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The Amazing Background Story Behind A Haunting Photograph of A Vietnam POW

They say that a picture says a thousand words. Then there are those photos that have an incredible story behind them. A photo of a man in Vietnam, walking through a rice field with a rope binding his arms is an example of this.

It’s pretty clear that this man is a prisoner. The rope is only just visible, but the militiawoman is guarding him with her bayonet is crystal clear to see. 50 years after this photo was taken, the man still remembers that day.

He remembers that moment as being a breath of relief according to TIME. The man’s name is Dewey Wayne Waddell. Today, he is 82 and has spoken to TIME about the story behind the photo. He once went by Air Force Col. Waddell.

Waddell started by saying “It’s quite a shock when you’re zooming along and then you’re sitting on the ground”.

He described what happened on July 5, 1967, when his plane was shot down on a mission over North Vietnam.

Because his parachute didn’t fully open when he jumped from his plane, it was possible the Air Force would believe that he had died in the fall.

When Waddell was sitting on the ground, the thought running through his mind was that everybody that he sees might be wanting to kill him.

He then told TIME, “But conveniently they didn’t try to kill me. They just wanted to capture me.” Waddell was imprisoned at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”.

It was there that his captors played him “war crime confessions” from other American prisoners of war. Those confessions would be used at the tribunal. Waddell would be confessing as well.

A little over a week later Waddell was told that he was going somewhere “to be tested” and he had to cooperate or his life would be over.

He told TIME, “I figured I was going to a kangaroo court, where you’re guilty when you walk in…I was pleasantly surprised when they took the blindfold off to see where I was”.

It wasn’t a tribunal at all. Instead, there were two Caucasian men, one with a still camera and the other shooting a video. He later found out they were shooting an East German docu-series about the war.

The documentary was called Pilots in Pajamas. He told TIME “They had me walk up and down the rice paddy a few times. I always got right at the camera and looked up…”

He had hoped that if these photos got out somebody would recognize him…and his plan worked.

Pilots in Pajamas was shown on East German television in early 1968 at which point the broadcast was picked up by U.S. military monitoring of the Communist nation’s propaganda.

Dewey Wayne Waddell appeared towards the end of the segment, his eyes flicking up to meet the camera just as he had hoped.

“When the Air Force saw that, they pulled off several stills and sent them to my family, who identified me of course. So that’s what changed my status from MIA to POW” he told TIME.

Waddell was released on March 4, 1973. Years later this photo became pretty famous. A few years later, Waddell was interviewed about his experience by Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine, with the photo on the cover.

He has also visited Vietnam’s Hanoi prison, with officers asking him what he thought when he was a prisoner. Waddell responded, “I sure would like to get out of here”.


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