Honoring the American Flag
Condensed from a speech by Leo K. Thorsness,
The Congressional Medal of Honor.
You've probably seen the bumper sticker
somewhere along the road.
It depicts an American Flag, accompanied by the
"These colors don't run."
I'm always glad to see this, because it reminds me of an incident
my confinement in North Vietnam at the Hao Lo POW Camp,
or the "Hanoi
Hilton," as it became known.
Then a Major in the U.S. Air Force, I had been
captured and imprisoned from 1967-1973.
Our treatment had been frequently
brutal. After three years, however,
the beatings and torture became less
During the last year, we were allowed outside most days for a
couple of minutes to bathe.
We showered by drawing water from a concrete
tank with a homemade bucket.
One day as we all stood by the tank, stripped of
our clothes, a young Naval pilot named
Mike Christian found the remnants of
a handkerchief in a gutter that ran under the prison wall.
Mike managed to
sneak the grimy rag into our cell and began fashioning it into a
Over time we all loaned him a little soap,
and he spent days cleaning the material.
We helped by scrounging and
stealing bits and pieces of anything he could use.
At night, under his
mosquito net, Mike worked on the flag.
He made red and blue from ground-up
roof tiles and tiny
amounts of ink and painted the colors onto the cloth
with watery rice glue.
Using thread from his own blanket and a homemade
he sewed on the stars.
Early in the morning a few days later, when
the guards were not alert,
he whispered loudly from the back of our cell,
"Hey gang, look here.
" He proudly held up this tattered piece of cloth,
waving it as if in a breeze.
If you used your imagination, you could tell it
was supposed to be an American flag.
When he raised that smudgy fabric, we
automatically stood straight and saluted,
our chests puffing out, and more
than a few eyes had tears.
About once a week the guards would strip us,
run us outside and go through our clothing.
During one of those shakedowns,
they found Mike's flag. We all knew what would happen.
That night they came
for him. Night interrogations were always the worst.
They opened the cell
door and pulled Mike out. We could hear the beginning of the
they even had him in the torture cell. They beat him most of the night.
About daylight they pushed what was left of
him back through the cell door.
He was badly broken; even his voice was gone.
Within two weeks, despite the danger,
Mike scrounged another piece of cloth
and began another flag.
The Stars and Stripes, our national symbol, was
worth the sacrifice to him.
Now whenever I see the flag,
I think of
Mike and the morning he first waved that tattered emblem of a nation.
then, thousands of miles from home in a lonely prison cell,
that he showed us
what it is to be truly free.