In March of this year, I followed retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Robert Certain through the entryway of the former Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. French colonists built the prison in the 19th century, calling it the Maison Centrale and using it to imprison and behead Vietnamese dissidents. During the Vietnam War, American prisoners facetiously called it the Hanoi Hilton. For the first time in 50 years, Certain was about to step inside the notorious compound where he’d been held, interrogated and beaten.

Much of the complex had been demolished to make room for an office building and hotel. The old gatehouse was now part of a museum featuring a mix of original and re-created artifacts. Certain wandered between rows of mannequins fettered with leg irons, claustrophobic dungeon cells and a towering guillotine. He scanned historic objects in glass cases—uniforms, dishes and a toothbrush used by American prisoners—as well as black-and-white photos of John McCain and others who were held there.

Stepping into an outdoor display, Certain spotted a historic sign bearing an aerial photo of the prison. Certain pointed to his name on the sign, announcing to his traveling companions, “There I am.” The placard noted that Certain was among the first B-52 crew members captured during Operation Linebacker II—the 11-day campaign President Richard Nixon ordered in December 1972 in an effort to hasten the war’s end and free American POWs. Certain was taken the first night and held at the Hanoi Hilton for a month, then moved to another complex southwest of the city. He remained in captivity until March 1973, after the January peace agreement in Paris secured his freedom.

Certain was back with a group of eight POWs who’d made the commemorative journey along with family and friends. Along with a cruise down the Mekong River and a visit to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex, the veterans were spending several days in Hanoi. They had a range of reasons for making the journey: resolution, camaraderie, curiosity about how the country had changed. Certain also wanted his wife, Robbie, to see the place for herself and better understand the stories he had been telling her for years.

Certain’s laugh-to-keep-from-crying outlook surfaced throughout the tour. He jokingly told his tour guide not to leave him behind. That same wry sense of humor helped him cope during his time in captivity and afterward, when he softened the stories he told Robbie and others about what had happened to him. But as he scanned the exhibits, he was moved to discover several photos of himself, including one from the day after he was captured. He had been awake for about 30 hours when his guards instructed him to appear before a group of photojournalists. He’d hoped that Robbie—his wife of just six weeks at the time—would see the photo and know he was alive.

During the tour, the sadness and anger Robbie felt gave her a headache that nearly brought her to her knees. She sat on a bench next to a fellow former American POW’s wife who was crying. “I don’t like humans harming other humans. I don’t understand that,” she said.

a group of photographs of multiple installations at a musuem
Exhibits at the Hoa Lo Prison Relic include (left, from top) a video of North Vietnamese troops and a relief map of Hanoi; a video of President Richard Nixon; and items belonging to U.S. prisoners of war. Right, from top: The B-52 Victory Museum, where Certain views a downed plane like the one he ejected from in December 1972; and a monument to slain Vietnamese in the Kham Thien neighborhood. Yen Duong

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This article is a selection from the November 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

I first learned about Certain while researching my late father, Donald Lee Redmon, who flew on the same Linebacker II mission as Certain did—even on the same night: December 18, 1972. My father survived more than 300 combat missions over Southeast Asia.

Years after the war, when I was 14, he took his own life. At the time, he was struggling with multiple sclerosis and took painkillers, antidepressants and sedatives. To my knowledge, he was never diagnosed with combat-related stress, but it became clearer to me after speaking with other veterans that my father must have been deeply affected by his experiences in combat and that those experiences could have played a role in his decision to kill himself. I had my own taste of what he endured when I embedded with U.S. troops as a journalist in Iraq. Between 2004 and 2006, I survived some close calls, including a suicide bombing and roadside bomb and mortar attacks.

By traveling to Hanoi, I hoped to learn more about how wartime trauma can echo in our lives long after the fighting is over. How was Certain able to move on with his life, become an Episcopal priest and persevere? How would he feel returning to a place that would remind him of the kinds of traumatic experiences that fade with time but never fully go away?

I first met Certain in September 2022 when I drove to his sprawling retirement community west of San Antonio. I missed the entrance on my first try, and I worried he would be disappointed when I arrived slightly late. Growing up in a military family, showing up on time had always meant arriving 15 minutes early. Certain greeted me at the door, shaking his head and telling me we had only a brief time to talk. It took me a moment to register the glint in his blue eyes. We spoke for several hours that day in his tidy living room and met again the next day to talk some more.

