Interview with Warsaw's Mike Burns

Former POW Talks About Imprisonment, His Views of Life and His Future Plans

by Rich Pauley, Staff Writer


Just one year ago Captain Michael T. Burns was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Now he's a free man and spending part of his new found freedom at the home of his parents, the "Jack" Burns at 1702 East Sheridan Street in Warsaw. Mike and his family graciously consented to his being interviewed. The family set down no ground rules beforehand. Mike, looked tanned and extremely healthy following a vacation in the Bahamas, talked openly about all aspects of his imprisonment during the two hour interview.

Q: What are some of the most dramatic changes you have noticed in the American way of life since returning?

A: I think the biggest is openness concerning sex and politics. Everybody seems to be so relaxed about these topics. These are things I never would have talked about prior to my imprisonment. If I had been blinded, drugged, then awakened in a U.S. city, I would have had a rough time figuring out where I was. Everything is so gaudy now. The dress and hair styles have changed greatly. But I think the changes are good. A lot of these things religion has kept under wraps and now they're in the open. I'm in favor of it.

Q: Where are some of the places you've visited since returning?

A: I've been to the Bahamas, Miami Beach and New York City. Most of the years I was imprisoned I had a tremendous hunger to see the world. Now my desire to view the world is even greater. On these trips I don't do anything special. Mainly I just enjoy talking to people. It's not that I just want to travel but for so long I was inactive. Now I want to be active.

Q: Where will you be visiting in the near future?

A: I'll be going to Hawaii and to Washington, D.C. Also, I'm going to attend the Indy 500. I've never seen it. From there I will be going to Dallas. Most of these trips are especially lined up for POWs. Also there is a tour of the Greek islands that I would like to take advantage of.

Q: Do you plan to reenlist in the Air Force?

A: I'm making initial probes into something other than the service, but I have given serious thought to staying in the Air force. I've been talking to some of the airline companies. Easter Airlines has made most generous offers to returning POWs. Right now I'd have to say my future plans are still indefinite.

Q: What were some of the things you missed while in prison?

A: What we missed went through stages. Basically it was food on and off. We had "food frenzies". We dreamed up fantastic meals. Then we decided we really shouldn't do that. Then it would be travel for a while. Detailed maps of London, Paris were drawn from memory on the floors of our prison. We must have traveled everywhere. Of course girls and sex were on our minds.

Q: What about those that fled to Canada rather than fight? Should they be allowed to return? With any punishment?

A: I haven't thought about it deeply. I think all that left should be judged on an individual basis. I'm certain a number conscientiously just could not fight. It took courage for them to do what they did, knowing they faced a bleak future as well. I think they would make good citizens if allowed to return. But I also think a lot of them were phonies who took advantage of everything.

Q: Do you think South Vietnam will be overrun by the Communists in the near future anyway?

A: I have no idea. I think they will be fighting for years. I don't care to get too deeply into this. The North Vietnamese are extremely tenacious.

Q: Let's imagine you are back in the Air Force and the U.S. has been drawn into a new conflict. Would you volunteer to serve?

A: I don't think it's easy to stay out of wars. Especially when you see some big guy taking advantage of a little guy. There are times when something needs to be done. No, I don't think we ought to get out of all wars.

Q: When you first joined the Air Force, you indicated you wanted to be a pilot, and nothing else. If you continue your Air Force career, will this still be your philosophy?

A: I think I've change. If I go back into the Air Force, I think I want to get as much schooling as possible. I'm sure the discipline would be hard at first, but 10-15 years from now I'm sure I'll be glad I went. When I was in prison I realized that I had not stretched my mind very much. Now I want to develop it.

Q: You were an outstanding athlete at Fort Wayne Bishop Luers. What surprised you most about the American sports scene when you returned?

A: I was surprised at how high sports ranked in people's minds. I was especially at the priority people gave to pro football and basketball.

Q: Were you adequately trained by the Air Force for the rigors of imprisonment?

A: I don't see how you can train anyone for the years that are spent in a dark closet. I attended a two-week survival school, but I didn't take it seriously. I never thought I would be shot down. I guess about the only way you could adequately train a person would be to put him through a five-year survival school.

Q: Were you familiar with any POWs who received special favors from the Communists?

A: Yes, but usually the favors were so petty. A typical favor might have been a hard-boiled egg. None of the favors were worth the price of writing anti-war statements.

Q: What sort of an attitude do you take concerning anti-war militants like Jane Fonda who have been outspoken concerning POW conditions?

A: There are two ways to view them. Possibly these people were misled. Or they wanted to believe in the North Vietnamese cause, so they only looked for what they really wanted to see. What they saw were showcase prisoners. I'm sorry to see people like Fonda and (Ramsey) Clark making statements about something they don't know anything about.

Q: You said you never really considered the possibility of being shot down. Didn't the prospect ever bother you at all?

A: No. You might ask why American fighter pilots are flying over Cambodia right now with the chance they could be shot down and lost forever. That's just the way fighter pilots are. And mathematically the percentages are really in your favor. Plus if you believe deeply in a cause, that's just added incentive.

