Letter 70 published 19 April 2016


Captain Richard “Dick” Stratton is an American and a former Vietnam POW. While conducting an investigation on the traditional Mass in Vietnam for the French-language version of our Letter we discovered the incredible story, as related by his children and grandchildren, of his “last Roman Catholic Mass” in the Cathedral of Hanoi when he was in the hands of the Vietnamese communists.

As Providence allowed us to get in touch with Captain Stratton, and since he turned out to be very kind and generous with his time, we shall revisit in a forthcoming letter his edifying spiritual journey at the end of 2,251 days of detention in Vietcong camps in 1973. For the time being, here is the tale of what he long thought to have been his last Mass. It was some evening in December 1967.

Plantation Prison and Hanoi Cathedral.

I) My Last Roman Catholic Mass


In 1962 Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II, convocation of the leadership of the Catholic Church, to address issues of importance to the Church. In that year I was a warrior attached to Attack Squadron Ninety Four, Air Group Nine, USS Ranger (VA-94; CAG 9; CVA-61) and had limited interest as to what an Italian Pope was doing for the good of his people. I was a warrior, a Naval Aviator, a husband, a father and a son. I had my own fish to fry.

As the years slipped by I notice that there were subtle changes to the Roman Ritual of my religion as I met my religious obligations. English was creeping into the liturgy of the Mass – at the beginning - but not corrupting the core.

By the time that I deployed for my war – the Vietnam War – on the USS Ticonderoga, Carrier Air Wing Nineteen, Attack Squadron One Ninety Two (CVA-14; CAW 19; VA-192) there were not too many noticeable changes. My best friend, Michael Estocin (MOH) and I attended Mass every day we were not on the flight schedule on the forecastle of the Ticonderoga. Seated on folding chairs scattered between the two anchor chains, we followed along with the new order under the guidance of our Priest chaplain figuring that he would not lead us astray.

Circumstances reached a confluence where I had the opportunity to shoot myself down in January 1967 and Mike had the opportunity to Martyr himself, taking the mission of a new kid the day before they were to come home, and never returning. Mike had volunteered for his hop and strangely enough, I had volunteered to take Mike’s hop when I was shot down – he had a critical shipboard meeting to attend that morning. We did not get to attend Mass that day.

The North Vietnamese communists were a brutal, inhumane, power hungry group of misanthropes. Americans captured by them in Southeast Asia were tortured, beaten, starved, isolated, denied medical care and humiliated beyond belief except when it served the interests of the communist propaganda machine. It was not a racial thing. They meted out the same treatment to their own people who dared to dissent as well as the Republic of Vietnam patriots who dared oppose them. They inflicted and continue to inflict the same punishment on Chinese-Vietnamese, native populations and those of mixed race.

At the urging of American peace groups, the communists decided they needed some favorable propaganda around Easter time of 1967. One spring evening they dressed me up in their "mess dress" striped pajama prisoner uniform (the uniform of the day was black boxer shorts and T shirt) and at bayonet point marched me off to the interrogation room. This timing was not unusual as the most feared interrogations occurred after dark. They sat me down on an interrogation stool and told me that I was to meet a priest and make my "Easter Duty".

In the Old Catholic Church, the "Easter Duty" referred to the law of the church that required each practicing Catholic to go to communion once a year. To do so normally meant that one also had to go to confession unless he was free of mortal sin. The practice in my day was that everyone went to confession and communion at Easter time no matter what. In retrospect, the communists had in mind that I would confess my "war crimes" and receive communion as a visible sign of my repentance.

The interrogation room was decorated for Easter as only an atheist could imagine – with a bunny rabbit. The guards trotted an elderly Vietnamese gentleman dressed in priestly garb into the interrogation cell.

I asked him: "Ubi est domus tui?" [Where do you live?] He replied: "Hanoi". At that point the interrogators burst into the room obviously telling him to "shut mouth". His reflexive response to my crummy Latin convinced me that he was a Catholic Priest.

