MARINE CORPS BASE HAWAII --
Rice mixed with rocks, bug-infested bread and boiled pumpkin soup for dinner. Communicating through taps on the wall. Alone in a cell, not knowing if you would ever see home again. These were just a few of the hardships retired Navy Capts. Gerald Coffee and Jim Hickerson recounted while visiting Wounded Warrior Battalion West — Detachment Hawaii, March 27, 2013. The two former prisoners of war were invited to speak with the wounded warriors on the 40th anniversary of their release from Hanoi.
“Gentlemen, I would just like to say thank you for your service, and thanks again for coming out and speaking to our Marines and sailors,” said Lt. Col. Burl Hudson, officer in charge of the detachment. “We really appreciate it, and it’s an honor for us to have you here.”
Coffee and Hickerson, who both served in the Vietnam War, were captured and held prisoner — Coffee for seven years, Hickerson for five. The two were among more than 500 service members who endured torture, pain and filthy conditions under the watchful eye of Vietnamese authorities.
Coffee, who currently lives in Honolulu, was born in Modesto, Calif., and served more than 20 years in the Navy, earning various military awards including a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Coffee was a POW in North Vietnam from February 1966 to 1973. He wrote about his experiences in “Beyond Survival: Building on the Hard Times – A P.O.W.’s inspiring story.” Coffee has been a guest speaker at countless venues, including “Larry King Live” and NBC News.
Hickerson, who also currently lives in Honolulu, was a POW from December 1967 to March 1973. Raised in Atlanta but calling Lenoir, N.C., home, Hickerson was commissioned in 1956. Among other decorations, Hickerson was awarded the Silver Star, Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross.
Members of the detachment, their families and additional guests gathered in the wounded warriors’ lounge to hear the former POWs share their story. Coffee and Hickerson took turns sharing personal experiences, including being captured and days in the prison.
The prisoners at one point even developed a system of communication called the “tap code.” Each prisoner would knock on the wall a certain number of times to spell out a message to the prisoner next door. The tap code came in handy as prisoners heard and spread U.S. news from the prison television. Prisoners also used the tap code to offer tips that made cell life a little easier and to wish each other good night.
Finally, at the close of the talk, both men had words of wisdom to pass on to the wounded warriors.
“Be honest about yourself, what you’ve been through,” Coffee said. “Understand that it’s going to take some time and some specific effort, some very specific effort to recover from that sometimes but that doesn’t change the fact that you guys are very special and America loves you.”
Hickerson also offered words of encouragement to the wounded warriors as they continue to recover.
“We are not dealt the deck of cards that we like all the time,” Hickerson said. “But if you have a foundation (you can achieve your goals). I have the utmost faith and confidence in you as Marines, especially as Marines, that you can do it. I’m very proud to be with you here today.”
Hickerson and Coffee then opened the floor to questions. Hudson presented them with plaques of appreciation, and various members of the audience approached to shake the hands of the guest speakers.
“I feel as if I could relate to them in a way,” said Cpl. Aaron Metheringham, a recovering Marine at the detachment. “I feel a camaraderie there, a deeper camaraderie than a normal service member would.”
Metheringham said he liked the way Coffee and Hickerson presented their story with a positive perspective despite the negative situation of being a prisoner of war.
“I feel privileged that they spoke with us,” said Capt. Joe Elder, a recovering Marine at Wounded Warrior Battalion West — Detachment Hawaii, who was among those attending.
Elder said even though the wounded warriors may have a “long road to recovery,” listening to the former POWs speak reaffirmed the idea of human resiliency. Hickerson, for instance, remembered a fellow prisoner who still walked despite a broken leg that healed in the wrong position and commented on how much human bodies can endure.Coffee also spoke about how prisoners supported each other, which helped them leave prison in a stronger condition than one would expect.
“It’s about overcoming, not just surviving, but rising above it all,” Elder said.