A sudden grinding of the lock on his cell door in Briarpatch, the most primitive camp within Hanoi’s prison system, caused Captain Thomas “Jerry” Curtis to sit bolt upright. It was too late in the morning for turnkeys to bring his plate of worm-filled rice with boiled pumpkin and too early in the day for his bowl of thin cabbage stock. An unscheduled visit could mean only one of three things: a session of prolonged physical abuse, intensive interrogation laced with propaganda, or both.
Since his shootdown seven months earlier on September 20, 1965, the rescue-helicopter pilot already had endured sadistic guards all too eager to administer punishment. The possibility of what might lie ahead on that April morning filled him with incredible anxiety. Adrenaline surged. His heart pounded.
As the door banged open, an armed guard rushed into the small cell. He motioned at the prisoner with a chopping movement to the wrists, a sign for Jerry to put on his long-sleeved shirt, part of his striped prison uniform. Pulling the coarse cotton tunic over his head suddenly seemed a monumental task. He left the shirt hanging out, a required sign of subservience.
Jerry labored to stay focused as he was shoved down a narrow corridor to another solid masonry room where the camp commander waited. Nicknamed “Frenchy” by POWs because he spoke English with a heavy French accent, the North Vietnamese officer seemed not to notice the captive’s entrance. The guard motioned for Jerry to sit on the low, child-sized stool directly in front of a large wooden desk behind which Frenchy wielded authority.
From his elevated position, Frenchy began, slowly and methodically, outlining his prisoner’s dilemma. His quiet rant explored all the ways Jerry no longer had anyone or anything he could rely on.
“You are . . . blackest of criminals. You . . . no longer have military, no government, no country.” He drew each word out, savoring his control over his prisoner. “You . . . no longer have family for support. If you get sick, no doctor will come unless I say. You have no friends who can help you. You do not have possessions or job or resources, whatsoever. You . . . have no food . . . not even sip of water unless I say so. You are completely alone . . . and vulnerable.”
After what seemed an eternity, the North Vietnamese officer, obviously pleased with his monologue, delivered its summation, a final statement intended to underscore the prisoner’s hellish situation. “Now, here in this place, you have only me to rely on . . .” The commander’s voice trailed off, and then he added, “. . . and your God.”
Frenchy meant that last comment to further debilitate the man hunched on the stool before him. Surely such a man, captured, beaten, and with little hope of escape, must have been abandoned by God. But Frenchy’s words had just the opposite effect. They spoke directly to Jerry’s inner strength. He felt a surge of hope, a penetrating ray of extreme light in a moment of utter darkness.
In the years following his release from Hanoi, Jerry often thought back to this moment. Scripture records God frequently using pagan rulers and authorities to do his bidding, sometimes even to say what he wanted said. Pharaoh found himself bending to the Lord’s desire to release the Israelites from bondage. Powerful kings—Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, and Artaxerxes—fulfilled with words from their own mouths God’s ultimate purposes.
On that particular day, a smug North Vietnamese camp commander representing an atheistic Communist regime and believing himself to be in complete control inadvertently delivered a personal message of hope. Using an unlikely mouthpiece, God planted in the heart of one of his children a definitive reminder of his abiding presence.
About the Author . . . Carole Engle Avriett is a former writer/editor for Southern Living Magazine. In addition to leading women’s conferences throughout the United States, Canada, and Brazil, where she and her husband serve as missionaries during the summer months, Carole has also authored two Bible Studies. She currently resides in Florida.
About the Co-Author . . . COL Thomas “Jerry” Curtis (USAF, RET) is an Air Force Cross recipient, a Daughters of the American Revolution Medal of Honor recipient, and a sought-after speaker by schools, church groups, VFW chapters, Rotary Clubs, and other veteran groups, and patriotic organizations. Jerry currently resides in Texas. His biography, Under the Cover of Light, (Tyndale), is available now wherever books are sold.