Q: What sort of an aircraft were you flying when you were shot down?

A: It was an F-4D. I was known as a backseater. Lt. Col. Carl Crumpler was in the front. It was the first mission we'd flown together.

Q: What do you remember about that day you were shot down?

A: It was July 5th, but mainly I remember the night of the fourth. That night we had a big celebration for our outgoing Wing Commander and the new Commander. It was a big party and I stayed out late. One of the first things I remember about the fifth was that it was a beautiful day.

Q: Anything Else?

A: Yes, this is sort of a strange story, but I was glad to get out of that plane, even if I was shot out of it. At the time I was shot down it was Air Force procedure that pilots be in the second seat and they didn't like that. It was an ego thing because pilots felt navigators should be in the second seat. By the way, that's the way it is now. One of the thoughts that crossed my mind after I got out of the plane was that I was glad to get out of that back seat. Some of the North Vietnamese were aware of pilots' dislike for the back seat. One of the first interrogators I met in Hanoi, who spoke beautiful English, made fun of the fact that I was a "backseater". At the time it struck me funny.

Q: How were you shot down?

A: We were flying over the base of a low mountain on a bombing mission when red tracers suddenly were all around us. If felt as though they were tapping on the bottom of the plane with a hammer. As we were pulling away from our target, I looked back and saw that the back half of the plane was on fire. We jettisoned our tanks and bombs and headed for the water. The plane went into violent maneuvers. Carl (Crumpler) asked me if I wanted to leave the plane. I said "yep" and we jumped out.

Q: What was the parachute jump like?

A: All the systems worked well. I was extremely pleased with the rocket seat. I remember talking to a first lieutenant in Tucson who said, "Don't ever fail to use that system." I thought it worked beautifully.

Q: Can you recall what your thoughts were on the way down or upon landing?

A: They were not good "war hero" thoughts. There were explosions going on all around. We were just above a thin layer of clouds, and when we broke through I saw a beautiful blue sea and lush green jungle. I was apprehensive over what was awaiting me on the ground. About 200 feet from the ground I saw a farmer whipping two buffalo. As soon as I hit the ground I immediately called on the radio to the wing men and told him I was going to try to make it to the mountains. It was late afternoon. They said they would try to pick us up in the morning. I was very excited at the time, talking about a thousand words a minute. He told me I was going too fast and to slow down.

Q: How long was it before you were captured?

A: It was about a half hour. I could still hear gunfire. I hid in some tall bushes. A little North Vietnamese man suddenly peeked in at me and just kept looking. He was very scared. I just watched him. Suddenly he jumped up, screamed and took off. Then a number of Vietnamese converged. There must have been 75-100 in the area. There were girls, army men ... it was a real community effort.

Q: After your capture, I understand you took a slow trip to Hanoi.

A: We stayed in the village near where we were captured for about 20 days. It was a central holding area with two caves. Crumpler was in one cave about 30 feet long. I was placed in the other. The villagers would harass us. In fact the only time they didn't disturb us was when they came to feed us or when we smoked. They they would just sit and watch us. So we learned to do both things very slowly. A lot of the kids treated us like animals. Other villagers would give us a smoke. Then they would sit and talk to each other about how we looked. On our trip to Hanoi we stayed at a number of different villages. Guards would ask the villagers for places for us to stay. Then we would hear arguing between guards and the villagers. Finally we would be given a place to rest.

Q: Do you recall any unique experiences that happened during the trip?

A: I remember standing in the field after being captured. A number of villagers started surrounding us. Our arms were loosely tied. A guard offered me water. I took a sip, then he threw the rest on me. I remember this little Vietnamese kid who came running at me with a rock in his hand. I turned my back to him and the rock hit me on my back. Then he grabbed for the guard's gun. I guess he wanted to shoot me. The guard finally settled him down. Then this guy about 90, with blazing brown eyes, hit me lightly across the chin. I guess that was his way of getting back at me.

Q: One of the stories that has come out of the war is that you were responsible for helping several injured POWs. Would you be willing to relate the details?

A: There were two men: Major Gobal Jones and Navy Lieutenant Bobby Fant. They were suffering from broken legs and arms sustained when they parachuted. Carl (Crumpler) and I took care of them on the truck ride north to Hanoi. In Hanoi Crumpler was put in confinement, so I took care of both of them. I carried them to the showers, things like that. Gobal was one of the finest men I've ever met. He helped me keep my stability. He was a soldier of character and had a fantastic sense of humor. Fant was married the last of March. It was a great wedding. She waited for him the whole time.

Q: After arriving at Hanoi how many places were you kept during your nearly five-year captivity?

A: Once we arrived in Hanoi we were taken to a French prison which was made up of smaller prisons with names like "Unity", "Las Vegas" and "Heartbreak". We stayed there until December of 1969, then we were moved to a new camp, a plantation located on the outskirts of town. The name of that camp was "Faith". This was our first real compound situation, it resembled a World War II camp.

