You could call it a reunion breakfast, except the two men have never actually laid eyes on each other.

Orson Swindle, 82, spent more than six years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam after being shot down on Nov. 11, 1966. He’s in Maine this week along with more than 100 other former Vietnam POW’s to celebrate, among other things, the fact that they’ve all lived to be old men.

Dick Manning, 83, of Gorham knows all about what happened to then-U.S. Marine Capt. Swindle on that Veterans Day almost 53 years ago. From the tiny cockpit of his Cessna-built spotter plane, then-Air Force Capt. Manning saw the whole thing.

“I’m a little apprehensive,” Manning said in the quiet of his living room on Thursday, reflecting on his upcoming breakfast date. “There’s a lot of emotion around it now.”

Swindle, speaking by telephone a few hours later as he prepared to travel to Portland from his home in Colorado, said he can still remember seeing Manning’s Cessna L-19/O-1E “Bird Dog” circling a few hundred feet overhead that fateful afternoon.

“He deserves to be thanked,” Swindle said. “I mean he made a hell of an effort. He deserves to be thanked for what he did.”

This is their story.

It was, for two men in their late 20s, a typical day over Quang Binh Province, just a few miles north of the Demilitarized Zone that separated what then were North and South Vietnam.

Manning, a forward air controller, or FAC, had his eye on a North Vietnamese army battalion from the seat of his unarmed, single-propeller aircraft. His job: mark the spot with smoke rockets and call in Marine fighter jets to bomb the target.

Swindle, flying an F-8E Crusader high above, responded to the call along with three other Crusaders. Strong winds made pinpointing the target difficult, but finally Swindle spotted the enemy and rolled into a bombing run.

“I released my bombs at about 2,500 feet and then I pulled up and accelerated to get the hell out of there,” Swindle said. “That’s when I felt a severe thump underneath the aircraft.”

From his spotter plane, Manning saw the shot hit Swindle’s jet – he surmised it came from a 37 mm cannon on the ground. With no weapons on his plane save a couple of hand grenades in a pouch under his seat, Manning could only watch as the Crusader careened first up, then down, smoke streaming from its fuselage the whole way.

Inside the Crusader, Swindle fought to maintain control even as his three hydraulic pressure needles all plunged to zero. The roller-coaster-like ride now had him headed straight toward the ground at more than 500 mph.

“The negative G-force threw me up out of my ejection seat,” Swindle recalled. “I was lifted up out of it because of the forces – and I was up against the canopy. So now I’m pushing down off the canopy with one hand and trying to get the stick to respond with the other – and it’s doing nothing. It’s not working.”

Finally, at about 3,000 feet and just seconds from impact, he ejected. Manning called off the other fighters and watched helplessly as Swindle’s parachute floated down toward enemy territory.

Orson Swindle, left, poses for a portrait with Dick Manning after meeting for the first time on Saturday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Swindle recalls being immediately surrounded by what seemed like dozens of North Vietnamese, several of whom began hacking at his harnesses with machetes. “I thought they were going to kill me with the machetes, when all they had to do was pull the zippers,” he said.

The mission, Swindle’s 205th, had been scheduled to be his last. Now, as enemy soldiers and villagers alike took turns beating him senseless, all he could say to himself was, “This … is … not … happening.”

Manning radioed for a rescue helicopter, known in war parlance at the time as a “Jolly Green Giant,” to come to his comrade’s aid. But the nearest chopper was at least 20 minutes away by air, so Manning – his slow-moving Cessna well within the range of relentless ground fire – kept circling and circling, desperate for help to arrive. He even pulled the pins on his two hand grenades and tossed them out the window in a futile attempt to ward off the enemy.

“I recall some explosions,” said Swindle, adding with a chuckle, “I’m trying to figure out how you throw a grenade at that altitude and get away from it fast enough on that little airplane.”

Minutes passed like hours. Finally, with no “Jolly Green” in sight, darkness fast approaching and his fuel indicator flirting with empty, Manning had no choice.

“I left him,” he said. “I could say that I cried.”

Throughout Swindle’s first night in captivity, the North Vietnamese soldiers paraded villagers – women, children and elders – past him as he squatted in a fire pit inside a dugout cave. They hit him with sticks and rocks. Some paused long enough to urinate on him.

“And I’m just in a state of shock,” Swindle said.

Over the next five weeks, Swindle’s captors corralled him and other POW’s toward Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, more commonly known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” He would remain there until March 4, 1973, spending his last two years as a bunkmate with another young airman named John McCain.

“The physical abuse was eye-watering to say the least,” Swindle said. “It was a painful existence.”