Certain is 75, with close-cropped hair that he jokes was once the color of an orange traffic cone. The second-youngest of five children, he was born in Savannah, Georgia. His father supported the family as a railroad dispatcher while his mother worked as a bookkeeper. He graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, where he studied history and participated in the ROTC program before joining the U.S. Air Force in 1969. The day we met, he was wearing a polo shirt with the logo of the 4th Allied POW Wing, a group that represents U.S. airmen who were captured during the Vietnam War. The logo features a flying eagle with a broken chain around its neck. Certain’s 2003 memoir is titled Unchained Eagle.

I’d read Certain’s memoir, along with The 11 Days of Christmas, an exhaustively researched book by Linebacker II pilot Marshall Michel III. Michel referred me to Certain and generously shared his sources, including Nixon administration correspondence that was once top secret but has since been declassified.

In his own memoir, Richard Nixon wrote that peace talks with the North Vietnamese had improved substantially before faltering toward the end of 1972, partly because of competing demands between the governments in Hanoi and Saigon. More than 57,000 U.S. service members and many times that number of Vietnamese troops and civilians had already died in the war by that point. Nixon accused the North Vietnamese of deliberately stalling. The president knew U.S. voters were deeply divided over the war and was worried that Congress would cut off funding for it. So Nixon, who had just been re-elected, ordered the massive bombing campaign, hoping to force the North Vietnamese to agree to a settlement. Nixon, who was raised as a pacifist Quaker, called it “the most difficult decision I made during the entire war; at the same time, however, it was also one of the most clear-cut and necessary ones.”

In a top-secret memo to a White House colleague on December 5, 1972, Alexander Haig, a top Nixon administration official, insisted that the bombings must “create the most massive shock effect in a psychological context” and be “brutal in character.” And in a taped phone call with Nixon on the eve of the attack, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger compared what they had planned—attacking with advanced heavy bombers each capable of carrying dozens of 500- and 750-pound bombs—to a “4,000-plane raid in World War II.” As Kissinger elaborated, Nixon exclaimed, “God damn.”

Kissinger: “It’s going to break every window in Hanoi.”
Nixon: “You mean just the reverberations, huh?”
Kissinger: “Yeah.”
Nixon: “Well, that tends to shake them up a little bit, too, doesn’t it?”
Kissinger: “Oh, yeah.”

Certain had mixed feelings about the mission. He wanted to be home with Robbie and thought the bombings could help end the war, but he’d already completed 99 missions, so he knew what he and other airmen would face over Hanoi: anti-aircraft guns, MiG fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles.

On December 18, the first night of the campaign, 129 American B-52s took off from bases in Guam and Thailand, aiming for North Vietnamese airfields and railroads. U.S. airmen nicknamed their heavy bombers “BUFFS,” for “big ugly fat fellas,” though some substituted an expletive for “fellas.”

the remains of an airplane wreckage on display in a city square
The remains of an American bomber outside the B-52 Victory Museum, which displays weapons dating back to Vietnam’s war of independence from France. Yen Duong

My father served as the electronic warfare officer on the lead B-52 from Guam. The gunner on his plane, Ken Schell, gave me a copy of my father’s recording of the radio traffic from that night. I can hear the pilot and co-pilot, Bill Stocker and Ron Thomas, urgently calling out North Vietnamese surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs. I also hear my father identifying North Vietnamese Target Tracking Radar signals, or TTR, locking onto the B-52s as well as the signals, or “uplinks,” sending the SAMs spiraling up at their plane. At one point, the radar navigator on my father’s plane, Jay Gangwisch, peers through his bombsight and spots two such missiles rocketing up at them:

Schell: Visual SAM, 7 o’clock.
My father: Uplink, uplink. … TTR 7 o’clock.
Stocker: Do you see the SAM yet?
Thomas: Yes.
Stocker: Where is it at?
Thomas: It is low.
My father (calmly): Multiple uplinks.
Schell: Still coming up 6 o’clock. … OK, they are low. They are way low. SAM, 6:30.
Stocker: How many so far?
Schell: They are at 5:30 now.

