The Michael Christian Story
- Condensed from a speech by Colonel Leo K. Thorsness, USAF (Retired) and a recipient of the Medal of Honor
You've probably seen the bumper sticker somewhere along the road. It depicts an American Flag, accompanied by the words "These colors don't run." I'm always glad to see this, because it reminds me of an incident from my confinement in North Vietnam at the Hao Lo POW Camp, or the Hanoi Hilton, as it became known. Then a major in the U.S. Air Force, I had been captured and imprisoned from 1967-73. Our treatment had been frequently brutal. After three years, however, the beatings and torture became less frequent.
During the last year, we were allowed outside most days for a couple of minutes to bathe. We showered by drawing water from a concrete tank with a homemade bucket. One day as we all stood by the tank stripped of our clothes, a young naval aviator named Mike Christian found the remnants of a handkerchief in a gutter that ran under the prison wall. Mike managed to sneak the grimy rag into our cell and began fashioning it into a flag.
Over time we all loaned him a little soap, and he spent days cleaning the material. We helped by scrounging and stealing bits and pieces of anything he could use. At night, under his mosquito netting, Mike worked on the flag. He made red and blue from ground roof tiles and tiny amounts of ink and painted the colors onto the cloth with watery rice glue. Using thread from his own blanket and a homemade bamboo needle, he sewed on stars.
Early in the morning a few days later, when the guards were not alert, he whispered loudly from the back of our cell, "Hey gang, look here." He proudly held up this tattered piece of cloth, waving it as if in a breeze. If you used your imagination, you could tell it was supposed to be an American Flag. When he raised that smudgy fabric, we automatically stood straight and saluted, our chests puffed out, and more than a few eyes had tears.
About once a week, the guards would strip us, run us outside and go through our clothing. During one of those shakedowns, they found Mike's flag. We all knew what would happen. That night they came for him.
Night interrogations were always the worst. They opened the cell door and pulled Mike out. We could hear the beginning of the torture before they even had him in the torture cell. They beat him most of the night.
About daylight they pushed what was left of him back through the cell door. He was badly broken; even his voice was gone. Within two weeks, despite the danger, Mike scrounged another piece of cloth and began another flag. The Stars and Stripes, our national symbol, was worth the sacrifice to him. Now whenever I see the flag, I think of Mike and the morning he first waved that tattered emblem of a nation. It was then, thousands of miles from home in a lonely prison cell, that he showed us what it is to be truly free.
Additional campaign co-sponsor comments on LCDR Christian
"It was three years (after he was shot down) before Charlotte received the first short, heavily censured letter. Our little grapevine got the good news which was spread to everyone immediately. Mike was at least alive. It was then our thoughts shifted to how he was being treated. We all cared a great deal for Mike; but part of his charm, and perhaps at times his Achilles heel, was his stubborn hardheadedness. We all knew he would be an SOB if he was caged. Unfortunately, our worst fears were realized as Mike became one of the most severely beaten prisoners over the longest period of time in the history of the United States Military."
- LCDR Clint D. Sadler, USN (ret) in Hall of Fame nominating letter by the Purdue classmate and friend of Michael Christian
"His patriotism and resilience helped us keep alive our hope and our pride in difficult circumstances. I think of Mike often. We each have our own memories of him. One of my fondest recollections is stirred every time I hear our Pledge of Allegiance. For it was with Mike, standing before a tiny flag he had covertly made for us to pledge our allegiance to our country from a distant prison cell, that our love for America's blessings was so vividly reaffirmed."
- Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in a letter for the Michael Christian Purdue ROTC Hall of Fame induction ceremony
Additional facts on Lieutenant Commander Michael Christian, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Purdue University Class of 1964
Lieutenant Commander Christian enlisted in the Navy in 1955 and served as an aviation elec-tronics technician. He was accepted into the Navy Enlisted Scientific Education Program in 1959. He entered Purdue University in 1960 and earned a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1964.
Upon commissioning, he served on the USS Dahlgren (DLG-12) until his flight training began. He attended naval flight officer training and after receiving his "wings of gold" was assigned to Attack Squadron 85 at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, serving as a bombardier/navigator in the A-6 Intruder. While deployed with VA-85 on USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) to the Gulf of Tonkin, he was shot down April 24, 1967. He was captured and held prisoner until his release on March 4, 1973. He was a POW for almost six years at various camps, including the Hao Lo POW Camp, which is better known as the Hanoi Hilton.
Upon his return, Lieutenant Commander Christian attended Old Dominion University where he received a master of science degree. He retired on February 1, 1978, following a tour at Naval Air Station, Oceana, Virginia. He died in a tragic fire on Sept. 4, 1983.