The Priest appeared to be startled at the intrusion of the interrogator and aghast at the follow-on film crew. The Priest via sign language offered me the opportunity to receive Communion. I accepted the invitation and dropped to my knees. He placed a host on my tongue; the cameras rolled; the lights went out; the Priest got the hook; I was marched back to my cell. At least I received the host on my tongue – the last time as a normal protocol.

The propaganda war was heating up in respect to the Communist mistreatment of prisoners in North Vietnam. The Red Cross was denied entrance to the prisons; Amnesty International never even tried. The internal and international communist position was that American fighting men were "The Blackest of Criminals", "Air Pirates" and not entitled to any protections under international law. However, the Hanoi government recognized that the war was going to be won by turning the American people against their own government. As a result the communists had to put on a propaganda front acceptable to the American dissidents.

Christmas 1967 was the next opportunity. Sometime in December, well after dark, I was told to suit up in my "Mess Dress" striped pajama prison garb. Nothing good ever happened after dark.
At bayonet point I was marched off into a weapons carrier sized vehicle. I was very nervous. The last time a night time trip like this happened, Doug Hegdahl and I were similarly mounted up, driven to a soccer stadium, exposed to a howling, out of control crowd, assaulted in the vehicle and driven off to the Plantation Prison.

This time I disembarked, as I found out later, at the Hanoi Catholic Cathedral. I was marched into a side door at the rear. They placed me half way down the nave on the Gospel side isolated from anyone else. The place looked like it could hold about 800 to 1,000 congregants. There were maybe 100 people in the church. There were perhaps 10 other POWs all in their Mess Dress garb scattered about. The cameras were there.

This was obviously a Roman Catholic house of worship. [One could never expect to find such an automatic identification in this day and age except by accident.] Jesus, Mary and Joseph were in their appointed places. The tabernacle was centrally located with the burning red candle clearly visible indicating the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. There was a crucifix. It was where it belonged, centrally located above and behind the altar. Various and sundry Saints (Peter, Paul, Teresa, Francis Xavier, etc.) were all visible and identifiable. The sanctuary exuded the tradition and magisterium of over 400 years. I was in a spiritual refuge. "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil."

An interrogator barked at me: "Go visit the barn!" I was initially non-plussed, then I realized he meant the crèche at the altar rail [remember that?]. I had no desire to contribute to the success of their propaganda effort. However, since I was in a losing situation, I should try to get some benefit out of it. I saw one of our guys approaching the altar rail so I took off to join him. The VC were trying to keep us separated; but they could not over react in front of the cameras. The other guy was Jim Mulligan.

We knelt there side by side and swapped information as to where we thought we were located, who was our SRO (Senior Ranking Officer), who were in our prisons and when we thought the war would be over. This is where I found out that a small group of super resistors were under the shadow of the walls of the Ministry of Defense opposite our jail, the Plantation Prison main gate (17 Ly Nam Dai). Jim reaffirmed the resistance posture advanced by these leaders.

The Mass started and progressed according to rubrics of the Roman Ritual (Pre-Vatican II). After the Priest read the gospel of the day and gave a brief homily in Vietnamese, one of our more malicious interrogators, The Rabbit, took the pulpit, and gave his English "Communist Christmas Sermon". The essence of the sermon was that baby Jesus, a good communist of a working class family, being born into poverty, was persecuted by the capitalists. He and his family were forced to flee Bethlehem for their lives in their Jeep into Egypt to avoid the American Imperialists and the Yankee Air Pirates. It indeed was a most inspiring sermon; it made one weep with laughter.

The rest of the Mass went as it had according to the Church of my youth, my seminary days (six years) and until Vatican II. It was invigorating, reinforcing, inspiring, reassuring, encouraging and inspirational. I was not required to sing, shake hands, swap germs, jiggle, dance, listen to guitar based protest songs, watch pagan dances on the altar, listen to the priest play the flute, raise my arms in an "alleluia", stomp my feet, clap my hands, or listen to the latest bloviation of the Bishops’ regarding their personal version of current fads in political correctness or all inclusiveness.

When Mass was over, the POWs were held in their places to be removed in such a way that they could not come in contact with each other. We had had one more shot to communicate at the Communion Rail after "the barn" visit but then we were on our own. I was marched back up the center aisle towards the back doors and the pushed off to the left to exit a side door. There were a group of Vietnamese crowded into the inside main entrance.