That night, Certain was flying in a B-52 called Charcoal 1 behind my father’s plane. He and his crewmates were just seconds from dropping their bombs on a North Vietnamese rail yard that had been receiving supplies from China. In the following moments, Certain wrote in his memoir, everything appeared “in exaggerated slow motion” because he was in shock.

The instruments in his B-52 abruptly lost power. Certain felt the plane shudder and twist slightly to the left. A crewmate yelled that their pilot had been wounded. Their gunner was slumped in his seat, covered in blood. A SAM had exploded on the left side of their bomber, drilling shrapnel through the plane. Certain noticed his bomber was descending. He suspected it had lost some of its engines from the blast, which also cut some of the hydraulic lines and set the plane afire.

Weakly, the pilot announced over the intercom that he was still alive. Certain heard a crewmate’s hatch explode open and his seat rocket out of the plane as he made his escape. Then he saw fire spreading near the more than two dozen bombs still on board. Fearing they would explode, he turned to the bombardier and barked, “Drop those f--king things!” Certain threw his briefcase, slide rule, pencils and charts behind him, not wanting any loose items stabbing him. Then he cinched up his oxygen mask and grasped the ejection handle between his knees, readying to bail out more than 30,000 feet over Hanoi.

Tumbling through the cold December air, Certain thought it might be better to die than be captured and killed. He had read Five Years to Freedom: The True Story of a Vietnam POW, James Rowe’s gripping 1971 memoir about being captured in 1963 and held in a Viet Cong POW camp. A Green Beret, Rowe had endured five years of loneliness, disease and torture before escaping. Certain didn’t want to suffer a similar fate.

The wind kept pushing his oxygen mask up and over his eyes, so Certain pushed it back down and tightened the connections. Trying to stabilize himself, he pulled his legs closer together and bent his knees so he would fall feet first. Then he felt his parachute unfolding above him. Between his boots, he spotted bombs from another B-52 exploding in a straight line on the ground. He pulled his parachute risers down to his ankles so he could drift away from the explosions. In his peripheral vision, he saw an arrow-shaped fire from his doomed plane’s crash.

Schell told me he was staring through the rear of my father’s B-52 when he spotted a brilliant explosion on the ground. He thinks it was Certain’s plane, Charcoal 1. Schell told me that the explosion was huge, adding: “It had to have been a B-52 slamming in.” He could hear emergency radio beacons incessantly beeping as Certain and his crewmates parachuted out.

Plowed fields, rooftops and a railroad came into view as Certain drifted to the ground. He was above some populated outskirts about six miles northwest of Hanoi. As he felt his feet touch the ground, he rolled into a ditch and heard voices. Certain pulled off his harness and helmet and headed toward a culvert, thinking he could conceal himself. Bright tracer rounds struck near his discarded parachute, confirming that he had been spotted. Certain pulled out his radio. He hoped crewmen in the other B-52s would hear his plea for help.

“I’m on the ground, uninjured, surrounded,” he announced. “Will be captured shortly.”

Soon, rifle-wielding North Vietnamese militiamen materialized. Bystanders threw rocks at him. Certain raised his hands, surrendering. The militiamen pulled off his flight suit, boots and socks, leaving him in his T-shirt and underwear. They tied his wrists behind his back. A man approached with a flashlight and a pair of pliers and tugged at Certain’s jaw. Certain guessed he wanted to pull out his silver fillings and gold crowns. The stranger gave up as Certain clamped his mouth shut, resisting.

The guards took Certain to another village, where they showed him the body of his pilot. Certain remembers bystanders laughing while pointing at him and his fallen comrade. He was taken inside a building, where nurses checked for injuries and offered him water and cigarettes. More civilians showed up outside and began throwing rocks at him through the windows. His guards barricaded the openings with tables and benches.

Eventually, the guards took Certain to another location, where he could hear more B-52 bombings. He also heard a familiar voice. It was the electronic warfare officer from his downed plane. The guards put the two Americans in the back of a jeep and raced into the night. Certain’s captors beat him with their fists as his crewmate protested. Finally, they arrived. The infamous Hanoi Hilton loomed before them.

The interrogations began soon after Certain arrived at the prison. He was questioned on and off for 12 hours. His captors asked him about America’s nuclear weapons. They demanded to know where he was headquartered and the number of planes there, details about the B-52 and their targets, and the names of his superior officers. Certain’s military survival training kicked in. He played dumb, giving them fake names from Joseph Heller’s satirical war novel Catch-22.

