Edwin A. Shuman III, Former Prisoner of War Who Defied Hanoi Hilton Guards, Dies at 82
By Richard Goldstein, NY Times, December 24, 2013
As Christmas 1970 approached, 43 American prisoners of war in a large holding cell at the North Vietnamese camp known as the Hanoi Hilton sought to hold a brief church service. Their guards stopped them, and so the seeds of rebellion were planted.
A few days later, Lt. Cmdr. Edwin A. Shuman III, a downed Navy pilot, orchestrated the resistance, knowing he would be the first to face the consequences: a beating in a torture cell.
"Ned stepped forward and said, ‘Are we really committed to having church Sunday? I want to know person by person,’ " a fellow prisoner, Leo K. Thorsness, recounted in a memoir. "He went around the cell pointing to each of us individually," Mr. Thorsness continued. "When the 42nd man said yes, it was unanimous. At that instant, Ned knew he would end up in the torture cells."
The following Sunday, Commander Shuman, who died on Dec. 3 at 82, stepped forward to lead a prayer session and was quickly hustled away by guards. The next four ranking officers did the same, and they, too, were taken away to be beaten. Meanwhile, as Mr. Thorsness told it, “the guards were now hitting P.O.W.s with gun butts and the cell was in chaos.”
And then, he remembered, the sixth-ranking senior officer began, “Gentlemen, the Lord’s Prayer.”
"And this time," he added, "we finished it."
The guards had yielded.
Everett Alvarez Jr., who was the first American pilot captured in the Vietnam War when his Navy plane was shot down in 1964, said in an interview that the defiance Commander Shuman engineered was emulated by senior officers in other large holding cells.
"It was contagious," said Mr. Alvarez, who was in another cell during the first prayer service. "By the time it got to the fourth or fifth cell," he said, the guards "gave up." He said the prisoners were also singing patriotic songs.
Commander Shuman remained incarcerated at the Hanoi Hilton for more than two more years. But by then the prisoners’ right to collective prayer had been established.
"From that Sunday on until we came home, we held a church service," Mr. Thorsness, an Air Force pilot and recipient of the Medal of Honor for heroics on a mission in 1967, wrote in his memoir, "Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey" (2008). "We won. They lost. Forty-two men in prison pajamas followed Ned’s lead. I know I will never see a better example of pure raw leadership or ever pray with a better sense of the meaning of the words."
Edwin Arthur Shuman III was born in Boston on Oct. 7, 1931, the son of a marine architect and Navy officer. Growing up in Marblehead, Mass., he began to sail at age 5. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1954 and arrived in Vietnam in September 1967.
On his 18th mission, his A-6 Intruder fighter was shot down just north of Hanoi, the capital, in the early hours of March 17, 1968, during a low-level attack on a railroad yard. He bailed out, together with his bombardier-navigator, and both men were captured.
He spent 17 months in solitary confinement. On one occasion, when he violated regulations, he was beaten for hours with a whip.
After United States special forces raided a small prison camp at Son Tay on Nov. 20, 1970, only to find no captives there—they had been transferred out months earlier—the North Vietnamese consolidated their prisoners, who had been held at several camps. They were taken to the large Hoa Lo prison, a 19th-century structure that was built by the French in central Hanoi and christened the Hanoi Hilton by American prisoners during the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese felt the prisoners could be more securely guarded there and grouped them in large cells, which, as it turned out, made mass prayer sessions possible.
Commander Shuman was freed in March 1973 as part of a mass release of remaining P.O.W.s. He retired from the Navy as a captain 11 years later. His commendations included the Silver Star for his resistance to brutal treatment.
He returned to North Vietnam in 1991 as part of a three-week humanitarian medical mission, mainly out of curiosity about what had become of it.
"I didn’t view this as a healing process," he told The Baltimore Sun when he came back. "I never had a nightmare."
He said that he liked the Vietnamese people, whom he found to be hardworking.
After returning from Vietnam, Mr. Shuman was in charge of the Naval Academy’s sailing program. In August 1979, he commanded the Alliance, the program’s aluminum sloop, in the Fastnet race off England and brought his crew back safely amid a storm in the Irish Sea that left 15 other sailors dead.
"I have often compared ocean racing in bad weather with being a prisoner of war, an environment with which, unfortunately, I have some experience," he wrote in the U.S. Naval Institute magazine Proceedings, in 1999. "Harsh conditions, cramped quarters, bad food and diverse personalities. Instead of the guards beating on you, mother nature takes over."
"You can’t get out so you make the best of it," he continued. "It’s a character-builder."