5 Incredible Acts Of Defiance By Prisoners Of War
Some prisoners of war try to escape. Some dedicate all of their energy to just surviving long enough to get back home. Others, however, find increasingly devious ways to fuck with their captors. Today, I'm going to talk about that last group.
POWs Convince Their Captors The Middle Finger Means Good Luck
In 1968, North Korean forces captured the USS Pueblo and held its crew for nearly a year. They still have that ship, in fact, and use it as a tourist attraction (there isn't a lot to do for fun in North Korea). The Pueblo crew was tortured -- one had his tonsils removed without anesthesia -- until they all signed confessions. That last bit is the bonus side of bullshit you get with being a POW: Winding up being part of your captors' propaganda. The Koreans photographed the soldiers to show off how well they were treating their very cooperative captives. The captives, in turn, gave Pyongyang the Jersey salute across various photos.
You might think that would be cause for another round of torture and a repeat photo shoot, but remember how isolated North Korea was (and still is). When the Americans told their captors that it was a Hawaiian symbol for good luck, they bought it. The prisoners are being so cooperative, they're throwing up friendly hand gestures!
The photos ended up being published in Time, iconic symbols of defiance under duress. Unfortunately, publication meant North Korea was finally in on the joke, and that resulted in even worse abuse. This did not dampen the men's enthusiasm for mocking their captors. After a release was negotiated, they insisted the captive commander record a message thinking them. He did as he was told, but also carefully chose the word "paean" from a Korean-American dictionary in lieu of the word "thanks." The meaning was the same, but the pronunciation was "pee on." Which meant that as the soldiers were handed back to U.S. forces, the loudspeakers in North Korea were proudly blaring word of how the American commander wanted to pee on their leader.
Spoiler: This is not the last piss-related prank on this list.
A Prisoner Of The Nazis Hid "Fuck Hitler" In A Stitch
Held captive by the Nazis during World War II, British Major Alexis Casdagli started doing needlework to pass the time, and his captors loved it. So much that the work he produced was actually put on display at four different prison camps where he was held. At each one, he made them look like fools.
His needlework, little fabric squares depicting innocuous phrases and decorative borders, had a feature that was a little harder to notice. Those borders were lined with dots and dashes which in Morse code spelled out messages like "God Save the Queen" and, in one particularly exceptional instance, "Fuck Hitler."
The man would spend four years in captivity, and according to Casdagli's son, he believed his sole duty as a POW was to shit on his captors in any way possible. When another POW negotiated with the Germans to have a nice Christmas in exchange for no one trying to escape, Casdagli protested by staying in bed the whole time. He believed they should be trying to escape all the time because, let's be honest here, fuck Hitler.
A Vietnam POW Blinked A Message With His Eyelids
Jeremiah Denton is one of the most famous POWs in American history, and he barely had to move a muscle to accomplish it. During the Vietnam War, Denton was held in Hanoi, and like the Korean captives above, he was used for propaganda purposes by his captors. He was a POW for seven long, grueling years. At one point, he was cleaned up to be put on TV as an example of how the Vietnamese were not in fact torturing Americans.
But as Denton explained how he had adequate food and clothing, he could be seen blinking in an awkward and dramatic fashion. The Vietnamese missed the significance, but Naval intelligence did not, and they deciphered the blinks as Morse code for "torture." He risked his life on one shot to get the word out, and it worked.
In 1973, Denton was finally released from captivity, and was later awarded the Navy Cross, as well as several other medals for his bravery. Also, I guess we can thank him for decades of "Blink if you're being held captive!" jokes.
POWs Risked Execution By Creating A Makeshift American Flag
A prison camp where getting caught with contraband could get you tortured or killed raises a powerful question: What exactly would you risk losing your life for? Aside from the obvious, like an invisibility cloak or a makeshift Iron Man suit.
While being held in the Japanese Omori Prison Camp in WWII, a handful of U.S. soldiers took it upon themselves to start pilfering bed sheets and colored pencils ... just so they could spend days carefully creating their own American flag. Amidst torture and mock executions, four men led by Denny Landrum felt they needed some kind of symbol which represented them while at the same time giving a metaphorical ball kick to their captors.
This was such a perilous task that even their own fellow captives were against it. The men's superiors in the camp threatened them with court martial if they continued, worried that it was a risk even to those who weren't involved. But they did it anyway.
It's not like Landrum was unaware of what awaited him if he was caught. Already he had been starved, badly beaten (including having his jaw broken), had his abdomen sliced open with a bayonet, plus a whole lot of other horrible shit. Yet according to the diaries he kept, when English-speaking officers arrived at his camp, one of the Japanese officers asked Landrum how they should be greeted. He taught his captor to say, "Good morning, you son of a bitch." They beat him for it, as he surely knew they would.
So yeah, it was under those conditions that, using colored pencils stolen from their guards, they made this:
That's six feet, four inches long, in case you're wondering how much goddamned coloring had to be done in secret under those conditions. Oh, and as Allied planes were flying overhead toward the end of the war, they wound up using that flag to signal them.
The Colditz Piss Escapade
You need to take this story with a grain of salt or two, because sources for it are a bit conflicted, and scholarly articles on who pissed where during armed conflicts are hard to come by. I wasn't there, so all I can do is share it.
According to the story, in 1940, there were 30 British soldiers being held in Colditz Castle, a Nazi stronghold used as a prison. When no other escape attempts worked, they decided to get down and dirty by digging a tunnel. The problem was that they misjudged and accidentally spent nine months digging into the wine cellar. What do 30 soldiers do in a Nazi wine cellar? They drink over 100 bottles of wine between them ... and proceed to refill each and every one with piss.
According to one source, the widow of the German commander confirmed the story as true, but said it happened to a previous commander. Now, would a German officer tell his wife that the dude before him got a cellar full of piss wine? I don't know, maybe. War History Online says there's not a lot of evidence to back that story up, and that it contains unspecified factual errors. However, it's a well-known rule in academia that when sources are unclear, we should always defer to the one that implies Nazis drank piss. So that's what I'm going with.
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