One of his interrogators kept threatening to take him to where the B-52s were bombing if Certain didn’t tell them what they wanted to know. He remembers seeing his captors leaf through a B-52 manual written in Vietnamese, figuring the Soviet Union had given it to them. When an interrogator asked Certain if he had a “Quail” on his bomber, the name of a type of decoy missile some B-52s carried, Certain jokingly responded, “No. The gunner had roast beef, and the co-pilot had fried chicken, but I don’t think anyone had quail.” The butt of a rifle struck him in the side of the head, knocking him off his feet. His captors twisted a rope tied around his neck, choking him. As he continually refused to cooperate, they threatened to kill him.

a newspaper clipping showing the portraits of six men
When Certain’s captors ordered him to pose for a photo, he hoped his wife, Robbie, would see it. The picture ran in the center of the top column of this newspaper page, along with images of other captured Linebacker II personnel. Courtesy DFC Society

Certain doesn’t call what he experienced torture, because he knows other former American POWs who experienced far worse, for far longer. For instance, another veteran on the trip, 85-year-old retired Air Force Colonel Ed Hubbard, was held prisoner for more than six and a half years after his plane was shot down over Vietnam in 1966. Hubbard wrote in his book Escape From the Box: The Wonder of Human Potential that he had endured solitary confinement, boils all over his body and brutal beatings that swelled his eyes shut and broke his jaw and eardrums. At one point, his guards had instructed him and other prisoners to take care of a fellow American POW who had “been beaten so badly that he had lost touch with reality.” To keep him alive, Hubbard wrote, they force-fed him for nearly a year before he was moved back into solitary confinement, where he ultimately died.

Certain, who was spared that level of abuse, remembers that rats coated the floor of the Hanoi Hilton with their excrement and crawled over him and the other prisoners as they slept. The POWs went without baths for weeks and were refused treatment for their festering wounds until their captors finally became disgusted enough by their stench. Certain was eventually moved to a larger space in the prison with other prisoners. They huddled together for warmth.

a grouping of photos showing details of museum inside and out
The Maison Centrale, built by French colonists to imprison Vietnamese dissidents, later became the Hoa Lo Prison. Today, a museum stands on the site. Above right, Certain points to his name on a museum sign claiming that he made a “confession” about North Vietnam’s military might. “I have no memory of saying anything like that,” Certain says. Bottom, Certain points to a model of the building where he believes he was imprisoned. Yen Duong

Their meals consisted of weak tea, cabbage soup, fatback with bristles and bread studded with dead insects. They passed the time thinking about the first things they would eat when they got home. And they dreamed up creative ways of staying mentally sharp during their captivity. As we toured historic sites near Ho Chi Minh’s massive gray mausoleum in Hanoi this year, Bill Shankel, 84, a retired U.S. Navy aviator, told me how he sustained himself during the more than seven years he was held as a prisoner in North Vietnam. A trumpeter, he replayed in his mind entire jazz songs by Dave Brubeck and Cole Porter. He puzzled over complicated math problems. He recited poetry by Robert W. Service, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling. And he learned French from another American POW.

As Linebacker II raged on, the American prisoners occasionally heard the whine of air raid sirens. They were grateful for the explosions, hearing the bombings as a signal that America had not given up on freeing them. Linebacker II carried on until December 29, pausing only for Christmas. The B-52s dropped thousands of tons of bombs on North Vietnam, targeting communication centers, road networks, railroads, bridges and military barracks. Certain remembers the bombings on December 26 that shook the Hanoi Hilton’s thick stone walls, terrorizing the rats inside. My father was flying that day.

During the campaign, the North Vietnamese people were suffering hundreds of casualties, according to their government’s reports. Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi was hit when a North Vietnamese SAM struck a B-52 as it dropped its bombs. Joan Baez, the American folk singer and activist who traveled to Hanoi as part of a peace delegation, told Rolling Stone magazine that the hospital was “completely obliterated. I saw corpses in a row. … There were people racing all around carrying bleeding patients piggyback out of the debris.”

