By: T.J. Hug
THE VILLAGE REPORTER
The hardships of war extend well beyond the battlefield.
Students of Wauseon Schools discovered this truth at their annual Veterans’ Day Assembly. The event was held on November 12, a day past the holiday,in order to allow for Guy Gruters, the guest speaker, to speak at a prison on November 11.
Due to the nature of Gruters experiences and how he conveys them, the day was broken up into three separate assemblies, with elementary and middle school students attending one, high school students sitting in on a second, and junior high students taking in a third.
The high school assembly began with a special rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. The harmony between the male and female members of those member of the choir selected to sing was beautiful and compelling.
Afterward, Gruters, one of 591 surviving prisoners of the Vietnam War regardless of military branch, took to the stage. There he began to describe his tenure in the North Vietnamese Hoa Lo Prison, or the “Hanoi Hilton” as its prisoners called it.
The conditions under which prisoners like Gruters endured are, in a word, unfathomable.
For the overwhelming majority of his five years and three months as a prisoner of war, Gruters was held in solitary confinement. The only method of communication these men had to one another was a tapping code, in which a certain number of taps corresponded to a particular letter. Their five wardens watched them closely, though, and would punish anyone caught attempting to break their solitude. So the prisoners created a system in which half of them would tap, while the other half would look under the bottom crack of their doors for the guards.
Each month, Gruters was given a small piece of paper to use as a toiletry. Prisoners were forced to use their own hands to clean themselves after evacuating wastes. Their only method of getting it off of those hands was to wipe it on the walls. Strict, cruel Viet Cong policies ensured the smell would lingered for quite some time.
“I was allowed to clean my cell once in five years.” Stated Gruters.
Adding to the degradation, the men weren’t allowed to wash their hands, even after being forced to wipe the feces on the walls.
“We had to eat with those hands.” Gruters calmly proclaimed.
Then there was the torture.
From the binding together of their hands for days, which would “start to get annoying after the twelfth hour or so,” to beatings with rods against bare flesh, sometimes to death, the North Vietnamese seemed to take joy in the versatility of their punishments and interrogation tactics.
One such method Gruters detailed involved dislocating the shoulder of the victim. Apparently not painful enough, a torturer would then sit the man down and pull his arm behind his back and over his head. Other than the immense pain it caused, there was another reason the Viet Cong favored this tactic.
“It didn’t leave any bruises.” Gruters informed. “They could deny the torture.”
Gruters ended his presentation by recounting one more incident during his captivity. One he didn’t plan on discussing when he began.
“I wasn’t going to talk about this.” Gruters admitted. “But when I heard your choir sing The Star Spangled Banner, I knew I had to.”
A week before they could be liberated by advancing U.S. Forces, all of the prisoners of the “Hanoi Hilton” were moved to a dungeon. Due to lack of individualized spaces, this meant that the soldiers were in the same room, able to see each other for the first time in years.
It was right around Christmas time. Lieutenant Colonel James “Robbie” Risner declared that, for the first time in years, the men were going to hold a church service. To begin the religious session, the roughly three hundred men in the room started to sing The Star Spangled Banner.
Viet Cong soldiers rushed into the room, toting machine guns. They took the highest ranking officers, including Risner, and put them in torture chambers. This didn’t deter the rest of the men, however.
“The next highest ranking officer turned to us and said, ‘they interrupted our service, boys. Let’s start over.’” Recalled Gruters.
The men did just that, and, once again, Viet Cong soldiers took the highest ranking officers off to be tortured. Another soldier mimicked the call to begin again. This cycle continued until the North Vietnamese ran out of placed to put the “disorderly” soldiers.
“We had service that night.” Gruters remembered with a smile.
Sherryann Franks, organizer of the event, spoke briefly after Gruters. She announced that Wauseon veteran DeFord Schall had been inducted into the Veterans Hall of Fame. Schall couldn’t attend the ceremony for health reasons.
Another hardship that extends beyond the battlefield.
T.J. Hug can be reached at