city.

Hegdahl also used his freedom to wander around the camp committing sabotage whenever an opportunity presented itself. One of which was during resting hours, he was then sweeping the courtyard under the surveillance of only one prison guard. When that guard fell asleep, Hegdahl collates the dirt and poured them into the fuel tanks of the NVAs' trucks. With these methods, he managed to disable five enemies' vehicles that were supposed to use for combat.

Hegdahl may not be able to fight the battle the way he was trained to. But he was doing an inside job, fought the enemy the best way he could.

Saving Comrades

One of the American prisoners was observing Hegdahl's demeanor, he was U.S. Airforce Officer Joe Crecker. He figured out that Hegdahl was only pretending to be foolish.

Crecker taught Hegdahl a method of using brain memory banks, so Hegdahl can memorize the names of the 256 American prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton Prison, along with the information of the POWs' next of kin, dogs, even security numbers.

To be able to get all of them to his head and never forget, Hegdahl incorporated all the information in the tune of the nursery song, "Old MacDonald Had A Farm." This crucial information became Hegdahl's mission, and a ticket to freedom, that later saved his comrades.

Part of the Vietnamese propaganda activities was to release three prisoners every now and then, and in August 1969, it was time for Hedgahl to be released. Initially, he was reluctant to go because the American prisoners made a pact with each other that no one should accept the offer of an early release. Those who would accept will be considered traitors.

Aside from this pact, Hegdahl was fearful to return to the United States dishonoring his country by coming home too early while the war was ongoing. Most of the POWs, including him, would rather die in prison. But Hegdahl later accepts the early release, when his roommate and superior, Lieutenant Commander Richard "Beak" Stratton ordered him to fulfill a mission to send all their names, information, and status to the federal government.
Lt. Cmdr. Richard "Beak" Stratton(Source: Naval History)
D. Hegdahl (right) and R. Stratton (left), as prison roommates in Hanoi Hilton(Source: Mainemilitrymuseum)

Hegdahl also knew the entire structure of the prison camp and its location in Hanoi as he was the only one who was allowed to move freely inside, and the perimeter outside the camp. Other prisoners also believed that Hegdhal was the best candidate for this task because the NVA authorities assumed he was too brainless to do anything.

What the enemy didn't know, all vital data was in Hegdhal's brain. And this information was valuable for the United States.

Returning home

When Hegdahl returned home, he provided all the information to the U.S. Navy. His superiors were surprised that he memorized all POWs' names and details, although not in a very comprehensible fashion. The only way he knew how was by singing along with the Old MacDonald Had A Farm song.

Many of the names he provided were the soldiers who were then taught already died in action. The U.S. Army did not know that these men were still alive and held as prisoners by the Communists.
Seaman Douglas Brent Hegdahl(Source: Wikipedia)

In 1970, Hegdahl played an important role in the Paris Peace Conference where he shared to the world the horrors that the American POWs were suffering through in the North Vietnamese Prisoners Camp. Because of him, Lieutenant Stratton was released from prison as he accused the NVAs of their attempt to murder Stratton. And in order to save face, the NVAs returned him home alive.
Capt. Richard "Beak" Stratton(Source: Veteran Tributes)

Stratton and the prisoners in Hanoi Hilton never forget what Hegdahl has done for them. They forever considered him as their life hero.

"Thanks to Doug [Hegdahl], despite the scars on my body, the Communists [NVAs] had to produce me alive at the end of the war. 'The Incredibly Stupid One,' my personal hero, is the archetype of the innovative, resourceful and courageous American Sailor. These sailors are the products of the neighborhoods, churches, schools, and families working together to produce individuals blessed with a sense of humor and the gift of freedom who can overcome any kind of odds. These sailors are tremendously loyal and devoted to their units and their leaders in their own private and personal ways. As long as we have the Dougs of this world, our country will retain its freedoms." - Lt. Cmdr. Richard "Beak" Stratton
Richard Stratton (left) and Douglas Hegdahl (right) in 2008(Source: Cherrieswriter)

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I am a PR officer and a professional journalist with a master's degree in international development. I write history, geopolitics, food, and culture. Since I am a member of the API community, I make sure to highlight our stories to promote diversity and create awareness for cultural understanding.


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