Vietnam War's 'uncomfortable' side examined in N.C. exhibit

FAYETTEVILLE — For decades after his release as a Vietnam War prisoner, Ray Schrump tried not to let his mind go back to those dark, tangled places of the jungle and the human psyche, where men treated other men worse than dogs.

But since a Fayetteville museum decided to open an exhibit evoking his and other prisoners' experiences while being held in South Vietnam, Schrump has gone there about once a week.

"It's hard," Schrump says, "but it's worth it to help people understand."

The yearlong exhibit at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum, "The Animal Called POW," grew out of a single display installed in the museum lobby last year for an event honoring Vietnam War vets. It featured a mannequin resembling former U.S. Special Forces soldier Nick Rowe in a cramped bamboo enclosure similar to one in which he was held, shackled, after his capture by communist forces in South Vietnam.

Rowe eventually escaped his captors, flagged a U.S. helicopter and was rescued. He went on to write about the experience, and to help the Army launch a survival-training program for Special Forces soldiers.

All branches of the military now have their own versions of the three-week program. The Army's, based at Camp Mackall, near Fort Bragg, is the SERE School, an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. SERE students built Rowe's "tiger cage" for the display.

Though he had a lot of military experience, Ray Schrump hadn't had that kind of instruction when he was taken captive.

Growing up in Tomahawk, Wis., Schrump dreamed of joining the military from the day, when he was 11, he heard President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the radio announcing Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Japanese.

Schrump got his chance at 17, when he got caught drinking beer in a bar and a judge told Schrump's father: "This young man will go to jail or into the Army."

The rigors of military life suited Schrump; he was singled out early for his leadership potential, given extra training and quickly promoted. By age 18, he was a sergeant 1st class on his way to fight in the Korean War.

He had been in Korea almost a year when his patrol, which had infiltrated North Korea, was ambushed and Schrump was hit with shrapnel in his spleen, a lung, his stomach and intestines. His injuries landed him in an Army hospital in Tokyo for nearly a year.

He returned to the U.S., worked a series of assignments and went to officer candidate school. He served as a jump school instructor at Fort Bragg and then, in 1962, joined the Special Forces.

Schrump's capture

He was a major turning 36 years old the day he arrived in Vietnam and the Tet Offensive was launched by North Vietnamese forces during an agreed-upon holiday cease-fire.

Schrump had accepted a job training and coordinating local fighters to work with U.S. soldiers against North Vietnamese forces.

After the plantation house they used as headquarters was attacked on his first night there, Schrump said the situation improved. Within a few weeks, he said, his unit wasn't taking any casualties.

"In fact, we had to drive long distances to go out and find the enemy," he said.

That changed early one morning when a U.S. light infantry unit was ambushed near Schrump's base. He took some of his men to retrieve the bodies, but when they moved in, he was shot in the right shoulder and taken prisoner.

He thought he might die that day and, in the nearly five years to come, knew he might be killed at any time. Sometimes in the proximity of other U.S. prisoners, sometimes in isolation, Schrump says he was held at 11 different sites in South Vietnam and Cambodia. He and other prisoners always had wooden blocks around their ankles or were held by chains.

Like the captured soldiers held in North Vietnam, those held in the South faced miserable conditions, with inadequate food and a general lack of sanitation. Cruel treatment was common. In the south, prisoner quarters tended to be even more primitive, with the added threats of jungle diseases and pests.

"I had malaria so many times I lost count," Schrump says.

Alone with his thoughts, Schrump said he wondered, "How long can I endure? When are they going to execute me? Why are they prolonging this?"

Three prisoners held with him died or were killed, Schrump says. At one time, he knew the names of every soldier held in the camps where he was kept. Schrump himself became emaciated, at one point weighing less than 86 pounds.

Though he often contemplated escape, Schrump's ordeal didn't end until after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on Jan. 27, 1973. In February, Schrump and other POWs were returned to the United States.

An unsanitized story

Schrump retired in December 1973 and launched a new career as a military contractor, first at Fort Bragg and later working for companies in the Persian Gulf. He retired for good last year.

Now 80, he's a regular volunteer at the N.C. Veterans Memorial Park, across the parking lot from the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville.

Museum curator Nicole Suarez says when they put up the display of Nick Rowe's tiger cage, Schrump kept coming over to look at it.

Suarez has spent many hours with him since then, recording his story and seeking his counsel on the larger exhibit, which fills a gallery at the museum and tells the stories of several POWs, including Schrump and Rowe.

The museum had a mannequin made to look like Schrump while he was in captivity, and he posed for them to show how his captors would sometimes bind his wrists together and pull his arms up behind his back. In the exhibit, Schrump's figure is on his knees, with a bowl of rice that he can't reach in front of him and a radio playing anti-American propaganda like what he often was forced to listen to. His face is twisted in pain.

The exhibit is enclosed in bamboo walls and topped with camouflage cloth that hints at a jungle canopy. Displays include a bag that belonged to Kenneth Roraback, who was taken prisoner in 1963 in South Vietnam and was executed in 1965.

"It's uncomfortable" to hear this story, says Suarez, and that's good. "You want people to feel something. You don't want to sanitize the experience."

'Faith in God'

To keep from generalizing the way prisoners were held and treated, their stories are told primarily through their own words, taken from interviews, news stories, diaries and other writings.

As they leave, visitors are reminded that as long as U.S. soldiers are at work in the world, they are at risk for capture and imprisonment, and Special Forces troops are still among the most desirable targets.

Susan Rowe, who was married to Nick Rowe from 1983 until he was killed in 1989, says the lessons her husband developed for Special Forces students can also apply to civilians who travel abroad. He taught her, she says, to always be aware of her surroundings.

Schrump hopes those who tour the exhibit learn something, too, about the resiliency of the human spirit.

It was his faith, he says, that kept him alive through his captivity and is helping him finally face down some of the effects of the trauma.

"Faith in God, faith in my country, and faith in my fellow man," he said.

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