By Ken Stone
Jim Bedinger of Sorrento Mesa says he saw every episode of “The Vietnam War” when it first aired two years ago on KPBS.
“I had to,” he said.
His interest in the 10-part Ken Burns documentary flowed from painful knowledge of that era.
Between November 1969, when he was shot down over Laos during a reconnaissance mission, and March 1973, when he was freed as part of Operation Homecoming, Navy Lt. j.g. Henry James Bedinger was a prisoner of war at Hỏa Lò Prison — the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
On Sunday, Bedinger shared his critique of the Burns series — and other aspects of American culture — before selling and signing copies of his recently published book “Patriot, Prisoner, Survivor: An American Family at War.”
“I was surprised that a person like Admiral [James] Stockdale, who was alive, was not even asked to be interviewed,” he said at his indoor table on Broadway Pier during Fleet Week. “John McCain was never interviewed for that show. He was alive. Why not?”
Bedinger, after a month’s solitary confinement, would share a cell with former Marine Ernest “Ernie” Brace — with Stockdale (a future vice-presidential candidate) and McCain (the future senator and presidential hopeful) in cells on either side of him.
He said the series served as a good introduction but invited classroom discussion of “What was left out?”
One missing element was early treatment of American POWs, who he said were propaganda tools. Bedinger also faulted Burns for appearing sympathetic to the north.
“He wanted to show the communist thing … as a welfare kind of [system]. None of those [filmmakers] talked about a half a million people killed in one summer — 1953 — because they owned a plot of land of 2 hectares or more,” he said, referring to executions of major landowners and others by Ho Chi Minh’s party during French rule.
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Bedinger would eventually work in the Pentagon and for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retiring from military service in 1989 at the rank of commander after his final assignment as comptroller for Naval Training Center San Diego. He went on to another career with credit unions, where he was too busy to record his war experiences.
But thanks to hunger for some jumbo shrimp at a New Jersey wedding overlooking Manhattan, he was forced to vow such a memoir.
Bedinger’s younger brother and two sons blocked his path to the hors d’oeuvres tray, saying: “You’re not going anywhere until you promise to write a book … about your family history and all this.”
And when asked by his retiring boss — Navy Federal Credit Union President Cutler Dawson — what he would do in his own retirement, Bedinger said he promised his kids that – “before I forgot my name” — he would write a book about his family history from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War and then Vietnam, “and some of the things that helped me survive.”
Bedinger wasn’t the first POW in his family, in fact. A story about the forefather got him in trouble in a Pennsylvania grade school.
“I remember in second grade, we were discussing the American Revolution and I said my [great-great-great-great-great-]granddad was in the Revolutionary War, and he got this certificate signed by George Washington,” he recalled with a grin. “And the teacher said: ‘Jimmy! Stop making up more stories!'”
The next morning, Bedinger’s fuming father brought him to class — along with the certificate.
Turns out his ancestor, Daniel Bedinger, was at 15 the youngest recorded commissioned officer in Washington’s Continental Army.
Captured by British soldiers in defense of New York City, Daniel was later freed in a prisoner swap, weighing less than 90 pounds and suffering from malaria. He stayed in the Army through the climactic Battle of Yorktown.
Did Jim think of Daniel during his own captivity?
“Absolutely, every day,” said Bedinger, now 74. “He stayed until the end, too” and witnessed British Gen. Cornwallis’s sword being given to Gen. Washington at surrender in 1781.
Bedinger wants readers of his book to take away several things, especially that “our country has an amazing history and truly is exceptional” — despite having said that in a college environment where a professor accused him of “really sounding racist when you use that word.”
(The retired Navy commander points to an aberration in academia — University of Oklahoma history professor Wilfred McClay, who shares his exceptionalism belief in a 2019 book called “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.” Bedinger says: “There’s no book in 50 years published with that premise.”)
Another takeaway from the San Diegan’s book: “You can lose everything in life — a fire can destroy everything — but they can’t take our memories away from us and they can’t take our faith in God and … country and faith in our family and friends.”
He said he never felt abandoned.
“They will not forget,” he recalls thinking. “I will somehow get out of here, and get home and begin a life anew.”
He saw such “persistence and resistance in the face of adversity” in fellow prisoners Brace, Stockdale and McCain.
And thanks to an English-speaking Vietnamese captive, the Americans learned of the attempt to free POWs at Sơn Tây POW camp west of Hanoi. Prisoners had been moved before U.S. Army Special Forces arrived, however.
At his prison, McCain and others used a tap code to communicate with fellow Americans they couldn’t see. A still-secret code was used to let Bedinger’s family know he was OK.
“My status was missing in action, and [it] never really got firmly changed until Jim Stockdale in 1970 wrote a Christmas message home [to his wife],” Bedinger said. “On the outside of the envelope was a code deciphered by Naval Intelligence.
“She was told: ‘Lieutenant j.g. H.J. Bedinger alive and well in Hanoi, giving the commies fits,” Bedinger recalled.
The late Adm. Stockdale was criticized for revealing some of that code in his own book. So Bedinger didn’t share details.
“God forbid if we’re in another war,” he said. “Those kinds of things we’d like to keep classified so the enemy doesn’t know it.”
Bedinger didn’t have much contact with McCain when their paths diverged, but misses his role as someone who could cross the political aisle for the sake of getting things done in Washington.
“Politics today is so divisive,” he said, recounting a time when it wasn’t.
During the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan, Bedinger was a military aide assigned to Nancy Reagan’s parents, pushing a wheelchair of her mother after a recent broken hip.
“As the now president is coming down, he’s got [House Speaker] Tip O’Neill on one side and Barry Goldwater on the other side,” he said. “And here they come up to us, and they’re telling jokes and they’re laughing. We don’t have that today.”
Bedinger says he has no physical or emotional scars from 1,223 days at the Hanoi Hilton.
But he wishes veterans at risk of suicide had the benefits of more sophisticated vetting. He said corporate America has such tools when it tests for certain personality traits.
“By golly, you can go into an employer and you can take the same kind of test to see if you’re honest or going to cheat,” he said. “We need to put more money into the science of being able to screen people for suicide.”
He says end notes of the book “Unbroken” cites a study of POWs between World War I and Korea that showed the incidence of alcoholism and drug abuse was five times greater for survivors of Japanese camps than German ones — and the suicide rate was four times greater among the Japanese-held.
“And it never even got studied until 20 years later,” he said.
For all his commendations and corporate accomplishments, though, Bedinger says his biggest achievement came in the middle of the Atlantic — surviving a disastrous aircraft carrier landing.
He was the RIO — radar-intercept officer — when his two-man F-14 fighter had a “runaway engine.” In pulling a handle to start the ejection sequence, he made sure the nose angle was up instead of down.
“Textbook ejection,” he said of the 1979 incident, noting it was filmed by a maintenance crew member.
Years later, at a Veterans of the Year celebration, he sat at a front table not far from dignitaries including two congressmen and an undersecretary of defense.
The pilot from that F-14 episode also was in the room.
“Howie, is that you?” he cried. “That’s the guy who saved my life!”
Contributing photographer Chris Stone contributed to this report.
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