One night we were awakened by SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) going off. I looked toward Hanoi and could see different things glowing, there were tracers everywhere. There was a big ball of fire in the sky and then an explosion. This was the Sontay Raid. Three days later we were rushed back to the French prison.

In October of 1971, 100 of us went to Camp Zoo located on the outskirts of Hanoi. We left there in the middle of May, 1972, and were taken to a camp in the mountains near the Chinese border. We stayed there until January of 1973, then we were taken back to the plantation on the edge of Hanoi. It was then we were certain that we would soon be released.

Q: Did you manage to maintain good health?

A: I thought I had excellent health. Then in October 1972 several of my teeth went bad. It was the worst pain I'd ever had. The pain lasted until February. The guys told me to put up with the pain, that in time the nerve would die. The Communists would give us aspirins occasionally. They also gave us toothbrushes, watery toothpaste, and soap made of pig fat and lye.

Q: What about letters from home, were they censored?

A: I got more than the average, 29 letters and 10 cards. Several of the letters had blocked out words. When I would write letters they would censor them, return them two or three weeks later and then the letters would have to be written their way. They were especially leery about numbers in letters. I got about one package every two months. The first came in February of 1969. The first packages had clothes, candy and were unbroken. All I had to do was sign for them. After the Sontay Raid hard candy was broken into sawdust, food was cut into pieces and powdered drinks were finely sifted. Several POWs received three or four letters their entire tour. I don't know how they decided who got what. We could never second-guess them.

Q: You mentioned drawing detailed maps on the floor, talking about travel plans, what else did you do to make the time pass more rapidly?

A: We described movies we had seen to each other. Then when we ran out of movies we started telling reruns. We would tell movies to prisoners in other cells by tapping out the story on the wall. This was also the way we kept up with what was happening in America. New prisoners would tap out messages telling about new styles and trends and also they would tell what the American people really thought of the war.

The last eight months we would tell old movies but now characters in the room were put in the movie. It would give us a good laugh at each other. If we didn't keep laughing we would have gone out of our minds. One prisoner took four nights to tell the story of the movie Hawaii, it was beautifully done. I told a movie that featured Art Carney. In the story he's a bum, but he has a bag and he's passing out toys. When I told the movie I used the others in the room as characters in the movie, only I came up with funny names for each of them. I enjoyed telling that movie most because everyone really got a good laugh out of it.

The last Christmas, which was spent in the mountains, we heard the Christmas Carol and someone told the story of "A Christmas Twilight Zone". And we sang the Twelve Days of Christmas starting on the 12th day after Christmas. We also had a gift exchange, the gifts were to actually be given whenever we were released. There was a group of 50 men and we went right around the group with everyone telling.

Q: Were you ever tortured or threatened with torture?

Answer: I was seriously tortured just once, at the 19th Parallel, under my first English interrogator. I was placed in ropes and irons and was given a pounding and beating. It lasted one day, but we were always threatened with torture. I was sort of fortunate. I had been in Thailand for just one month and was the youngest man in the entire group, by a year. They knew there just wasn't that much I could tell them.

Q: Some of the prison camps had their own religious services and educational classes, did yours?

A: In the spring of 1969 I was put in solitary confinement briefly. After essential information was passed on to me by the man in the next cell he told me that each Sunday they said the Lord's Prayer and the Pledge. From that point on we continued to say the Lord's Prayer. In the big camp after the Sontay Raid we got a choir together, although the Vietnamese threatened us. The Southern Baptists seemed to know all the songs.

From 1970 on we got Bibles occasionally. When we were in the big camp, after the religious services on Sunday, we would break up into smaller groups and different prisoners would describe what their religion was like.

Q: Did you begin to think you would never be released?

A: I thought we would be there another four years after President Nixon was re-elected. But apparently the North Vietnamese got hit pretty hard and changed their minds. When he heard we were actually going to be released we check the dates everyone was shot down to determine which group we would be released with.

Q: Describe what happened the day you were released.

A: The day we came home we were given nice civilian clothing and traveling bags by the Vietnamese. The week before we came home we were finally given our first Red Cross packages of the war. They contained books, shaving cream, things like that. For some reason they would never allow Red Cross packages to come in until that final week.

Q: Do you feel there are still POWs and MIAs (Missing in action) still being held captive?

A: I don't think everyone has been accounted for, but I still don't know why they wouldn't release everyone. I know this much, if our country hadn't been as strong as it was we would all have been tried and shot.

Q: Now that it's over, what good came of it?

A: One good thing was the shocking separation from normal life. You need to step outside of your life and look at it. No matter what you see the look is good for you. I know some guys will be bitter for the rest of their lives over what happened but the vast majority won't.
I found out that you never stop growing, not even in a vacuum. It gave me time to look at my values and sort out the good ones and the bad ones. I also thought a lot more about God.

Warsaw Times Union, Saturday, May 5, 1973