A woman pushed a ten-year-old child towards me as I turned left. He came over and held my hand as I walked towards the left exit. My guard backhanded the youngster away from me. I went off by myself into the darkness not realizing that I had just attended my last traditional Roman Catholic Latin Mass – December 1967.

Fast forward to March 1973. Among the reception team of Operation Homecoming at Clark Air Force Base was a selection of a Chaplain of your choice. I don’t remember the name of the guy I was talking to except that he was a Jesuit. He was playing the role of the "good ole boy", using his first name and wearing sports clothes. I made a general confession, received Communion and was left with a great deal of confusion in respect to the lack of specifics provided in response to my expressed interest in the state of the Catholic Church as of that date.

It took only six months after my return to figure out that the Catholic Church of my youth had gone the way of the world and was no more. The Episcopal High Church and Lutheran liturgies were more traditional than the succession of the prevailing Catholic entertainment fads and circuses in the round being passed off as "The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass". My Church had either left me in my absence or had been high jacked.

I had in fact at bayonet point attended my last Catholic Mass of the "Old Dispensation" in St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Hanoi, Democratic Republic of Vietnam, December 1967.
How about those sour apples! I guess this marks me as a traditionalist.

The Stratton family reunited in 1973.

II) The reflections of Paix Liturgique

1) Dick Stratton signed up for the Vietnam war in 1966. He was captured in 1967. As he mentions he went through the repeated modifications introduced into the liturgy from 1964—the year that the Commission for the Application of the Constitution on the liturgy was instituted—notably with what are called the “1965 rubrics”: massive introduction of the vernacular, standing communion and generalized celebration facing the people. Strictly speaking this wasn’t yet the new Mass (the new Eucharistic prayers weren’t introduced until 1968 and the new Missal was promulgated in 1969), but the great upheaval had already begun. Yet, to the American pilot’s great surprise, the Mass to which he was taken in the Hanoi Cathedral “started and progressed according to rubrics of the Roman Ritual (Pre-Vatican II).” The reforms of the Bugnini commission hadn’t reached Communist Vietnam yet . . . .

2) As we had mentioned in our Letter 56 in connection with an interview with Cardinal Zen, in China too communism, strangely enough, acted as a custodian of the liturgy. Since Mao’s victory the Church existed both as an official entity through the “Patriotic Association” under government control and also clandestinely through a martyr-Church that remained faithful to Rome. Until the greater openness allowed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, however, State-sanctioned Catholicism had no knowledge of Vatican II or of the modern liturgy.

3) This providential experience, which he underwent under terrible circumstances, was to leave a deep mark on Captain Stratton: “The rest of the Mass went as it had according to the Church of my youth, my seminary days (six years) and until Vatican II. It was invigorating, reinforcing, inspiring, reassuring, encouraging and inspirational.” The shock he felt after his release in 1973 when he encountered a reform which in the meantime had gone from bad to worse traumatized him all the more: it was as though “[m]y Church had either left me in my absence or had been hi-jacked.”

4) More dramatically, as a prisoner Richard Stratton felt the discomfort of so many other Catholics during those tumultuous years. Those who, for one reason or another, had been away from the Church suddenly discovered—often at a funeral—the post-Vatican II Mass. French author Julien Gracq summarized this 1970s phenomenon quite nicely, relying on the great Catholic novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans to do so: “Huysmans is a good touchstone to pin down the current metamorphosis in Catholicism. He had converted to all that the Church has now tossed overboard, and to that alone. One may well believe that conversions among writers and artists are about to become very rare indeed, but the pope doesn’t care one bit, and is betting on less effete races for the future” (Julien Cracq, Œuvres complètes, Paris, Gallimard, 2.291).

5) To avoid all misunderstanding, and despite what the abrupt end to Dick Stratton’s account seems to indicate, he was to abandon neither the faith nor Sunday Mass nor his parish, as we shall recount in a forthcoming letter. His story has the same spiritual message as the traditional Mass and as even the Passion of Our Lord: in the end, hope will triumph.