Hoping to get a bit of propaganda from him, they told him to write something condemning the US. Hegdahl happily agreed, but there was a problem – he claimed to be illiterate. Having established his farming credentials, and considering how most Vietnamese farmers were illiterate, they believed him. So no propaganda… yet.
But hope springs eternal, so they got an English-speaking comrade to teach the American how to read and write. After a while, however, the man gave up. He claimed that Hegdahl was hopeless and gave him a new name – “The Incredibly Stupid One.”
So they wrote a confession about his war crimes, including that of shelling Ho Chi Minh’s home. He signed it in an illegible scrawl, making sure they added “Commanding Officer, USS Canberra.”
He was kept at The Plantation – a satellite camp of the Hanoi Hilton where most American POWs were kept. It was there that he met Joe Crecca – an Air Force Officer who was a master of mnemonic aids.
Hegdahl later became roommates with Captain Richard Allen Stratton who explained how all the POWs had made a vow – that either they all be released together or none at all. It didn’t take Stratton long to realize that his new roommate wasn’t quite the buffoon he pretended to be.
Convinced that he was hopelessly stupid, Hegdahl was allowed by the Vietnamese to roam the camp freely. When guards weren’t looking, he’d put dirt in gas tanks to disable vehicles. Claiming to be interested in communism, he asked for glasses so he could read about it.
He put them to good use by memorizing the layout of the camp and linking inmates to cellblocks. He also memorized the names of 256 POWs, their service, rank, social security number, and other personal details about them to the tune of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”
So when North Vietnam decided to release some POWs as a goodwill gesture on August 5, 1969, Stratton ordered Hegdahl to go. He refused, but the rest insisted.
In February 1970, the US held secret negotiations with North Vietnam about the possibility of ending the war. Hegdahl was there and used his memory to pressure the North Vietnamese into releasing their POWs.
Stratton and many others were released, all thanks to the “Incredibly Stupid One.”