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Christmas at Hanoi Hilton : Unforgettable Memories of Long-Ago Holidays Away From Home and Country

December 22, 1989|JOHN NEEDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dave Rehmann was only 24 on his first Christmas at the "Hanoi Hilton" when guards took him from solitary confinement to a room with a Christmas tree and a Nativity display. "I kind of stood there. . . . I didn't know what I was supposed to do. So (the guard) motioned me over to this Nativity scene and made me kneel down. He kind of pushed me down, like I was supposed to pray or something.

"I knelt there for a while and I thought, well, I wonder if this is long enough. Then I got up and I stood there and they seemed to be satisfied and they took me back to my room. "And I said, well, OK, so much for Christmas."

The year was 1966. Rehmann would spend six more Christmases as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam before he finally boarded the plane to freedom and his family in Garden Grove. Coming home with him were men like David Hoffman of Huntington Beach and Dave Luna, who grew up in the city of Orange.

All three were pilots and all spent Christmas of 1972 at the "Hanoi Hilton," the North Vietnamese prison formally known as Hoa Lo. Months later, as the United States withdrew its ground forces from Vietnam, they and more than 600 POWs who survived the camps returned home.

As they got ready for this year's holiday, the three remembered what it was like to be a prisoner, half a world away from America, deprived of family and freedom. And they remembered how those were exactly the kind of thoughts they banished when they were behind bars.

"You were hardened to the fact that you were not going to be with your family," said Luna, whose parents still live in Orange and who graduated from Orange High School.

"On the human side, you can't help think about" Christmas at home. "But we couldn't afford to think about it too much because there wasn't anything we could do. . . . It was obvious . . . this was not to be a Christmas like Christmases past."

Nor do the men talk nowadays about those ghosts of Christmas past. They will discuss it if they are asked, but with varying degrees of detail and in calm, just-the-facts-ma'am tones.

Even on his first Christmas free in seven years--December of 1973 back home in Orange--Luna says he didn't spend a lot of time thinking how different that holiday was from the one the year before.

"I at least tried to block it all out from my mind," he says. "If you're standing there listening to Christmas carols, you don't want to think how bad it was; you want to think how nice it is. "

Rehmann, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Congress from Orange County the year after he returned from the war, said he generally thinks of his POW experiences only when asked.

"I'm not real emotional about getting the blues on holidays or anything like that," he says with a smile. Christmas in Hanoi was by and large just another day. But what of subsequent Christmases? Last year, for instance?

He searches his memory, and finally retrieves what he thinks it was like last year. "I think I went over to my mom's for dinner," he says.

Rehmann, now a San Diego businessman, does have his attachments, though. He still has the 1973 Corvette given him by the people in Lancaster, where he grew up. The car's license plate reads, POW FREE.

And he does remember a Christmas in captivity besides his first one as a POW, even if he's hazy on the year, "probably in the late '60s or early '70s."

On that memorable Christmas, "they brought us in and they sat us down and they had some peanuts in a dish. There might have been even some mints, I can't really recall. But they had one thing that was interesting, and that was like an orange liqueur. . . . And they sat down and they wished us a happy holiday or whatever it was, Merry Christmas, and they gave us this little drink. . . . "

Dave Luna was shot down in March of 1967 and spent month after month after month telling the North Vietnamese that he was an unmarried orphan. Actually, he had a wife and two children in Utah and parents in Orange. Still, he figured it would be easier on himself and his family if his jailers didn't know whom he had left behind--just one less set of psychological buttons for his captors to push.

But after two Christmases that were just another day in prison, 1969 was different.

Prison conditions had improved that year, Luna said, a phenomenon he thinks was probably due to halts in the U.S. bombing. Yet prisoners kept trying to escape, and Luna was back in isolation as November of 1969 rolled around because he had been part of an unsuccessful escape try.

Just before Christmas, Luna was taken to a room to be questioned by an army major.

"He said, 'Luna, I have a message for you for Christmas, from your father.' I told him, 'No, you're mistaken. My father's dead and I'm an orphan.' He throws me a letter from my dad. I look at it, I throw it at him and I say, 'It's not mine.' "

Luna had been a POW nearly three years.

"That was the first time I had any contact with anyone from back home."

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