A Hanoi neighborhood on Kham Thien Street was also hit. The Vietnamese American writer Mai Elliott wrote vividly about that destruction in The Sacred Willow, a sweeping memoir about the history of Vietnam as told through generations of her own family. Lang, a late cousin of hers who operated a fabric stall in the Kham Thien neighborhood, told Elliott she spotted a corpse still holding a sandwich in the wake of the bombings. Relatives of those who had been killed, Elliott wrote, came to buy cloth from Lang so they could “wrap the corpses for burial. She sold so much fabric that her arms began to ache from cutting it.” One of Elliott’s young nephews was found dead under a stairwell in another part of Hanoi, killed by the shock waves from a bombing: “His family found him still standing, holding on to the handlebars of his bicycle. He had taken it—his most precious possession—with him into hiding to protect it from harm.”

Elliott told me she’d made a point of writing graphically about the bombings so her readers would understand the toll of the campaign. “People didn’t know whether they were going to survive from one day to the next,” she said. “I really want the readers to know what it was like to be there on the ground, hearing the rain of bombs for 11 days.”

Through Elliott, I met Duong Van Thuc, another cousin of hers who survived the bombings and who still lives in Hanoi today. During my trip, I visited her, along with the photographer for this article and Vietnamese interpreter Bui Thu Uyen. Thuc and her husband of 54 years, Hoang Quang Trung, served us Vietnamese sticky rice made with mung beans, tapioca and sugar. We enjoyed it together in their airy living room, which featured several framed black-and-white family photos, including one of Thuc’s father posing with Ho Chi Minh. The weather was pleasant, so Thuc flung open her front doors to the narrow street leading to her home. Birds chirped outside, blocking out the city’s nearly constant drone of mopeds.

a photograph of a Vietnamese couple next to a black and white group photo
Duong Van Thuc, 78, and her husband, Hoang Quang Trung, 86, at their home in Kham Thien. She also lived in the neighborhood in 1972 when it was hit by the Linebacker II bombings. At right, Duong Van Thuc’s father and grandfather with Ho Chi Minh at a conference in 1951. Yen Duong

Thuc was 27 when the American B-52s attacked Hanoi. The bombs shrieked as they fell on the city, she told us, and they made the ground shake when they exploded. The sky blazed as North Vietnamese artillerymen vainly shot at the American bombers. “It was just like a sea of fire,” she said. “Everyone was running. People were bringing clothes and belongings with them … and screaming and urging each other on. It was pure chaos in Hanoi.”

At one point, Thuc and her family took cover under a bed. She laughed as she told me about a large neighbor who struggled to fit underneath with them. Moments later, tears trickled down her cheeks as she remembered people killed by the bombings, including a pair of doctors who were about to wed. She vividly recalled seeing a woman using a stick to fish a corpse out of Thien Quang Lake after the B-52 attacks. The lake lies a short distance from Kham Thien Street, much of which was “a wasteland.” Paperwork from a bombed train station floated in the wind. The lemony spray people used to conceal the stench of the bodies in Hanoi haunted Thuc for a long time afterward.

When I asked Thuc how she endured the violence and deprivation of those days, she referred to Vietnam’s fight for independence from France in the decades before the war began with the United States. “We got used to it,” she told me. “In a sense, it was not so shocking.” She added, “Back then, everyone emphasized trying to support each other, because everyone was poor and suffering. There was this spirit of trying to take care of each other.”

Thuc’s 48-year-old son, Hoang Quang Kien, listened intently as his mother spoke, nodding gravely. A fellow journalist, he described his countrymen’s stoicism as a “survival instinct.” Speaking about his country’s long history of wars, including with Japan and China, he added, “The Vietnamese people are very forgiving.”

A short walk from Thuc’s home, through a maze of alleyways festooned with Vietnam’s red-and-gold national flag, stands a statue of a woman holding a child. Both reportedly died during the bombings, in a home where the statue now stands. Jagged remains of that home’s original brick foundation have been preserved at the site. Nearby, a plaque says the site memorializes 287 people killed by U.S. bombings in the Kham Thien neighborhood, adding that 534 homes were destroyed and 1,200 others were damaged.

An American traveling with Certain’s group placed burning incense sticks in front of the memorial before Certain strode up to the statue and paused, reflecting. He told me he empathized with the victims, though he said the neighborhood was not targeted during Linebacker II and must have been bombed by accident, perhaps when an American plane was hit and sent off course.

