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A different take on moon landing

July 20, 2009|By JAMES H. WARNER

Today, July 20, 2009, marks the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing by astronaut Neil Armstrong. Almost everyone who was alive at the time will remember the day. They will remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

I, too, remember where I was and what I was doing on that day, However, I did not hear the news of the moon landing for several more years. I was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and on July 20, 1969, I was in a small box that sat out in the sun in the third month of a prolonged interrogation about what the Communists were convinced was an escape attempt. Although we did not hear any news about the actual moon landing, the Apollo program did affect us in an interesting way because we thought the landing had happened several months earlier.

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One morning in late December 1968, we heard the customary hiss as the loudspeaker system began warming up for what we anticipated would be the usual propaganda session from radio Hanoi. To our surprise, however, at 8 a.m., instead of radio Hanoi, we heard a man with a British accent say, "This is the BBC Hong Kong. The American astronauts become the first human beings to come under the gravitational influence of another celestial body." And then the radio went dead.

We never knew whether they wanted us to hear this or if it was a terrible mistake by someone who had been surreptitiously listening to the BBC.

An hour later, we were taken out to wash. The first man out of our cell was Air Force Capt. Kenneth Fisher. We had not rehearsed what happened next. Ken looked up and could see the moon in the clear winter sky. He came to a stop, snapped to attention and saluted the moon. Instantly, the rest of us caught on. As each of us left the cell, we came to a stop, snapped to attention and saluted the moon.

The guard who was on duty in the guard tower leaned out to see what we were saluting. He had to lean so far that his pith helmet fell off. He almost dropped his rifle and, for a second, we thought he would fall out of the tower himself.

Navy Lt. j.g. Ted Stier went up to one of the guards and pointed at the moon and spoke the Vietnamese word for the United States, "Hoa Ky." He then pointed at the ground and said "Vietnam." He then made a pantomime as though he were operating a very large piece of artillery. Pointing at the moon again, and again speaking the Vietnamese word for America, "Hoa Ky," he began rocking back and forth with his imaginary artillery piece while crying out "boom, boom, boom" to show that American artillery, if placed on our moon, would have the range to hit North Vietnam. Ted walked away while the guard continued to stare doubtfully at the moon.

Later that morning, our political officer called Ken Fisher, who was the senior officer in our cell, out to interrogation and demanded an explanation of our conduct. Now, we didn't hear the whole news report from the BBC, so we assumed it meant somebody had landed on the moon. Ken explained since Americans were the first to land on the moon, it must belong to us. Therefore, we were just showing respect for our country by saluting when we saw it.

He told the political officer, whom we called "Louis the Rat," that despite American ownership of the moon, we would allow Vietnam to continue to use our moon to time their lunar new year. However, Ken added, they would have to change the Vietnamese word for moon. In Vietnamese, the word for the moon is actually two words, "ma trung." The word for American is "my." Therefore, Kenneth said, they would have to call our moon "my trung." Rat got very angry and sent Kenneth back to our cell.

Thereafter, at every opportunity, we asserted American ownership of the moon. This soon spread throughout the camp and guys began saluting the moon whenever they saw it.

We didn't learn about our error in timing of the moon landing until early 1973, when we were joined by some of those shot down in 1972. By that time, however, the other news about what was going on in the real world was so interesting that we paid little attention to the moon landing. In any case, our story about the landing, even if premature, sounded better to us.

James H. Warner of Rohrersville is a retired attorney. He was a naval flight officer in the Marine Corps, flying in F-4B fighter/bombers in Vietnam. He was a POW for 5 1/2 years.

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