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  • Former Vietnam POW Howard Hill Tells His Story

    Story By: Kelly Murphy-Redd CEcD


    Descending by parachute, Howard Hill saw someone with a rifle running down the dirt road in his direction. When he landed, two men in militia outfits and pith helmets stood 10 feet away, looking down the sights of their rifles with bayonets. Forty to fifty more came out from the brush hollering. The Vietnamese government was offering villagers 110 lbs. of rice for every prisoner. It was December 1967.

    Trying to take off Howard’s gear, the militia couldn’t figure out the buckles, so they cut the straps with knives. Accidentally hitting the life preserver, the CO2 cartridges exploded. The militia stabbed wildly at the preservers to deflate them. Howard hoped they wouldn’t stab him. They took his flight suit and boots. They returned them minus the boot laces.

    His front-seater Jim landed in the woods, was captured, and brought in wearing only underwear and a t-shirt. Elbows bound behind his back, walking along the road to the village, they passed a group of women and children at a gate staring at them. Howard felt embarrassed for Jim and signaled to a guard asking about Jim’s flight suit. The guard said, “Him shoot, you no shoot.”

    Led to an open area, told to sit and bow their heads, people gathered around them. An old man hit Howard in the head. The crowd loved it. At night, they were taken to a room, given a cup of water, a dish of brownish coarse sugar with dried pumpkin powder, and a piece of baguette. Then, tied up even tighter and blindfolded for hours, Howard massaged his numb left arm with his right hand. He couldn’t lose circulation and possibly get gangrene.

    The guards stood him up and walked him to the door, where he felt cool air and heard the crowd noise. Still blindfolded, Howard was punched and kicked as they led him outside. A woman screamed and slapped his face. The crowd roared approval.

    Guards threw Howard on top of Jim in a jeep and drove to a creek. When he asked if anyone spoke English, the guards whacked him. They crossed the creek flanked on both sides by villagers. Kids threw dirt clods at them and kept hitting the guard. Howard wondered if he could overpower his guard, but had no gear and no place to go.

    A helicopter took them to the Hanoi Hilton. It was hard to believe only four months and one day earlier, Howard married his wife Libby.

    Arriving at the Hanoi Hilton, he was blindfolded again and taken to a room where he stood for a long time. Then the blindfold was taken off, he was untied, and interrogated through the night. Military information is perishable. They need to get it quickly. When he refused to answer questions, he was bound into a tight ball with ropes. Morning came, the interrogation stopped, and he laid down in the corner to sleep. They returned in the afternoon to begin again.

    In February 1968, three prisoners were released early. They violated the code of conduct by accepting special favors from the enemy and signing propaganda statements. In August, Howard’s front-seater Jim and two others violated the code and were released. It was meant to demoralize the rest of them.

    Howard and his roommate were shown copies of the signed statements and given quill pens. Told they could go home too; they refused. Twelve prisoners were given early release. Only one was honorable because the POW senior ranking officer ordered him to go and make public what was going on. Howard believed this helped their treatment. Those who left in February memorized names on 104 flight suits from doing laundry and provided the names to the U.S. Upon release, Jim confirmed Howard was captured.

    Howard began prison life in a 5 x 7-foot room and subsequently, moved to an 8 x 8 and a 14 x 14. POWs slept on raised concrete slabs or hardwood slats. A bare light bulb was always on so the guards could see them.

    POWs were given a rice mat, two blankets, a mosquito net, (Guards took that away if they were mad at you.), two pairs of underwear, two t-shirts, two pairs of trousers, two jackets, one pair of socks, and a pair of sandals made out of tires with inner tube straps. They also received a hand towel, a liter jug of boiled water twice a day, a bar of lye soap, a tube of toothpaste to last three months, an enamel dish, three cigarettes a day, and a fan on a bamboo stick.

    A five-gallon galvanized bucket was the toilet and coarse paper was used for toilet paper. They figured out that using their sandals as toilet seats could prevent the inevitable ringworm from the rim of the bucket and the imprint of the rim on their butts. Toothpaste also killed ringworm. They emptied the buckets into the open sewage ditch in the shower area. A shower was usually allowed every morning in an open-air, bamboo-walled area using a small rubber bucket with a rope attached to scoop water out of a cistern or well to pour on themselves. No showers on Sundays when they weren’t allowed out or if the guards were mad at them.

    At 6 a.m. the gong rang for the POWs to get up, fold their blankets, nets, and mat, and set them at the head of the bed. The guards played the same Radio Hanoi program from the night before about the glorious victories of the Vietnamese. After lunch, the guards took a siesta. Not allowed to communicate with each other, the POWS secretly communicated during siesta, but the guards got smart and tried to listen. Supper was in the evening. At 8 p.m. taps played, and it was time to go to bed. The POWs developed a tap code to communicate when in their rooms. Keeping watch on the guards from their windows, they would communicate verbally as much as possible.

    After the Son Tay Raid in November 1970, the POWs moved into Hoa Lo, the central prison in Hanoi. With 50 in a room once and no room for everyone to lay out their mats, some of the men taught classes. There were language classes, math, and even ballroom dancing.

    Meals consisted of soup made with pumpkin, kohlrabi, or turnips, a bowl of rice, or baguette. There might be meat or flat fermented fish. One room washed dishes for a building housing 20. They figured out they could write on the bottom of the bowls. They also used the end of toothpaste tubes to write on the coarse paper.

    Work detail included dredging sludge from the sewage ditch for the garden, washing dishes, making coal balls out of mud and soft coal used in the kitchen, or sweeping. Dredging sludge or making coal balls entitled you to a second shower. Guards asked three rooms of POWs to dig bomb shelters for the guards. Two said they would. The third refused. The third room POWs were beaten and had to dig. The POWs saying they would dig were left alone. The guards like to keep them off balance.

