Duluth POW, held 7½ years in Vietnam, looks back at 40 years since release

Forty years ago last week, David R. Wheat was greeted in Duluth by cheering, flag-waving crowds. A state trooper escorted him to the family home he hadn't seen in eight years. Mayor Ben Boo proclaimed Feb. 27, 1973, David Wheat Homecoming Day.

Surrounded by supporters
U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. David R. Wheat returns to a warm welcome in Duluth after spending 7½ years as a prisoner of war. (1973 file / News Tribune)

Forty years ago last week, David R. Wheat was greeted in Duluth by cheering, flag-waving crowds. A state trooper escorted him to the family home he hadn't seen in eight years. Mayor Ben Boo proclaimed Feb. 27, 1973, David Wheat Homecoming Day.

"It was great; pretty much unbelievable," Wheat, 73, said. "It was a long trip home."

Retired U.S. Navy Commander Wheat reflected last week on his return to Duluth after 7½ years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He spoke in a phone interview from California, where he and his wife, Ginger, were vacationing.

Wheat, a 1957 Central High School graduate, had left home a 25-year-old Navy lieutenant junior grade. He returned a 33-year-old lieutenant commander, down to 155 pounds from his pre-capture weight of 180.

In his first interview after being released, Wheat told a reporter that while a POW he thought about what his philosophy of life would be after he was freed.


"As far as I'm concerned, I plan to be happy the rest of my life," he said at the time.

Forty years later, Wheat believes he succeeded in that goal. Still, not a day goes by that he doesn't think about his time as a POW.

"It's not a haunting thing, waking up with nightmares or anything like that," he said. "But I can look at a situation where somebody has something bad going, and I've been there and done that. I look at where I am right now: I'm on the beach in California, and that's not bad. Or I could be in Duluth. Duluth is a beautiful place."

Shot down, captured

In 1965 Wheat was a naval flight officer on a Phantom F4B fighter/bomber flying off the U.S.S. Independence. As the plane's radar intercept officer, his job included letting pilot Lt. Roderick Mayer know of threats or targets the radar detected. Wheat had logged about 80 combat missions -- reconnaissance, escort and bombing -- by Oct. 17, 1965.

On that day he was part of a big mission targeting a railroad bridge northeast of Hanoi. He and pilot Lt. Roderick Mayer were among the fliers assigned to protect the strike force from enemy fighters.

Flying close to the ground at more than 500 mph, Mayer announced: "We've been hit."

"Roger," Wheat acknowledged. They had been hit before, and he wasn't overly concerned.


Then the plane went through a 360-degree roll -- a highly unusual maneuver at low altitude.

"A guy wouldn't do that unless there was some kind of problem," Wheat said. "Shortly after that, I heard this explosion in the aircraft, and something said it's time to get out of here."

Wheat and Mayer ejected.

"The thought in my mind was: 'This is just like a ride at the state fair,'" Wheat said. "The chute opened, I made one swing and I was on the ground."

In an enemy country with an injured knee.

Wheat called out for Mayer but got no response. He never saw his pilot again. According to mission reports, other flyers saw Mayer, still attached to his parachute, lying in the same position for two hours.

Wheat began crawling up a hill covered with brush and grass, standing the grass back up behind him to hide his trail. He hoped a rescue helicopter could reach the area. One did, but militia forces arrived first. When the helicopter appeared it was driven off by heavy small-arms fire.

"Pretty soon, some little guy came up the hill on the trail I had tried to cover up," Wheat said. "All he had in his hands was a knife."


The North Vietnamese man called out to others, and Lt. j.g. Wheat was a POW, placed in solitary confinement for several months. He passed the time exercising his body and mind as much as he could.

"I would try to do a lot of walking," he said. "In some spaces, you could only take three paces back and forth.

"One of the things I did was to build a house in my mind, stud by stud," he said.

Eventually, he was moved to a cell block with about 50 other POWs. He passed time thinking about his family, learning German, history and math with his fellow POWs and communicating with others through a tapping code. They played chess on a board made from toilet paper with playing pieces of rock, twigs and lint.

'Nobody owed us anything'

While Wheat and his fellow POWs marked time, the war marched on: troop buildups, the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos, Vietnamization, anti-war protests, and peace talks leading to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on Jan. 27, 1973.

It was around that time that their captors gave the POWs new cell assignments based on their date of capture. Wheat and the others found that encouraging -- "Hey, they are going to release us," was the common thought.

On Feb. 11, 1973, the first group of POWs were given new clothes. The next morning they boarded buses and were taken to the Hanoi airport, where they boarded three C141 Starlifters. The group remained subdued as they boarded the transports, the planes were closed up, and as they taxied and began their trips down the runways. Then they were airborne.


"Then you knew: 'We're on our way, we're on our way,'" Wheat said. "You could just feel a shiver go through you."

Everyone on his plane burst into a spontaneous cheer.

Wheat still marks the date by going out for dinner with buddies or his wife.

Back in America, Wheat was taken to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital for debriefing and medical checkups. When his family arrived at the hospital, he greeted them by bending over, placing his hands on the floor and curling his body up into a handstand.

"It was just a way to tell them I was healthy and happy," he said.

Then came his return to Duluth and moving on with life. The POWs had the attitude that "nobody owed us anything," Wheat said.

The year after his return, he married Duluthian Ginger Sauer. The couple have three children.

He remained in the Navy, becoming a pilot and rising to the rank of commander. He was the officer in charge of Fleet Aviation Specialized Operational Training Group, Pacific Detachment, in San Diego when he retired from the Navy in 1984. After that he sold real estate, drove a charter bus and worked for the Duluth school district.


Former Marine and Vietnam veteran Brad Bennett was a Duluth School Board member when he met Wheat who, as Bennett recalls, was teaching students how to build canoes. At a luncheon, Wheat noticed a Purple Heart pin on Bennett's coat.

Almost in passing, Wheat asked, "Were you in Vietnam?"

Bennett replied that he had been, then asked "How about you? Were you in Vietnam?"

"Yeah, I was for a while," Wheat replied.

The two kept talking, with Bennett slowly learning that Wheat had been in F4s, with most of his missions in North Vietnam, before Wheat told how he was shot down on one mission and taken prisoner.

"It was like I had to pry the story out of him," Bennett said. "He's the most unassuming guy; he never talks up his experience.

"He's a super gentleman," Bennett said. "If you walked into him on the street, you would never know the kind of experience he went through. The people of Duluth don't know the kind of individual we have living amongst us."

Steve Kuchera is a retired Duluth News Tribune photographer.
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