Living the Code: Former POW shares tale with ALS class

  • Published
  • By Howdy Stout
  • Staff Writer
Lt. Leroy Stutz wanted a closer look at the camouflaged railroad tracks and railway cars hidden nearby. As pilot of a reconnaissance RF-4 Phantom, it was his job to get down low, go fast and look for targets.

Just 75 feet above ground at a speed of 660 knots, Lieutenant Stutz "stayed in a turn just a little too long," allowing anti-aircraft gunners on the ground the chance to track him and open fire. The left engine caught fire, exploded and took out the neighboring right engine. He climbed as the aircraft's hydraulic pressure dropped and the airplane became uncontrollable.

"Things were going to hell in a hurry," he said.

Both he and his frontseater, Capt. Robert Gregory, ejected safely, landing in the middle of a village where they were quickly surrounded by North Vietnamese militia. It was his 66th mission over North Vietnam. It would also be his last. He would spend the next 2,284 days as a captive.

"And the games begin," he said.

Leroy Stutz, now a retired colonel, gives his tale of captivity -- and survival -- to every class of Tinker's Airman Leadership School. His story is a living lesson to the Airmen as they begin their studies on leadership and the Airman's Code of Conduct.

"We do this just before we study the code of conduct," explains Master Sgt. Jim Peters, commandant of Tinker's ALS.

"Colonel Stutz brings a strong sense of credibility to this lesson," says Staff Sgt. Jonathon Sumerlin, one of the ALS instructors.

"It is a very special privilege this school has," ALS instructor Tech. Sgt. Drue Lynch tells the students. "I've been in the Air Force 11 years and this is the only time I've been this close to a real hero."

But that's not how Colonel Stutz sees himself.

"I was not a hero," he says. "I had the privilege when I was in Vietnam to serve with some real heroes."

Instead, Colonel Stutz says he was the type of junior officer who "knows everything, couldn't tell them anything. That was me."

As a reconnaissance pilot, he flew the fastest jets in the Air Force inventory, relying on speed to get in and out of danger with a visual and photographic record of enemy assets. Nearing the 100-mission mark and the end of his tour of duty in December 1966, then- Lieutenant Stutz had already earned the Silver Star and was looking forward to joining his wife and one-year-old son at his next assignment at an airbase in Germany. His squadron had yet to lose anyone in combat.

"Then I got shot down," he says.

Although trained extensively at various survival schools and armed with a service pistol, Colonel Stutz said he had no chance of escape or rescue after landing in the middle of a village less than 20 miles from the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.

Stripped to his skivvies and bound with vines, he was forced to run barefoot over rocks, cutting his feet open. Blindfolded, he was also paraded before nearby anti-aircraft crews and subjected to a mock execution, where a gun-toting guard put an unloaded pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.

Later that night, he was delivered to Hanoi and the infamous prison used to house captured Americans - the Hanoi Hilton. Although Captain Gregory survived the ejection and was taken unconscious to Hanoi, he wasn't taken into the prison. Colonel Stutz never saw him again.

Being an undeclared war, the North Vietnamese considered captured American airmen as criminals rather than prisoners of war. They were treated accordingly.

"It hurts," Colonel Stutz says of the torture he endured. "It really, really hurts."

But the torture didn't necessarily provide the information the interrogators wanted. Colonel Stutz said he used the name of his high school principal and football teammates as his squadron commander and fellow squadron members. The North Vietnamese never knew the truth.

Colonel Stutz was moved several times to prison camps both inside and outside of Hanoi, including the camp at Son Tay, which US Special Forces raided in the hopes of freeing the prisoners. "But we had been moved out a few month before that happened," Colonel Stutz said.

The result was more than six years in captivity, in places given innocuous nicknames by the prisoners. Camps called New Guy Village, The Zoo, Little Las Vegas, The Power Plant, Son Tay, Camp Faith, Hoa Lo (also known as the Hanoi Hilton), Skid Row, Heartbreak Hotel and Dogpatch. The nicknames belied the cruelty, deprivation, isolation and starvation they faced.

"I weighed 175lbs when I got shot down," he recalls. "I was down to 105lbs at one point. You're hungry all the time."

But leadership, and the ability to communicate with other isolated prisoners via a tap code, meant the difference between life and death.

"You'd be surprised how much time we spent tapping on walls," he said. "If they caught you, they'd put you in leg irons for a couple of weeks. I was caught a couple of times. Everybody was."

But senior officers were able to inspire and lead using nothing more than the series of taps on walls, relayed messages, instructions and encouragement among the often-isolated prisoners.

"The senior Air Force leader was Robbie Risner," Colonel Stutz said. "Just the greatest leader you could have in a situation like that. And leadership meant a lot."

Staying mentally active also helped the prisoners remain focused and alert.

"You just kept busy with things," Colonel Stutz says. "At one time, I could multiply a three-digit number by a three-digit number and give you the answer in about 10 seconds."

The young lieutenant also served as one of the "memory banks" for the prisoners, memorizing more than 500 names, ranks and dates of capture of each prisoner. It was a valuable service as the North Vietnamese rarely revealed the identity or number of prisoners held.

In fact, most of the prisoners were held in isolation, communicating solely by tap code. The only time the prisoners were ever assembled in roll-call fashion was when the Vietnamese announced the prisoners would be released as part of the Paris Peace Accords ending the war.

But the prisoners showed no emotion, much to the displeasure of their guards who had organized new photographers to photograph their reaction. "That was our last, final gift to them," he said.

Colonel Stutz says the Air Force treated him well on his return and he chose to remain in the service, becoming an aircraft maintainer after being medically grounded due to his wartime injuries. After a 30-year career, he retired from Tinker where he was maintenance officer for the 552nd Air Control Wing.

But Colonel Stutz returns every session of the Airman Leadership School to give a living lesson in leadership and what the code of conduct means in the worst possible circumstances. And to give thanks to the next generation of Air Force leaders.

"I'm no hero," he tells them again. "I want to thank you all for the really super job you do taking care of the Air Force."