Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Vietnam POW retells his tale

A prisoner of war for seven years, a University of Wisconsin alum spoke to a group of UW Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadets Tuesday, telling a jarring tale of courage, honor and service.

Originally trained as a navigator, Col. Don Heiliger became an official pilot when the Air Force started recruiting navigators to satisfy the needs of the Vietnam War.

During the time of the Vietnam War, there were never enough pilots, Heiliger said. He soon found himself flying from Thailand into the conflict-ridden area of North Vietnam.


During his 44th mission, seconds away from dropping his bomb, the back of Heiliger’s plane was hit by enemy fire.

Since Vietnam’s most heavily defended territory was to the left, he and his co-pilot aimed the plane toward the Gulf of Tonkin. Heiliger said nearly everything in the plane had stopped working and the fire from the back kept growing closer.

“There were two options: either burn up or get out,” Heiliger said. “The first wasn’t a good option.”

He ejected at 23,000 feet in the pitch black of night and fell into a high, tree-filled area where his parachute snagged, suspending him above the ground.

Cutting himself loose, Heiliger found himself on the outskirts of a village. Hiding behind a grouping of rocks, he was eventually captured by local villagers.

Heiliger said he was initially met with courtesy until two Communist cadres came on the scene. They put him in a hut and told him he would not be dying that night. He was eventually marched to “Heartbreak Hotel” in Hanoi, Vietnam. In the back of this building an ominous torture room broke just about everything, including hearts.

“The torture was very, very medieval,” Heiliger said.

Elbows and wrists were bound, shackles littered the floor and meat hooks hung from the ceiling.

“They can make it so uncomfortable that you will lose your physical and mental faculty,” Heiliger said.

In midst of such horrors, Heiliger found solace in the lifelong bonds forged with fellow POWs.

“It came to the point where I don’t think there’s anything I don’t know about them. It was almost embarrassing when I met their wives,” Heiliger said.

New prisoners brought information from back home and they covertly communicated by utilizing tap codes and body gestures when possible.

During Heiliger’s last year, the Vietnamese became worried about American rescue raids and moved every POW in the surrounding area to Heartbreak Hotel. Soon 50 people were in each room.

To pass time, the men taught each other skills. Heiliger learned French, Spanish and German. They created course books from toilet paper, which was coarse enough to write on, and made makeshift ink from things like cigarette ashes and fungus medicine.

The art of storytelling became a popular pastime as well. The prisoners had “movie nights” four times a week, where they retold entire movies from memory. Exercise was also a huge priority.

After his release, Heiliger chose to stay in the Air Force and earned his master’s degree in international relations.

For the cadets at UW’s Detachment 925, Heiliger showed the potential opportunities that one has after being part of ROTC.

Cadet Ethan Dobrot found Heiliger’s tale to be “truly incredible,” saying he couldn’t imagine the things he has been through. As a student aspiring to become an Air Force pilot, Heiliger’s story had special significance.

“His positive outlook on what’s happened to him is actually really inspiring to someone like me who is considering following in his footsteps in becoming a pilot and considering all the career’s risks and rewards,” Dobrot said.

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