Tuesday, June 25, 2024

86th mission lasted 1,881 days

| April 9, 2023 12:00 AM

“Everything else I gave to the museum, but these stay in the family,” Tom Moe said as he showed my teenager and me two books he had made while a POW for five years in Vietnam.

“Sometimes we were able to gather and teach each other what we knew,” he said of his fellow POWs, to whom he taught German. He flipped through the pages of his neatly lettered notes, saying, “The ink is diarrhea medicine mixed with cigarette ash.”

Tom was my grandmother’s favorite relative judging by the clippings she displayed wherever she lived. Tom’s grandfather and her dad, as Norwegian immigrants, both had tried their hand at farming in Montana.

Tom and his wife, Chris, welcomed us late last month to their home in Ohio. We talked genealogy, foreign travel and trains — passions that must be shared in Moe family DNA.

Tom, a retired USAF colonel, took us to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, in Dayton. We saw the jets Tom flew. In the POW-MIA exhibit, Tom pointed out his photo, a rosary sculpted of pieces of bread, drawings of the torture they underwent and a full-size replica of some prison cells.

“I went to the exhibit studio where they were re-creating these,” Tom recalled, “and I said, ‘Wait, there’s something wrong.’” The exhibit creators were aghast; they had spent months researching and replicating them.

“‘Oh I know,’” Tom finally told them. “‘I never saw them from the outside.’”

On Jan. 16, 1968, he had ejected from his burning F-4C at 25,000 feet and parachuted to Earth under enemy fire. He spent three days avoiding cat-and-mouse pursuit in the jungle. Capture tipped off nine months in solitary, then years of beatings and interrogations. Tom credits his military training, hope, faith and support for making resistance and resilience possible.

To keep sharp, he built houses in his mind, sometimes cutting a board wrong so as to mentally “redo” the work. He and the other guys communicated by tapping in code on the walls of their cells.

Meanwhile Chris was raising their daughter, who was 3 months old when Tom left for Vietnam. Chris sent him packages: “They could only be 6 pounds, and most of that was medicines they wanted us to include.” Tom guesses he received about 5 percent of it.

Though a hard time, the Moes don’t dwell on it. He has said, “I don’t hate anybody or anything anymore.” The brutality of North Vietnamese guards is well-known, but Tom remembered that he was once left tied up so tightly that a guard crept into his cell later and loosened the ropes, raising a finger to his lips. Tom said, “He probably saved my arms.”

After his return, he studied and worked at Notre Dame, campaigned for the late Sen. John McCain on his presidential run and headed up Ohio’s Department of Veterans Services.

With a twinkle in his eye, Tom showed us his “I Love Me” room papered in pictures, awards and memorabilia. Then there’s the basement with its displays of toy trains, seemingly of all gauges and some painstakingly restored to 19th century splendor.

At 80, he wears a T-shirt that says “Still plays with trains.”

Fifty years after that 86th mission, Tom had a chance to revisit the “Hanoi Hilton.” He bought Christmas cards in the gift shop.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com