Finding peace in a wartime prison

"Every light in the airplane went off," Bridger said.

Word would later reach Bridger's hometown in North Carolina that the missile had scored a direct hit. Bridger would be listed as missing in action, with a note that he was probably killed.

Inside the plane, Bridger knew he had to act quickly to stay alive. Closing his eyes, he pulled the ejection lever.

The weather was bad " so bad that he says it was a mistake to be in the air that day. But weather reports weren't as sophisticated as they are today.

When Bridger bailed on his plane, he fell through several layers of clouds. When he landed, he couldn't see.

I thought, "Great. I was shot down and now I'm blind," he said.

It turned out that his helmet had simply fallen over his head. When he pushed it off, he saw chaos.

"They immediately started shooting at me as I came out of the clouds," he said.

None of the bullets hit him. But the angry mob of Vietnamese who surrounded him did, beating him with shoes.

Bridger believes the initial treatment could have been worse if not for how he and his co-pilot carried themselves.

"I kept my head up," he said, figuring that an air of confidence was his best defense.

Bridger had landed only 600 feet from Hoa Lo Prison, where he was quickly taken.

His time at the prison, which soldiers sarcastically dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton," can be split into two parts, he said. As the war wound down, a "live and let live" policy pervaded the prison. Captors didn't spend too much time bothering the prisoners, who gathered in small groups and talked.

Before that, though, the soldiers were subject to unspeakable abuse. Bridger said it would take the better part of a day to recount what exactly he and other prisoners " one of his cellmates was future presidential candidate John McCain " endured.

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