Nguyen Hong My, a veteran North Vietnamese fighter pilot, agreed, saying he believes U.S. airmen were not aiming for civilian areas in Hanoi but were instead trying to hit military targets and supply lines. We spoke after he met with Certain and the others, hours after the Americans visited the Kham Thien memorial as well as a monument where the late Senator John McCain was shot down and captured. Speaking in Vietnamese with an English interpreter at his side, My told the group that he’d undergone three years of pilot training in the Soviet Union before flying a MiG during the Vietnam War. Outgunned, he managed to shoot down an American fighter jet in January of 1972 before a U.S. Air Force pilot named Dan Cherry shot him down three months later. His arms were broken as he ejected from his stricken plane. Unable to control his parachute, he crashed to the rocky ground, breaking his back. His injuries put him in the hospital for six months and ultimately ended his flying career. After the war, he befriended the pilot who shot him down and has visited the United States many times.

one photo of a pilot holding a model plane next to a newspaper clipping.
Nguyen Hong My, a former North Vietnamese pilot, holds a model of the MiG-21 plane he once flew. Right, an article about My’s reconciliation work with John Stiles, an American airman. Yen Duong

“After my experience in those events, I do not have the word ‘enemy’ in my dictionary,” he told the former American POWs before they were served dinner at the Ly Club, a Hanoi restaurant set in an early 20th-century French villa. “We were all soldiers,” he added. “We did what we were ordered to do. After the war, let bygones be bygones.”

At the end of 1972, the North Vietnamese government decried the devastation caused by Linebacker II while also claiming victory by calling it the “Dien Bien Phu in the Air”—a reference to the legendary defeat of French forces in the battle of 1954. In all, the North Vietnamese shot down 15 B-52s, five of which were able to move away from the Hanoi area and into Laos or Thailand before they crashed. Thirty-two B-52 crewmembers were killed in action in Vietnam and Thailand, and one was declared missing, while 34 others were captured, according to Michel’s book, The 11 Days of Christmas.

Certain and the other American visitors paused to look at the rusting skeleton of one of the American bombers. It sits on display in front of Hanoi’s B-52 Victory Museum. From there, they walked the short distance to Huu Tiep Lake, where they gazed at some more twisted wreckage of what appeared to be part of a B-52 jutting from the murky water. The veteran airmen chuckled at the war propaganda they saw and heard in Hanoi during their visit this year, pointing out that North Vietnam and the United States returned to the negotiating table and signed a peace agreement on January 27, 1973, just weeks after the B-52 bombings. Historians are still divided over the impact of Linebacker II and whether it changed Hanoi’s decisions during the peace talks. But whatever people think, the former American POWs told me, they believe the bombings helped end the war and bring them home.

Certain remembers boarding a plane heading out of Hanoi in March 1973 and worrying when he saw no gunners on board. He had been shot down once before. Would the North Vietnamese do it again? He and the other POWs were quiet as their plane taxied down the runway. They cheered as they flew out of range of enemy fire.

a man shakes hands amongst a crowd of people
Vietnamese crowds watch Certain end his months of captivity and return to U.S. custody at Hanoi’s Gia Lam Airport, on March 29, 1973. U.S. Air Force

When Certain returned to America, he had difficult encounters. He’d felt a calling to enter the ministry when he was 15 years old, and now he found new purpose in helping others heal. One critic of the Vietnam War called him a “baby killer” and asked how he could possibly be a priest. Certain remembers telling the stranger, “Jesus said not to let the sun go down on your anger. So here is the deal: After you have made your examination of your conscience and made your confession to a priest of your choice and forgiven everybody who needs forgiveness and yourself, then you can talk to me again. Until then, stay out of my face.”

After the war, Certain suffered from nightmares so intense that they caused him to feel as though he were falling from a great height before crashing to the ground. His “night jerks” made him stiffen and shake the bed, startling his wife awake. He developed a hair-trigger temper and erupted amid stressful situations. The day in April 1975 when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, he wept, feeling as though his military service had lost substantial meaning. At one point soon after his sister-in-law was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, Certain felt as though his life were spinning out of control. He thought about killing himself in a car wreck, he wrote in his memoir—“ending my darkness once and for all.”

When I asked Robbie about her husband’s trauma, she told me her late father had fought in the Philippines during World War II and was often angry afterward. She’d learned to live with her father’s temper, and later on, she’d learned to live with her husband’s as they went about their lives and raised two children.

