How Vietnam War POW Doug Hegdahl Tricked His Captors by Playing a Fool and Memorized the Names Of 256 POWs Of His Camp

Learn how very convincing Vietnam War POW Doug Hegdahl was at acting his “stupidly stupid” character while at the hands of his Vietnamese captors leading them to give him an almost free run of the POW camp he was in. To top that, he was able to memorize the names, personal information as well as the capture dates and methods of capture of another 256 POWs in the camp.

Man Overboard

20-year-old Doug Hegdahl only wanted to see the world that was why he signed up for the US Navy but then, fate had other plans.

A few months after joining, Doug found himself on the gun line of USS Canberra off North Vietnam. The night of April 6, 1967 saw the cruiser shelling North Vietnam and in a bid to get a clearer view of the bombardment, Doug went above deck and was blown overboard by a 5-inch gun mount blast.

USS Canberra
USS Canberra

He stayed afloat South China Sea for about 12 hours until some Cambodian fishermen spotted him and fished him out of the water. The fishermen who found him treated him kindly but when he was turned over to Vietnamese militiamen, they clubbed him repeatedly with their rifles before taking him to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp.

Meanwhile, his shipmates failed to report him going missing for two days in a bid to cover him. Because their commanding officer was left in the dark about Doug Hegdahl going overboard, nobody looked for him.

The Incredibly Stupid One

Initially, his Vietnamese captors believed Doug Hegdahl to be a commando or an agent as his story about being blown overboard was too far-fetched for them. The US Navy apprentice soon realized the he would be better off if he played the “fool” card so . . . he did.

It took a few days of slapping before he convinced his captors he was nothing but an illiterate, foolish US Navy apprentice who had little value to them. His bumpkin attitude, his youthfulness and his country accent did the trick.

US Navy apprentice Doug hegdahl was only 20 when he entered the Navy in a bid to see the world.
US Navy apprentice Doug hegdahl was only 20 when he entered the Navy in a bid to see the world.

When his captors asked him to write anti-US statements, Doug Hegdahl agreed to do so but added that he couldn’t read or write. Seeing him as someone they could manipulate for their own interest, the Vietnamese militiamen assigned someone to teach him how to read.

But after many attempts, they gave up perceiving Hegdahl as a lost cause as he appeared to be too stupid to learn. Ultimately, Dough Hegdahl was given the moniker The Incredibly Stupid One.


It wasn’t long after Doug’s arrival in the prison camp when fellow POWs saw his potential. Not only was he able to play the “fool” card very convincingly, he was also able to do small acts of sabotage. On top of that, Doug Hegdahl had a very impressive memory.

With the help of US Air Force officer and fellow POW, Joe Crecca, Doug Hegdahl was able to memorize the names, other personal information as well as capture dates and methods of capture of some 256 fellow POWs to the tune of the old nursery rhyme Old McDonald Had A Farm.

Among the small acts of sabotage he did was putting small amount of dirt in the gas tanks of five trucks. After he was finished with them, all the five vehicles had to be towed out of the prison compound.

Another prison feat Doug Hegdahl did, as shared by his cellmate and senior officer Lieutenant Commander Richard Stratton, was when he was able to convince his captors he was in need of a new pair of glass. When they did take him to Hanoi for the fitting, the US Navy apprentice went on to memorize the route they took from the prison camp to the city.


Doug Hegdahl was one of the three POWs released from Hanoi on August 5, 1969. Very convinced of his “illiterate fool” act, his captors believed that releasing him – a propaganda move for the North Vietnamese – would do them no harm. On the other hand, fellow POWs – who initially made a pact not to accept early releases – saw a great advantage if Doug Hegdahl was indeed released earlier.

“You are the most junior. You have the names. You know first hand the torture stories behind many of the propaganda pictures and news releases. You know the locations of many of the prisons,” his cellmate Dick Stratton told him.

However, Doug was reluctant to accept the early release his captors were offering him. He feared that coming home early would result in his being dishonored from service. In the end, Stratton had to directly order him to comply with the early release.

Fighting Without Bullets

And how right his fellow POWs were in making Doug Hegdahl an exception to the pact they made about early releases!

The information Doug had etched in his memory with the help of a nursery rhyme proved to be very valuable that Ross Perot sent him to Paris to confront the North Vietnamese Peace Talk Delegation about the fate of those servicemen who went missing in action.

Doug Hegdahl memorized many names of servicemen that the government did not have. Furthermore, he was a firsthand witness of the brutalities that occurred inside the prison camps where the POWs were interred. These brutalities were largely unknown, kept in secret until the US Navy apprentice brought them out to the light.

In the end, Doug Hegdahl fought the Vietnam War but not with bullets. He was able to make a very important strike against the enemy without ever firing a gun.

Post Vietnam War

After returning to the United States, Doug Hegdahl became a Survival School instructor for the US Navy’s SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape]. He teaches in the institution until today.

And of course, he can still memorize the wealth of information he committed to memory some four or five decades ago using the tune of Old McDonald Had A Farm.

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE