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East County Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021 6 months ago

Lakewood Ranch veteran recalls imprisonment during Vietnam War

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Lakewood Ranch's Leo Hyatt talks about being a Vietnam War POW as we approach Veterans Day.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

Before he left on a Vietnam War mission, Leo Hyatt knew he was going to be shot down.

The Lakewood Ranch resident retold the story as the nation prepares to honor its soldiers on Veterans Day. To show what veterans have endured, Hyatt remembered a reconnaissance mission he flew on Aug. 13, 1967. After 22 airplanes had been sent to bomb a bridge in North Vietnam near the Chinese border, Hyatt piloted his RA-5C Vigilante, along with radar and navigation officer Wayne Goodermote, to assess their success.

Hyatt, who served in the Navy from 1957 to 1986, was ordered to approach the bridge from the south, and it was expected he would fly into heavy enemy fire.

He tried to convince the commanding officer in charge of his mission that it would be foolhardy to approach the bridge from the south, but the commanding officer refused to change his orders. 

“I went to my commanding officer and I said, ‘It's setting me up to get shot down. All they have to do is shoot out in front of me and they got me,’” said Hyatt, who now is 87 years old and lives at Cypress Springs Gracious Retirement Living with his wife Barbara Hyatt. 

Hyatt, who dreamed of being a fighter pilot since he was 8 years old, flew over the bridge and saw that it had been destroyed. He called his strike-team leader and reported the bridge down. 

That’s when he felt a hit on his plane by 37 mm anti-aircraft guns.

“I don’t remember anything else,” Hyatt said. “I blacked out. I don’t remember ejecting (at almost 850 miles-per-hour) or even thinking about ejecting. I woke up in the parachute just before my butt hit the ground. I could see all these North Vietnamese coming across the area, coming toward the bridge. They were all shooting at me.”

Hyatt grabbing his pistol, survival radio and a jug of water and started to run. A bone in his left shoulder had shattered when he was ejected from the plane and bullets were zipping past him as he ran. He took one bullet in his right arm, and he decided to hide in some brush. It didn't help.

He was captured, tied up and brought back to an enemy camp as a prisoner of war. He eventually learned Goodermote also survived the ejection and was imprisoned as well.

Left outside on the ground, the many bugs native to that area feasted on Hyatt and Goodermote before they were sent to Hanoi and taken to Hoa Lo Prison, which was converted from a hotel to a prison. It was known around the world as "the Hanoi Hilton." 

“That’s where I met my captors, and from there, the fun started,” Hyatt said. “They didn’t like us, and we didn’t like them.”

For five years and seven months, Hyatt and Goodermote were held prisoner and tortured. 

Hyatt was kept in a room with a concrete floor wearing only a pair of shorts while his hands were tied behind his back.

“They would try to get you to do things like write a letter against the war to various politicians back in the states,” Hyatt said. “If you didn’t, they wanted you to go through another torture session. It went on week after week, month after month and year after year.”

Leo Hyatt and Barbara Hyatt have been married for 46 years. They met at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida where Leo Hyatt was stationed and Barbara Hyatt was working as a civil servant.

Hyatt said he was fed cabbage soup, which he described as mostly green water. He was given a cup of cooked rice, but he wouldn’t chew it because there were pebbles in the rice that could break his teeth. He also would get pumpkin soup with some fatback and a spoonful of mashed sardines. 

“If you were lucky, you got a piece or two of fatback in the soup along with four or five pieces of pumpkin,” Hyatt said. “You were hungry all the time.”

One day, Hyatt was put in a room so he could clean the bowls used during meals. There was a 55-gallon drum filled with leftover soup and rice. He could see pieces of half-rotted fatback floating on top, so he grabbed two pieces and ate them. Hyatt was caught and tortured as a punishment.

In 1973, help finally came. 

President Richard Nixon ordered the bombing of North Vietnam and beginning Dec. 18, 1972, American B-52s and fighter-bombers dropped more than 20,000 tons of bombs on Hanoi and Haiphong. 

On Jan. 27, 1973, Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending direct U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. 

Between February and April of 1973, prisoners of war were returned to the U.S., including Hyatt.

Hyatt recalled being brought outside Hoa Lo Prison with the other American prisoners March 14, 1973 and the camp commander announced the war was over and they would be returning home.

“Nobody made a sound,” Hyatt said. “There was no cheering, no yelling, no clapping. It was dead silent. We had been lied to for so long about so much that nothing registered.”

Retired Capt. Leo Hyatt served in the Navy from 1957 to 1986 after graduating from the Naval Academy. Courtesy photo.

The newly freed prisoners were loaded onto buses and sent to an airport for a flight to the Philippines. On the ride to the airport, Hyatt saw all the destruction the bombings caused. 

Hyatt and the others, including Goodermote, were on a plane on their way to the Philippines when the pilot announced they were “feet wet,” meaning they were out of North Vietnam and over the Pacific Ocean. Hyatt realized he was going home.

“The cheering, yelling, hollering and clapping of hands started,” Hyatt said. “It stayed that way until we got on the ground in the Philippines. When we landed in the Philippines there were thousands of people amassed at the airport cheering us on.”

Although Hyatt was told his grandmother and three aunts had died while he was gone and his wife wanted a divorce, he was just happy to be alive and home.

“There’s just no way to describe to you the ecstatic feeling that was,” Hyatt said. “It was suddenly like I’m alive again. There is a future. No more being hungry all the time. No more pain and suffering.”

While doctors were checking on Hyatt when he returned, they were amazed when they looked at his x-rays. 

“They said, ‘You should be dead,’” Hyatt said. 

There was a fracture in his vertebrae in his neck similar to what would happen if someone was hung. He sustained the injury while being tortured. He remembered he couldn’t move afterward and couldn’t feed himself for at least five days. Another prisoner fed him and gave him water, saving his life. 

“I’m on borrowed time,” Hyatt said. “I know I’m supposed to be dead, but I’m not.”

After the war, Hyatt wanted to continue to serve because he had the opportunity to command his own squadron, which was a dream of his. 

He met his wife, Barbara Hyatt, when he was stationed at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Florida, and she was working as a civil servant. 

On April 26, 1975, they married. 

Hyatt retired from the Navy as a captain in 1986. He earned several awards throughout his military career including a Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Bronze Stars.

Leo Hyatt always has been dedicated to his country and served in the Navy from 1957 to 1986. He was a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War and later commanded his own squadron.

 

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