    Interrogations were called “quizzes” by POWs. Sitting on a small stool, if the guards didn’t like what they said, they were hit and knocked off the stool. They had to “stand” on their knees with their arms up in the air for hours. During surprise room inspections, guards would frisk them, throw around their belongings, and plant contraband. Senior officers got it the worst. Treatment depended on which camp you were in.

    Howard moved camps a few times. In 1969, he was in an old French movie studio where the Vietnamese held Christmas Eve Service for propaganda. East Germans filmed it. U.S. Intelligence obtained a copy and blew up every other frame into 5x7 still photos. At a gathering in 1970, the League of American Families spread the photos out on tables. Howard’s wife, Libby, walked by and saw a picture of Howard.

    One of the nicknames given to the interrogators was Judas-Maker. Another, Stag, spoke fluent English. Stag would stand outside under the POWs’ windows and try to get them to talk by sounding like an American to get them in trouble.

    In May 1972, four-and-a-half years into captivity, Howard and others were discussing how long the war would continue. They agreed it would go on for another 10-15 years. Howard said they knew they would go home, they just didn’t know when. They had faith in their country. That faith was rewarded when in March 1973 they were released.

    Howard says it was worse for the families not knowing whether their loved ones were alive or dead. Divorces and suicides were common among those returning. Howard says he was just so glad to be home.

    He has no hatred or animosity for the Vietnamese. He says they were doing their jobs, and he was doing his. “There is no sense in feeling sorry for yourself. Someone always has it worse. And good can be found in everything,” says Howard.

    He still feels the same sentiment used to sign off each time he and his fellow prisoners communicated by tap code, GBU GBA, for “God Bless You, God Bless America.”

    Howard Hill moved to Okaloosa County in 1991. He served as an Okaloosa County school board member from November 1996 to November 2010. He has served as President of the PAL Soccer League since January 24, 1994. The Niceville soccer field is named in his honor.




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  • Love at First Sight: A Match Made in Fort Walton Beach

    Story By: Kelly Murphy-Redd CEcD

  • This story begins, as many great stories do, at the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. Intrepid leader and master of ceremonies Ted Corcoran was out of town in May of this year and made plans to transform the First Friday Coffee into a non-profit “trade show” in his absence.

    Director of Special Events, Rachelle Graves, walking by a particular table at the trade show, was drawn like a magnet to a poster with a photo of man’s best friend.

    But let’s pause here and take a step back in history.

    Rachelle Graves has lived in Fort Walton Beach most of her life. Her grandparents moved here in the 1930s. Her grandfather managed the army campground in Destin. Discharged from active duty, he remained involved, performing his duties at the recreation camp.

    Both of Rachelle’s parents were born in Fort Walton Beach. In 1958, her father, Gary Garrett, was adopted by a military family at Eglin AFB. He joined the Air Force out of high school and spent almost his entire career at Hurlburt Field.

    Gary has always had a dog. In November of 2021, his dog had a stroke and died. Rachelle kept telling him, “You need a dog. What kind of dog do you want?”

    Enter “Dog Daze,” the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce annual event. Dog Daze is a fun-filled day for all dogs (over 6 months old), and people who love dogs. The event is sponsored by Friendship Veterinary Hospital. Dozens of rescue organizations, dog trainers, veterinarian clinics, dog groomers, and more attend this huge, fun, one-day, dog event. Rachelle, the organizer of the event, met representatives from Healing Paws for Warriors there. The organization soon became a chamber member.

    Local, veteran-founded, and veteran-led, this 501(c) (3) organization is dedicated to providing combat veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Military Sexual Trauma (MST) trained ADA-certified service dogs at no cost to the veteran with continued support. This program is designed to reduce veteran suicide, and increase veteran and family health and wellness. 

    The Healing Paws for Warriors staff includes a combat medical war veteran, a practicing PTSD therapist, a professional service dog trainer, a veterinarian, and many other supportive volunteers.  

    The dogs are predominantly from local rescue shelters.  They are not pets, but service dogs with the complete protection and rights granted by the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The service dog trainer teaches the dogs and the lead veteran/K9 team trains the incoming veterans to be a team with their new battle buddy.  Their website also states their goals:

    • Bringing awareness to veteran suicide; reducing the numbers, one service dog at a time
    • Give hope and healing to Veterans and rescue dogs through empowering military heroes to return to civilian life with dignity and independence
    • Express gratitude to those who have served, or are serving our great country
    • Reduce the number of canines in shelters; ending pet homelessness


    Fast forward to that First Friday Coffee in May. Rachelle saw the poster of “Chopper”, a retiring service dog who needed a new home, and went over to talk with Mike Arena, the CEO of Healing Paws for Warriors. She told Mike her dad Gary needed a pet dog, not a service dog. Chopper had some Doberman in him and Gary had had Dobermans before. Rachelle took pictures of Chopper and texted them to her dad.

    Texts and phone calls ensued between Mike and Gary and a visit was scheduled for Gary to meet Chopper. Chopper’s foster parent says Chopper usually barks when meeting people but he didn’t when he met Gary.

    The next step was to bring Chopper to Gary’s home. Upon arrival, the Healing Paws for Warriors representative stated with certainty to Gary, “This is your dog.” Chopper arrived that day and never left. One month later, Gary and Chopper were best friends. It probably didn’t hurt that on that first night, Gary went to Walmart and bought two Ribeye steaks to grill for himself and Chopper.



    Rachelle says this love story would not have been possible without the connection between the chamber and Healing Paws for Warriors. She ends the story this way, “Happy Dad, Happy Dog.”













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