Vietnam POW retells his tale (Donald Heiliger)

A prisoner of war for seven years, a University of Wisconsin alum spoke to a group of UW Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadets Tuesday, telling a jarring tale of courage, honor and service.

Originally trained as a navigator, Col. Don Heiliger became an official pilot when the Air Force started recruiting navigators to satisfy the needs of the Vietnam War.

During the time of the Vietnam War, there were never enough pilots, Heiliger said. He soon found himself flying from Thailand into the conflict-ridden area of North Vietnam.

During his 44th mission, seconds away from dropping his bomb, the back of Heiliger’s plane was hit by enemy fire.

Since Vietnam’s most heavily defended territory was to the left, he and his co-pilot aimed the plane toward the Gulf of Tonkin. Heiliger said nearly everything in the plane had stopped working and the fire from the back kept growing closer.

“There were two options: either burn up or get out,” Heiliger said. “The first wasn’t a good option.”

He ejected at 23,000 feet in the pitch black of night and fell into a high, tree-filled area where his parachute snagged, suspending him above the ground.

Cutting himself loose, Heiliger found himself on the outskirts of a village. Hiding behind a grouping of rocks, he was eventually captured by local villagers.

Heiliger said he was initially met with courtesy until two Communist cadres came on the scene. They put him in a hut and told him he would not be dying that night. He was eventually marched to “Heartbreak Hotel” in Hanoi, Vietnam. In the back of this building an ominous torture room broke just about everything, including hearts.

“The torture was very, very medieval,” Heiliger said.

Other Books You Might Be Interested In

Contact Us