Christmas, 1970 – 43 American POWs incarcerated in the Vietnamese Hoa Lo prison or Hanoi Hilton to the prisoners wanted to hold a short church service which their guards adamantly refused to grant. However, the refusal did not stop them from rebelling even though it meant it would really ensure a trip to the torture cell and beating from these guards.
It was Lt. Cmdr. Edwin A. Shuman III, a captured navy pilot, who spearheaded their “resistance” although he knew full well that torture is imminent as a result to his action.
As a fellow POW, Leo K. Thorsness, wrote in his memoir about it:
“Ned stepped forward and said, ‘Are we really committed to having church Sunday? I want to know person by person’. He went around the cell pointing to each of us individually. When the 42nd man said yes, it was unanimous. At that instant, Ned knew he would end up in the torture cells.”
The next Sunday, Commander Shuman went on to lead the group to their planned prayer session in their large cell in the North Vietnam prison camp. In a just a few moments, he was immediately and forcibly taken away by the guards. The next four ranking officers did the same and the same fate as that of Commander Shuman happened to them – they were taken away for the beating. The other POWs could see how the guards were knocking off the five men using the butts of their guns; amidst the praying soldiers and the beating guards, the cell scenario was a total chaos.
“And then I remembered the sixth-ranking officer coming forward saying, ‘Gentlemen, the Lord’s Prayer’,” Mr. Thorsness said. “And this time, we finished it.”
Everett Alvarez Jr., who was the first captured American pilot in the Vietnam War, added that the bravado displayed by Commander Shuman that time had fueled the other American senior officers who were held in the prison’s other large holding cells.
“It was contagious,” he said. he was in another cell when the first prayer service happened. “By the time it got to the fourth or fifth cell, the guards “gave up.”
He pointed out that the POWs even sang patriotic songs.
Commander Shuman remained imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton for over two years. Nevertheless, he along with the other POWs enjoyed the freedom to pray collectively, a right which would not have been established if not for his defiant efforts.
“From that Sunday on until we came home, we held a church service. We won. They lost. Forty-two men in prison pajamas followed Ned’s lead. I know I will never see a better example of pure raw leadership or ever pray with a better sense of the meaning of the words,”Mr. Thorsness, who was an Air Force pilot and was a recipient of the Medal of Honor for heroics due to a mission he did in 1967, further wrote in his memoir, Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey, which was published last 2008.
Knowing Ned Shuman
Born on October 7, 1931, Commander Edwin Shurman III, known to his loved ones and fellow soldiers as Ned, was the son of a Marine architect and Navy officer, patriotism and soldiering ran in his family.
he spent his growing up years in Marblehead, Massachusetts where he learned to sail at the tender age of 5. In 1954, he graduated from the US Naval Academy and was shipped off to Vietnam in September 1967.
he was on his 18th mission when he was captured with his bombardier-navigator in the northern part of Hanoi – that was in March 17, 1968. That time, his A-6 Intruder fighter had been shot down by enemies in the area while they were executing a low-level offensive on a railroad yard.
He spent one year and five months in the Hanoi Hilton prison in solitary confinement. There was even one occasion when he was whipped for hours for violating some regulations.
When special forces from the United States attacked a small prison camp in Son Tay November 20, 1970, North Vietnamese decided to combine their prisoners from a number of several smaller prison camps to Hanoi Hilton. The said edifice was a 19-century structure put up by the French in the central part of Hanoi; it was the American prisoners held there during the years of the Vietnam War that christened it with its name.
North Vietnamese forces felt that they could guard their American prisoners more closely there. They had the latter grouped in large bands and placed in larger cells which made group prayer sessions very possible.
Ned Shuman regained his freedom in March 1973; his release being part of the mass clemency granted to the remaining POWs. He continued to serve in the US Navy only retiring 11 years after. His awards as a serviceman included the Silver Star for his active part in the resistance against brutal treatment.
In 1991, he returned to Vietnam for a humanitarian medical mission which lasted for three weeks. However, he did not see his visit as a part of his healing process but rather he wanted to see what had become of the country.
“I didn’t view this as a healing process. I never had a nightmare,” he pointed out in an interview with a local newspaper.
He even added that he never held a grudge against Vietnamese people and that he like how they are so hardworking.
Aside from serving the country, sailing was another passion Commander Shuman indulged himself in. Fresh from Vietnam, he was put in charge of the sailing program of the Naval Academy.
In August 1979, he commanded the program’s aluminum sloop, the Alliance, and they went on to the Fastnet Race of England where he brought every last one of his crew to safety from a storm that hit the Irish Sea which left 15 other sailors dead.
“I have often compared ocean racing in bad weather with being a prisoner of war, an environment with which, unfortunately, I have some experience. Harsh conditions, cramped quarters, bad food and diverse personalities. Instead of the guards beating on you, mother nature takes over.
“You can’t get out so you make the best of it. It’s a character-builder,” these were the exact words he wrote in his article in the U.S. Naval Institute magazine Proceedings, 1999 edition.
Ned Shuman died due to leg surgery complications – he broke it when he fell of his boat just as he was preparing to hunt geese last November 22. He is survived by his wife, Donna; two sons, Edwin IV and J. Brant and a daughter, Mary Dana Giardina along with other members of the family including three sisters and two half-brothers.
May you rest in peace, Commander Edwin “Ned” A. Shuman.