Heroes, hope, sugar packets

Posted: September 03, 2012

Melissa Farkouh

is a board member of the Friends

of the Medal of Honor Grove, and director of institutional advancement at the Freedoms Foundation

at Valley Forge, home of the grove

Sometimes, stories of heroism and hope begin with something as simple as a one-inch sugar packet.

And memories of one such packet were stirred last weekend, with the death of Neil Armstrong, 82, commander of Apollo 11 and the first man to walk on the moon.

As Armstrong's place in history was being discussed, so many stories began with people talking about where they were July 20, 1969, watching as Armstrong took that "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." It would seem, from all that reporting, that the whole world was tuned in.

Not quite.

American POWs being held captive by the North Vietnamese were not watching. They were not listening to the news on the radio, nor reading accounts of Apollo 11 in newspapers.

For the POWs, communication with the outside world was severely restricted by their captors. Often, even letters from their families were kept from them.

However, in 1970, a package to one POW made it through. Inside were a half-dozen sugar packets. And on the back of each one-inch packet was a picture of an American astronaut on the surface of the moon.

Word immediately spread throughout the prison, despite the risk of punishment if the prisoners were caught trying to communicate with each other.

"Am on moon," the POW tapped in Morse code, using the shorthand for American, on the stone wall he shared with the cell next door. On the message went, into every corner of the prison known as the Hanoi Hilton.

One of the men receiving the news was Air Force pilot Leo Thorsness, who would later write a book about his six years of imprisonment in Surviving Hell: A POW's Journey.

"It was the best news we had since becoming POWs," Thorsness wrote. "Neil Armstrong, a year after he landed, made us - a pajama-clad, beat and bent, scruffy group of POWs - the proudest Americans on the planet.

"His accomplishments validated America, and it validated us, too."

Bear in mind that there was an even deeper connection involved here. In those days, many, if not all, astronauts were military men - specifically, fighter pilots. They knew many of those imprisoned in North Vietnam. They had served together. They had been classmates at service academies and flight school. It weighed on them that their service was featured on the cover of Life magazine, while their comrades in arms were being tortured and were all but forgotten at home.

"Our peers in the free world were flying and fighting," Thorsness would write. "We were running in place."

Thirty-four years after he lifted the spirits of those POWs via a sugar packet, Armstrong was being honored by the Medal of Honor Foundation in New York City. Introducing him that evening to about 90 medal recipients and their dinner guests was Thorsness, who had been awarded the medal in 1973 after his release from prison.

He told the story of the sugar packet and how it had lifted the spirits of the POWs.

Armstrong had made hundreds of appearances since the moon landing, had heard probably thousands of "where were you" stories. But he'd never heard the POWs' story.

Both men choked up, and it took some time before they regained their composure.

A very humble man, Armstrong was truly moved, knowing his impact on the lives of his military brothers who were living nightmares while he was living his dream.

E-mail Melissa Farkouh at mlfarkouh76@gmail.com.

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