When the 42nd man said yes, it was unanimous. We had 100-percent commitment to hold church next Sunday. At that instant, Ned knew he would end up in the torture cells at Heartbreak. It was different from the previous Sunday. We now had a goal, and we were committed. We only needed to develop a plan.
Sunday morning came, and we knew they would be watching us again. Once more, we gathered in the far end of the cell. As soon as we moved together, the interrogator and guards burst through the door. Ned stepped forward and said there wouldn’t be a problem: We were just going to hold a quiet ten-minute church service and then we would spread back out in the cell. As expected, they grabbed Ned and hauled him off to Heartbreak for torture.
Our plan unfolded. The second ranking man, the new SRO, stood, walked to the center of the cell and in a clear firm voice said, “Gentlemen,” our signal to stand, “the Lord’s Prayer.” We got perhaps halfway through the prayer, when the guards grabbed the SRO and hauled him out the door toward Heartbreak.
As planned, the number three SRO stood, walked to the center of the cell, and said, “Gentlemen, the Lord’s Prayer.” We had gotten about to “Thy Kingdom come” before the guards grabbed him. Immediately, the number four SRO stood: “Gentlemen, the Lord’s Prayer.”
I have never heard five or six words of the Lord’s Prayer — as far as we got before they seized him — recited so loudly, or so reverently. The interrogator was shouting, “Stop, stop,” but we drowned him out. The guards were now hitting POWs with gun butts and the cell was in chaos.
The number five ranking officer was way back in the corner and took his time moving toward the center of the cell. (I was number seven, and not particularly anxious for him to hurry.) But just before he got to the center of the area, the cell became pin-drop quiet.
In Vietnamese, the interrogator spat out something to the guards, they grabbed number five SRO and they all left, locking the cell door behind them. The number six SRO began: “Gentlemen, the Lord’s Prayer.” This time we finished it.
Five courageous officers were tortured, but I think they believed it was worth it. From that Sunday on until we came home, we held a church service. We won. They lost. Forty-two men in prison pajamas followed Ned’s lead. I know I will never see a better example of pure raw leadership or ever pray with a better sense of the meaning of the words.
– Leo Thorsness is author of Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey, from which this chapter is excerpted.