Our Flag- The Stars and Stripes "Mike's Flag"

(Condensed from a speech by Leo K Thorness, recipient of the
Congressional Medal of Honor. )


 


You've probably seen the bumper sticker somewhere along the road. It
depicts an American Flag, accompanied by the words "These colors don't
run."  I'm always glad to see this, because it reminds me of an
incident from my confinement in North Vietnam at the Hao Lo POW Camp,
or the "Hanoi Hilton," as it became known.

Then a Major in the U.S. Air Force, I had been captured and imprisoned
from 1967-1973. Our treatment had been frequently brutal.  After three
years, however, the beatings and torture became less frequent. During
the last year, we were allowed outside most days for a couple of
minutes to bathe.  We showered by drawing water from a concrete tank
with a homemade bucket.

One day as we all stood by the tank, stripped of our clothes, a young
Naval pilot named Mike Christian found the remnants of a handkerchief
in a gutter that ran under the prison wall.  Mike managed to sneak the
grimy rag into our cell and began fashioning it into a flag.  Over
time we all loaned him a little soap, and he spent days cleaning the
material.  We helped by scrounging and stealing bits and pieces of
anything he could use. At night, under his mosquito net, Mike worked
on the flag. He made red and blue from ground-up roof tiles and tiny
amounts of ink and painted the colors onto the cloth with watery rice
glue. Using thread from his own blanket and a homemade bamboo needle,
he sewed on stars.  Early in the morning a few days later, when the
guards were not alert, he whispered loudly from the back of our cell,
"Hey gang, look here." He proudly held up this tattered piece of
cloth, waving it as if in a breeze. If you used your imagination, you
could tell it was supposed to be an American flag.  When he raised
that smudgy fabric, we automatically stood straight and saluted, our
chests puffing out, and more than a few eyes had tears.  About once a
week the guards would strip us, run us outside and go through our
clothing. During one of those shakedowns, they found Mike's flag. We
all knew what would happen.  That night they came for him. Night
interrogations were always the worst.  They opened the cell door and
pulled Mike out. We could hear the beginning of the torture before
they even had him in the torture cell. They beat him most of the
night. About daylight they pushed what was left of him back through
the cell door.  He was badly broken; even his voice was gone.

Within two weeks, despite the danger, Mike scrounged another piece of
cloth and began another flag. The Stars and Stripes, our national
symbol, was worth the sacrifice to him. Now, whenever I see the flag,
I think of Mike and the morning he first waved that tattered emblem of
a nation. It was then, thousands of miles from home in a lonely prison
cell, that he showed us what it is to be truly free.