Tales from the Tread: Local P.O.W. airman story discovered
January 1, 2019
Sifting through 130-years' worth of Steamboat Springs history in the recently acquired Steamboat Pilot photo and newspaper archive, the Tread of Pioneers Museum uncovered a war story fit for a movie blockbuster. It is the story of U.S. Airman and Steamboat native, Robert Frost Waggoner.
Robert Waggoner joined the U.S. Air Force in 1955 and volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1965 as fighter pilot. When his fighter plane was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966, he was immediately captured, listed as MIA, and that was the last anyone heard of him for three years. His wife, Betty, continued to send him letters knowing he likely would not receive them. He went on to spend six and half grueling years in North Vietnamese prisons before his eventual release and return home. This is his story.
After getting hit, Waggoner remembers, “The next thing I knew the plane was a ball of fire … it was tumbling and I had some difficulty ejecting and getting out. I wasn’t able to eject until shortly before the plane hit the ground. I was so low the other flight members never saw a shoot (parachute) … hopes were dim of my survival." (Steamboat Pilot, July 5, 1973)
Upon further research into Waggoner's story, Tread of Pioneers Museum staff discovered a 2009 oral history interview on Youtube, where Waggoner describes his views on the Vietnam War, his trying times in captivity, his release and return home. He describes the brutal interrogations, torture, painful restraints, squalid prison conditions, morale, solitary confinements in cells with human feces, and the excruciatingly long time as a prisoner.
Waggoner explains that the point of the interrogations and torture was to obtain military information — to torture you until you broke and talked. Some of the torture left the men with permanent injuries. "The enemy always attempted to convince us that they could take you out and shoot you at any moment, until you came around to their point of view. The only thing you had to counteract that was faith,” Waggoner said.
Waggoner describes daily life that was spent entirely in the prison cell alone, with time out of the cell only to empty your "toilet bucket." Waggoner recalls being always hungry, and food in the prison consisted of rice with stones and bugs in it, and a bowl of water that had been boiled with weeds. Due to the unsanitary sleeping conditions, heat rash in the summer turned to painful boils.
Despite the ban on communication, Waggoner and the rest of the inmates quickly learned the prisoners' tap code, which was an elaborate system created by the U.S. prisoners to communicate and became the "lifeblood" of their survival and sanity. “The ability to communicate to each other and to pass on information gave tremendous strength to all of us," Waggoner said.
The men spent time memorizing poetry and practicing other memory exercises to keep their minds sharp and their sanity intact. Meanwhile at home, Waggoner's family did not know if he was dead or alive and could only hope and pray.
While in the North Vietnamese prisons, Waggoner spent time at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" with Senator John McCain. Waggoner describes McCain as a "history buff" who helped pass the time with his history lessons in the rare moments in later years in captivity that prisoners were celled together instead of in solitary.
In 1969 a prisoner from Waggoner's camp was released. Having memorized the names of the men in the camp, he was able to update the military, and eventually families, on the imprisoned U.S. soldiers' whereabouts. After three years as MIA, Waggoner's status was changed to Prisoner of War, and his family received the first word that he was alive.
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Eventually, as the North Vietnamese entered into peace talks with the Americans, they instituted better treatment of the men, so Waggoner was finally allowed to write and receive letters. "I'm shaking," Waggoner's wife, Betty, told the Steamboat Pilot when she heard that a letter from her husband was on the way. It would still be another three years before she would see his face again.
Finally, after over six years of captivity, Waggoner was released on March 4, 1973, and his family was brought to California to meet him there. He describes his homecoming as "very emotional," and the challenge of wanting to make up for six years of absence immediately. He said one of the most frequently overlooked aspects of the whole prisoner of war issue "is the tremendous strain and readjustment problem that families and wives have gone through." He had missed out on over six years of his young sons' lives, but was thankful to come home "to a very stable family situation."
Despite by his harrowing POW experience, Waggoner continued his military career until retiring as a Colonel in 1981 after 27 years of service. During his service, Waggoner was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Merit twice, the Bronze Star four times, the Silver Star twice and the Purple Heart twice.
*Author's note: After Tread of Pioneers Museum staff wrote this article, museum Executive Director Candice Bannister searched to find the whereabouts of Col. Robert Waggoner today. She found him by phone in California, and asked him to review this article which he happily did. He also added the following: "The key to dealing with adversity in life is to learn from it and continue to set goals. My first wife and I divorced a few years after my return. I remarried in 1982 after retiring from the Air Force in August of 1981. We have had a very great 36 years and are both now retired and are very active in supporting the organization, National Wounded Warrior Center in Mammoth Lakes, California, which is building a facility and program for physically and mentally handicapped veterans. We organize and host an annual golf tournament in support of the program. We are hoping to break ground in 2019."
Stay tuned for more fascinating stories as the staff of the Tread of Pioneers Museum continue uncover history in the Steamboat Pilot archives.
Candice Bannister is the Tread of Pioneers Museum executive director, and Rachel Pozzo is an intern at the museum.