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Home : News : News
NEWS | Sept. 18, 2008

Former prisoners of war enjoy prosperity, peace now

By Thomas Warner Staff writer

If captured by the enemy and imprisoned during wartime, American servicemembers must summon the highest levels of courage. 

A pair of retired lieutenant colonels in Texas knows all too well what it's like to be stripped of freedoms and have their patriotism and faith put to the test. 

Lawrence Barbay was shot down during the Vietnam War, in July 1966, and spent more than six-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war. He now lives in Austin. 

Ramon Horinek was shot down over North Vietnam in October 1967 and spent over five years in captivity. He now lives in Universal City. 

The men were imprisoned together in the same holding area at the Hoa Lo prison, known by many veterans as the "Hanoi Hilton." Both came home to the United States in March 1973, as the historically slow Paris peace talks finally brought the end of the war, but each had to endure harsh conditions that tested their willpower. 

"The first week was probably my worst of the entire time I was there," Mr. Horinek said this week. "My captors were really tough on me when I first arrived and it was a real struggle. One prisoner already there asked me when I thought we might go home. I told him it would probably be no less than five years. That's just the way it was going over there at that point. 

"I had a deep faith in my God and my country - a faith that was strengthened while I was captive," Horinek said. "I kept my sense of humor and continued to believe, day after day, that my freedom would eventually come." 

Horinek described attempts by North Vietnamese authorities to force U.S. captives to write or sign documents admitting their guilt. There were brutal beatings and countless mind games plotted and carried out daily, in and around Hanoi, at camps where POWs were held. 

Carrying a captain's rank at the time of his capture, Horinek recounted the various means of persuasion utilized by the communists. His body was routinely bent at odd angles, he was shackled, beaten with a variety of clubs, slapped with pieces of tire rubber and his ears and head were slapped or pounded on repeatedly by North Vietnamese interrogators. 

During a fini-flight taken in the mid-1970s at Randolph Air Force Base, the Atwood, Kan., native realized his eardrums were so badly damaged that he'd have to give up flying for good. 

"I was Freedom Flyer 69 and I appreciated the opportunity to continue my career," Mr. Horinek said, detailing the final flight offered at Randolph to all former pilot prisoners of war. "During the later years, I attended Air War College, did a tour in England and ended in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., as my last duty station." 

A museum in Hangar 12 at Randolph details the struggles, through various wars, of American prisoners of war. Framed photos depict all of the pilots who made fini-flights here and the missing persons branch office in the Air Force Personnel Center building here is dedicated to tracing the whereabouts of all unaccounted-for Air Force members. 

Prior to his capture, Mr. Horinek had already been to Southeast Asia working on numerous covert operations. He'd earned his wings from now-closed Williams AFB in Phoenix, then had duty stations at Laughlin AFB, Texas, and Vance AFB, Okla., plus a stint as a flying instructor here at Randolph. 

His favorite plane was the F-105 Thunderchief, or "Thud" - the plane he was piloting when the shoot-down occurred. The Thuds had been the first American aircraft to reach Mach II speeds and were flown on missions extensively during the first years of the Vietnam War, being replaced later by the F-4 Phantoms. 

Mr. Barbay was a rated navigator and part of a six-person crew carrying out electronic reconnaissance sorties on board EB-66 Destroyers flying missions out of Takhli Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand, toward North Vietnam targets. Then a captain, he was one of five people on a downed plane who survived several years in POW camps. A sixth crew member, Air Force 1Lt. Craig Norbert, was an electronics warfare officer on the mission who was never accounted for. 

"I don't remember leaving the aircraft and I don't remember what happened to me," Mr. Barbay said of the crash, adding that a fire onboard the plane was what initially worsened their prospectus. "Looking back, long after the event, we surmised that we were likely either hit, or just missed by a surface-to-air missile. It was probably some shrapnel that hit either the oxygen line or the fuel line and we caught fire." 

Burned badly over much of his body, Mr. Barbay eventually came-to in a jungle prison, but still suffers a memory loss of seven days immediately after the event. Horinek, meanwhile, vividly recalls being pounced upon by unfriendly villagers who began beating him with sticks, clubs and anything they could get their hands on before dragging him away. 

Both men described the "tap" code of communication used by POWs during the Vietnam era. It involved memorizing five rows of letters, five lines deep, to include the entire English alphabet, save for the letter K. 

"It wasn't known by all that many people at the time (1966) I was taken prisoner, but eventually it was begun being taught to U.S. military members before they left for Vietnam," Mr. Barbay said. "If you didn't know it, you learned it pretty fast." 

Mr. Horinek and Mr. Barbay were initially isolated in jungle environs among small groups of POWs, but were quarantined in cells containing 50-60 people following the U.S. military's infamous Son Tay raid that changed the way North Vietnamese forces quartered their prisoners. 

"When the (enemy) saw what could be done by people, because of lack of facilities and wherewithal on their own part, they moved most all of us to a centralized location," said Mr. Barbay, who won't attend the ceremony today at Randolph because he previously committed to a similar event in Austin. 

Mr. Barbay, a native of Baton Rouge, La., served a total of 23 years in the Air Force and wound out his tenure in 1979 as Commander of an AFROTC detachment at a university. Years after that period in his life, Mr. Barbay said faith in various entities - family, religion and other intangibles - was tantamount to survival for him and many of his detained comrades. 

Mental and physical torture, interrogation and barbaric brutality were the order of the day for these men and others like them, during their ramshackle and hardscrabble combined years of detainment. Today they enjoy peaceful existences, spending quality time at home with family and friends. They are regarded as upstanding and decent by the casual observer, and "heroes" by people who actually know their stories. 

"I always believed we'd one day be liberated," Mr. Barbay said. "No. 1, I had faith in God. No. 2, I had faith in my country. Country first, always ... victory."