Your Blue Suit
The following is a true story, told to me by Captain Allen C. Brady, USN-Retired, who served in the US Navy from 1951 – 1979 and was a prisoner of war in Hanoi for over six years. His memoir Where Do We Get Such Men? is in the works right now! Look for it in the Fall of 2018.
Happy Veteran’s Day to all who have served this great nation.
An excerpt from Where Do We Get Such Men?
In an effort to become compliant with the international rules of war, and certainly to utilize us as propaganda tools, the Vietnamese government permitted many of the prisoners to begin writing infrequent letters home in the fall of 1970. I’d been a hostage at the Hỏa Lò for almost four years before they finally allowed me to write my first one. I knew I would never be allowed to ask my family directly, “How are peace talks coming along?” or “Has the CIA given you any new information?” because to do so would bait my wife Louise into sending me uplifting or helpful news, something my captors would absolutely not tolerate and would never have delivered to me anyway. I was, however, allowed to tell everyone back home ‘how well’ I was doing and soon I became adept at crafting benign messages about housekeeping items and safe subjects like the weather and golf. A draft of my letters always needed to be approved by the prison officials in advance, and they spoke some English, but then we were required to rewrite the letter again for them formally as they looked on. Still, this happened only rarely, only about once every three months, so we had to be ready to go when it was our turn and we had to work hard to make wise use of our opportunities when they came.
It was John McCain who first told me how to use my letters to request or relay secret information. By 1971, newer prisoners were being allowed to send letters home pretty soon after their arrival at the Hilton and by the time McCain found himself in the cell next to mine, he’d already sent a few of his own, undetected. Our letters were drafted on paper provided by the prison. It was five inches wide by seven inches long and writing space was limited to seven lines only. Prisoners were repeatedly warned not to make careless mistakes in judgment when we were writing and we were told not to get greedy with requests for, or delivery of, information from home, even harmless news or current events. Punishment for not following their rules would be that our letter was simply not sent, an obviously disheartening consequence.
Like I said, John taught the letter code to me. Here’s how we did it: we incorporated important information into an otherwise obtuse letter but as we wrote our cursive strokes along the seven straight lines on our paper, we were careful not to let our words actually touch the lines, unless of course a letter in a particular word was part of the coded message we wanted to send. It was rather difficult and extremely time consuming to craft a letter in this way but if you’ll remember, all we had was time. So as I wrote to my wife, I rested the bottoms of select letters down onto the line in a way that did not stand out but still alerted my informed reader that I had a message to relay.
In one of my first coded letters, I asked in code, “how is aunt mary?” Naturally, my letters read harmlessly enough at face value and usually any messages I tried to send would be able escape the language barriers that prevented my captors from detecting the nuances of the English language. In other words, most of the time our letters got through easily enough. I have no idea of the path they traveled before finally arriving in the United States but I would guess that perhaps they were delivered first to the US Embassy in Hanoi, then possibly sent through other channels before finally making it to US officials in Washington DC and then on to Louise. I can’t be sure, and it never occurred to me to ask about these details. I still remain perplexed as to how they ever came to be in Louise’s possession. It didn’t seem important at the time to know that sort of thing and I was just glad she was getting them at all. If I am allowed to speculate, I would guess that it likely went something like this:
“Do you have an Aunt Mary, Mrs. Brady?”
“No, I do not.”
“Do you know anyone named Mary, Mrs. Brady?”
She must certainly have wondered what it meant and if she was or was not supposed to respond back to me. Pretty shortly though, she had it figured out. The Aunt Mary I was asking about was actually Mary Crow, Fred’s wife. After a dig into still-missing POWs, the CIA pieced together that I was in the same cell as Fred Crow, and Mary Crow and my wife fortunately knew each other. With my subtle hints serving as proof, Mrs. Crow was notified that her husband was alive and was with me and the other American prisoners at Hoa Lo. My wife wrote me back herself, letting me know, “I saw your Aunt Mary.” That’s when I knew she was actually in on it with me.
My wife acquired great skill in delivering important information to me and I was thankful for that, because I was absolutely starved for it. Surely, I can assume that other wives involved themselves in this task as well. Towards the end of the months when I was allowed to write to my family, my wife and I exchanged one especially important bit of promising news. My most memorable letter to her prompted the following hidden correspondence:
“Was I promoted?” I asked her, touching down just the right letters of my words hidden amongst the other mundane correspondence in the letter/line code. Only my wife would know how to respond, saying “I took your blue suit to the dry cleaners to be altered.” She was telling me that yes, even in my absence, the United States government had promoted me to Captain, adding a fourth stripe to my existing three. It was the sort of news that got an air pirate through another tough day. I have to say, it was pretty impressive work; another testament to the immense sacrifices made by our families back home in the United States, most specifically our wives, who worked tirelessly for part of a decade to get us back home.
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