“I didn’t understand the trauma of war firsthand, so for the good first five to seven years I thought it was just him being a redhead and that I didn’t know him when I married him,” said Robbie, a 74-year-old retired school administrator and college instructor. As time went on, though, she kept seeing that “his responses were always over the top. In other words, what he said didn’t match the event. I am an educator, so I am figuring all of this out and I am thinking, ‘No, we have other troubles.’”

Certain’s symptoms arose the same time every year, from December to March, the same period when he flew from Guam, was shot down over North Vietnam and was held captive in Hanoi. When he finally sought help, he was treated for depression and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2001, he underwent eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, which the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs deems one of the most effective treatments for PTSD. His therapist asked him to focus on back-and-forth sounds and vibrations while he recalled his traumatic experiences. Robbie said the difference in her husband right after he began the therapy was “like night and day.”

“By his fourth visit, that is when I told him, ‘I don’t care what you are doing. But just keep at it. Don’t stop until you have this all resolved,’” she recalled. “It was making such a difference in his responses to me and to the parish and to others. It was very noticeable. I was happy for him, because he had tried other things and they had not worked.”

a couple stand for a portait on a hotel balcony next to water
Certain with his wife, Robbie, at their hotel in Hanoi. When he was captured in December 1972, the two had been married for just six weeks. Yen Duong

Certain still experiences flickers of PTSD, particularly when he feels powerless to fix something, or when Robbie is unwell. His therapy helped him recognize that he can choose not to give in to his anxiety. He also found it cathartic to write his memoir.

Other POWs on the trip shared their healing processes with me. Shankel graduated from medical school and became a surgeon, a lifelong dream. Hubbard became a motivational speaker and author, helping others using his education from what he calls “the University of Adversity.”

As for Certain, he went on to lead Episcopal congregations across the United States and serve as an Air Force Reserve chaplain. In 2007, he led funeral services for President Gerald R. Ford at Washington National Cathedral. He has also served on federal government panels aimed at helping former prisoners of war and preventing suicides among U.S. service members.

After the trip back to Hanoi in March, the former POWs told me they’d found it gratifying to see Vietnam’s postwar perseverance and growth. They’d been struck by the country’s bustling economy and the number of new high-rise buildings they saw in Hanoi. Like me, they found the Vietnamese people they met this year were welcoming and kind, and they were touched by the country’s efforts to reconcile with the United States.

“It seems like a vibrant, happy place,” Certain told me. “I had heard about others going and how beautiful the country was and how well it was. Seeing it for myself, it was a bit of a relief to say, ‘This has come a long way since the 1972-1973 period.’” Certain was also glad that he and his traveling companions were able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their freedom together. As he put it, all of them had managed to “live long enough that we are too old to die young.”

Wayne Waddell, an 88-year-old retired U.S. Air Force colonel who was shot down northeast of Hanoi in 1967 and held as a POW for nearly six years, expressed a similar feeling. “I’m still here 50 years later,” said Waddell, who served in the early 1980s as the president of a nonprofit called NAM-POWs. During the trip, he and Hubbard posed for photos in front of the Hanoi Hilton, then posed again holding glasses of champagne aboard their flight out of Hanoi, toasting their fellow service members who didn’t make it home from the Vietnam War.

Throughout the trip, I wished my father had been alive to take part in it. I also wished he’d told me more about his experiences in combat. Perhaps those memories were just too painful for him to discuss. I wondered whether he also felt he had no right to talk about his own pain, given all the horrors experienced by the American POWs and the Vietnamese people. Spending time with Certain underscored for me how much power there is in vulnerability, and how much courage it can take to ask for help. Otherwise, people can remain figuratively chained in lonely prison cells for the rest of their lives.

Months before we met in Hanoi, I showed Certain a black-and-white photo of my dad in his Air Force flight suit and a copy of my father’s military records. He studied them, patiently explaining the significance of the Distinguished Flying Crosses and other commendations he and my father both received. Moments later, Certain extended his hand. I grasped it. Cupped inside his palm was a red, white and blue challenge coin inscribed with Certain’s name and “Linebacker II.” Certain had designed the coin himself and had copies custom-made. Feeling the weight of the gift in my hand, I noticed it bore the crest of the 4th Allied POW Wing—complete with an eagle flying free from its chain.

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