by Karen Abeyasekere
100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
7/16/2015 - RAF MILDENHALL, England -- When
2nd Lt. John "Spike" Nasmyth climbed into his F-4 Phantom to fly a
combat mission over Vietnam, he never forsaw that he'd be blown out of
the sky Sept. 4, 1966, by a surface-to-air missile.
The last words he heard before his jet was transformed into a lump of
crumpled, metal wreckage were from his "guy in back," Ray Salzurulo,
pilot systems operator - "Hey, Spike - here comes another..."
As the missile struck, the first thing in Spike's mind was disbelief.
"As with all good fighter pilots, I thought I was invincible," said the
74-year-old Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war during a visit to
RAF Mildenhall July 8, 2015. "I couldn't believe that they'd got me!
But then, as I realized I was falling toward the ground at an appalling
rate, I said to myself, 'Eject or die Spike!' It looked like a movie - I
was tumbling toward the ground and it just looked like it was spiraling
toward me at a hell of a rate! That's what made me eject."
In 1966, Spike was assigned to the 555th Fighter Squadron, 8th Tactical
Fighter Wing, at Ubon Air Force Base, Thailand, where he flew combat
missions in support of the Vietnam War.
After what seemed like an eternity, his parachute opened and brought him
down to earth somewhere north of Hanoi. Struggling to free himself from
his canopy harness, Spike realized he'd been injured during the
ejection. A shard of metal had gouged through his arm and gone in just
below the elbow, out the other side, straight into his leg.
"It was just like a piece of red, raw meat was coming out of my right
arm!" exclaimed Spike, showing off his forearm and the scars he still
On the ground, he was immediately surrounded by the North Vietnamese,
some of whom started to beat him before hauling him away to collect
their bounty. They took him to the infamous Hanoi Hilton - the first of
several prison camps which would become his "home" for the next 2,355
Spike was subjected to constant torture and near starvation during the
first three years. The guards would find any reason to humiliate him and
try and break his spirit at every opportunity, refusing to acknowledge
that Spike was a POW. They referred to him as a war criminal, and as far
as they were concerned, the Geneva Convention didn't apply to war
After several months of solitary confinement, he was allowed to mix with
the other "American air pirates," as they were called by their captors.
Together, they were held in a camp known as "The Zoo."
Sunny side of life
Being reintegrated into the general population of the camp brought new
challenges for Spike. Primarily this meant getting along with others
sharing a cell. An antagonistic relationship between cell mates could
make long days and months even worse.
"I only had one I considered killing," Spike said tongue-in-cheek.
"Luckily, I had great cell mates; my best one ever was a guy named Jim
Piere, from Bessema, Alabama. Nothing got him down; everything was a
joke! I was with him for six months, and we laughed the entire time."
His positive outlook got him through dark times where others would have given up.
"I'm a perpetual optimist and always have been," Spike grinned. "I
always see the light at the end of the tunnel. Most fighter pilots are
optimists, because flying a fighter plane is damn dangerous! It's
nothing but a little tube full of fuel and bombs. So you don't get
worried about things going 'BOOM...'
"Most fighter pilots figured they'd survive and get out - most of us
did. The optimists survived, the pessimists died. Every guy I know who
died was a pessimist. If you look at the dark side and think you're
probably not going to make it, you don't."
'Remember - no 'k''
The prisoners learned to communicate in the form of tapping on the
walls, and quickly passed messages around the camp in this manner. An
entire communications network was built up around "the tap code."
When he first entered the camp in solitary confinement, Spike had heard
the tapping, but had no clue as to what it was. His fellow Americans
taught him the secret code: "The alphabet has 25 letters, no 'k'. Five
lines of five letters. The first tap is for the line. The second tap is
the letter in the line. Remember, no 'k;' use 'c' for 'k.'"
"I had nothing but time on my hands, so I practiced," he said. "I could
do it so well, and would send messages fast and receive them first; it
kept me busy and in the know!"
The code helped keep the POWs safe and sane, enabling them to share
which lies they would tell their torturers. If they all said the same
thing, then there was more chance of being believed.
All the while, the prisoners were on the lookout for the Vietnamese
guards. If caught communicating, they were subjected to severe
punishment. One prisoner would be down on his hands and knees looking
through the gap under the door, keeping watch for the boots of their
"I don't think they ever figured out the extent of our communications,"
laughed Spike. "They'd have probably just cut our heads off! They just
didn't have a dream that we were as clever as we were. We could get a
message through the 14 cells in The Zoo in three days! Even though it
was caveman-primitive how we did it, we did it pretty cleverly."
Free at last!
As B-52 Stratofortresses attacked Hanoi during Operation Linebacker II
Dec. 18 to 29, 1972, Spike recalled how the men at The Zoo endured a
very violent two weeks that ended as quickly as it had begun.
"Then everything stopped. The Paris Peace Talks were happening, and
after we bombed Hanoi, the Vietnamese decided they'd had enough of that,
so they signed the Paris Peace Accords Jan. 3, 1973," he said.
One of the stipulations of the accord was that it had to be read to all
the prisoners, so they were marched outside the Hanoi Hilton, where
someone read the whole thing to them - in Vietnamese.
"None of us understood two words of it and it took them about an hour to
read," he recalled, adding that an interpreter eventually read it in
Approximately 300 men were released. For most, this was the first chance
they'd had to see each other. Inside the prison, they'd never been
allowed to all be together.
"My big worry the whole time was that I'd wake up from a dream. Even the
day I was released, I kept poking myself, saying 'don't wake up, man!'"
said Spike. "When I was on that American plane - a C-141 Starlifter -
and flew out of there, I was still thinking it was a dream. But it
From past to present
As the Vietnam veteran arrived at RAF Mildenhall July 8, 2015, on his
way to talk to today's U.S. Air Force Airmen, he saw KC-135
Stratotankers lined up on the flightline, and reminisced on the happy
memories it brought back.
A KC-135 was the last aircraft he saw before getting hit by the SAM. It
had just refueled his F-4, and he was full of praise for them.
"It was exhilarating and amazing to see them (on Mildenhall); I thought, 'my God - how old are they?'" Spike exclaimed.
"We loved the tankers, because they saved our bacon," he recalled. "They
would deviate (from their route) and come north to get us if we were
really short on fuel. They did it regularly, and I'm sure it was against
orders, but they just did it. They were good guys."
Hearing war stories from the past aids in keeping history alive, and can
help give Airmen of today a clearer picture of the struggles of those
who served before them.
"Heritage is important to the 100th Air Refueling Wing and it should be
for every Airman," said Col. Thomas D. Torkelson, 100th ARW commander.
"To hear such incredible stories of service and sacrifice from a true
hero of the Vietnam era is an amazing honor. Spike Nasmyth and his
fellow POWs are an inspiration that motivates each of us to give a
little more every day."