Manning returned to his air base and filed his report on what had happened. Over the ensuing days, he went on about his business and kept the memory of the fallen pilot at bay. To let it distract him as he returned to the dangerous skies over North Vietnam – Did the Crusader pilot survive? And if so, where did they take him? – was to put his and other Americans’ lives in peril.

Then one night in the early spring of 1967, while laying over for the night in a U.S. special forces camp, Manning squeezed into the last cot in a bunker that held 11 men. Around 3 a.m., as they all slept, a rocket slammed into the far end of the bunker, killing seven soldiers and leaving the rest, including Manning, badly wounded.

Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The blast broke two vertebrae in Manning’s spine and peppered his left side with shrapnel. Despite eight months recuperating in a military hospital in Denver and, 24 years later, reparative surgery on his chest and leg, he has only partial use of his left hand to this day and still has no feeling in the sole of his left foot.

Still, for both men, life went on.

Swindle, ever resilient, retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel after 20 years. He went on to serve as assistant secretary of commerce under President Ronald Reagan and as a commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Manning, after his medical discharge from the Air Force as a major in 1971, found a job in sales for Everest and Jennings, a manufacturer of wheelchairs and medical assistance devices – mostly for the Veterans Administration. After that, he worked for a firm that built restaurants.

Then, with his wife, Martha, he founded Manning Management Inc., which provided consulting to corporations large and small on project development and adaptation to change in the workplace.

Through the years, even as the Vietnam War slowly faded into history, coincidence beckoned.

Once, at a gathering of fellow salespeople for Everest and Jennings, Manning told the story of the pilot who went down on Veterans Day back in 1966. One of his colleagues, a man named Dave Smith, perked up.

“I have an old friend named Orson Swindle,” Smith said. “And he tells the exact same story!”

Then one day in 1988, Manning’s office phone rang. It was Swindle, who had tracked him down through Smith, calling just to thank Manning for his courageous efforts more than two decades earlier.

“That was it. It was a short phone conversation,” Manning said. “And we haven’t talked since.”

Enter Lee Humiston, founder and director of the Maine Military Museum in South Portland. Since 1974, he’s been the keeper of an ever-expanding collection of Vietnam POW artifacts and archives – most of which are now on prominent display in the spacious museum at 50 Peary Terrace in South Portland.

Humiston, himself a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran who traveled the world setting up military displays and helping to organize other public relations activities, once had an insurance agency in South Portland. Across the hall in his office building, Dick and Martha Manning ran their consulting business.

They became friends and, over lunch one day, Humiston said to Manning, “Tell me a war story, Dick.”

Out it came. The downed Crusader. Manning’s little single-prop Cessna. The help that never came. The date. The place. The anguish.

Humiston, by now a major supporter of NAM-POWs, a nationwide organization of former Vietnam POWs, knew Swindle from the many reunions Humiston has helped to organize. Like Dave Smith, he’d heard the story from Swindle’s vantage point.

“I know that guy,” Humiston told Manning. “That’s Orson Swindle you’re talking about.”

This year, as an homage to Manning, NAM-POWs decided to hold their  reunion in Portland. Swindle signed on to attend this week’s festivities, which will include a ceremony at the museum Tuesday morning, followed by a banquet that evening at Portland Ocean Gateway.

Upon seeing Swindle’s name on the confirmation list, Humiston immediately reached out to Manning, whose old Air Force fatigues now clothe one of the many mannequins on display throughout the museum.

Truth be told, Manning feels a bit out of place about being drawn into a gathering of former POWs. Despite his wounds, despite the PTSD that only caught up with him when he retired 10 years ago, he puts these guys on a pedestal high above those who went to Vietnam and came home on schedule.

Swindle, on the other hand, holds Manning in awe for his willingness to putt-putt around in a tiny airplane so vulnerable that Manning always flew with a piece of armored plating under his seat. “I didn’t want to get my balls shot off,” Manning explained with a grin.

“He was a brave, brave man,” said Swindle, still incredulous at what sitting ducks Manning and his fellow forward air controllers were in their little Cessnas. Unlike the jet pilots, the FACs carried no parachutes because they typically flew too low to be saved by them.

“His courage was just remarkable,” Swindle said. “And I always said I wish I knew who the hell he was.”

Late Friday, Swindle checked into the Westin Portland Harborview hotel in downtown Portland. Just before 8:30 Saturday morning, he grabbed a copy of the incident report from Nov. 11, 1966, along with a challenge coin from his unit – reserved for very important people as a token of honor and respect – and headed down to the lobby.

The two old warriors spotted each other instantly. Smiling, they shook hands and, for several long seconds, held on.

Better late than never.

Staff photographer Ben McCanna contributed to this column.

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.