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Thompson Falls resident Rod Knutson speaks about his time as a POW

by TRACY SCOTT Valley Press
| April 10, 2024 12:00 AM

“I’m very proud to be an American and proud of my performance there.” 

That's how Capt. Rodney (Rod) Knutson (Ret) describes his devotion to his country and those he served with during the seven and half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

The Whitepine Grange 102 continued its series of community lectures recently with a soft-spoken local veteran named Rod Knutson, for what Grange President Jan Manning said, was the largest attendance ever at a Grange-sponsored event. Knutson retired from the Navy as a captain in 1993 after 38 years of service, with six of those years as an enlisted member of the Marines. His awards and decorations during his service included two silver stars, four legions of merit, the distinguished flying cross and four bronze stars.

Born and educated in the bustling town of Billings in the late 1930s, Knutson tried college after high school and decided it was not for him. He joined the Marines because he thought it was full of tough guys and he wanted to be one. 

After six years in the Marines, he had enough and returned to Billings to attend college there, graduating in 1962. During his last year in college Knutson and a friend took flight physicals for the Navy and both passed, and both were on their way to Pensacola, Florida. 

Knutson did not become a pilot right away. He instead became a Naval Flight Officer who flies, has wings, but does not control the aircraft, sometimes called a RIO. He eventually went back to flight school and became a pilot in the F4 Phantom fighter jet. 

Knutson was assigned to a fighter squadron as a RIO in the F4 Phantom aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Independence (CVA-62), stationed in the Tonkin Gulf, off the coast of North Vietnam. 

His s77th mission, Oct. 17, 1965, started out at 6 a.m. for briefing. He was going into North Vietnam with three other F4s to suppress AAA (Anti-aircraft artillery). His target was a railroad bridge and yard west of Hanoi. 

Knutson describes the sensation of being catapulted off a carrier, as “a hell of a Disney ride, going from zero to 140 miles per hour in two seconds.”

Knutson was part of a bombing group of 24 airplanes, including two four-plane fighter groups. Each four-plane fighter group was assigned to the right and left side of the bombing group. Their mission parameters that day was to avoid the AAA threat which required them to fly as close to the ground as possible while traveling at 570 miles per hour.

With 77 missions under his belt, Lt. Junior Grade (LTJG) Knutson was the experienced one aboard the Phantom. He was crewed up with an inexperienced pilot named (LTJG) Ralph Gaither, who was on his seventh mission. 

The bomb group, with the fighters, first encountered an AAA site about 20 miles from their assigned target where the group lost its first of three aircraft to AAA. Three of the four F4 Phantoms from Knutson’s squadron called “The Jolly Rogers” were lost that day. Finding that their assigned target was inactive they proceeded to the railyard to drop some of their ordinance on that location. 

Turning back toward their primary target, which was now active, they fired off the remainder of their rockets on the AAA site. 

Knutson said, “We were usually prohibited to make second runs on the same target because the AAA gunners now have the speed and altitude of our planes dialed in. Expending all their rockets and pulling away from the targets at treetop level at 600 miles per hour AAA began shooting at them. Flaming tennis ball sized projectiles streamed past their cockpit with several hitting their aircraft on the right side.” 

Knudson added, “It’s not like in the movies. In the movies the airplane shakes and smoke is going everywhere, with loud explosions. It wasn’t like that at all. We lost the starboard (right) engine immediately and it caught on fire.” 

Knudson made a radio call telling them they had been hit and were trying to make it to the beach (the coast) before they could jump out of the airplane. As he was making the call the aircraft was hit three more times in the port (left) engine, catching it on fire. Fire warning lights were now on causing the engine to shut down. 

At this point Knutson started making preparations to get out of the airplane. The phantom was at treetop level making 575 knots. For safety reasons it was not recommended to eject at speeds over 450 knots. 

“We had no way to slow the airplane down,” Knutson said.

It was at this time that Gaither, the pilot, said, “Eject, eject, eject.” 

“I only heard it once. I ejected,” Knutson recalled. 

Once fired the ejection seat removes the occupant out of the airplane in three quarters of a second with a force of 17 G’s. That is 17 times the force of gravity. At an altitude of only 800 feet the parachute has little time to open but time enough that troops were shooting at them from the ground. Knutson said he could see bullet holes in his chute as he floated down. 

They both survived the ejection. 

When Knutson hit the ground, he removed some of his equipment with his survival knife and started running for cover and away from the Vietnamese hiding in a hole under some bushes. While hidden, two groups of searchers passed within feet of him. The third group of searchers closing in on his location consisted of two men and one-woman each dressed in blue pajamas and barefoot. Two of them were carrying very old looking rifles and the woman was carrying a spear. 

When the three were about 30 feet away, they saw him. 

At this point Knutson raised his hands and put them on top of his head and stood up. He then saw a soldier running toward him carrying an AK-47 rifle. 

Knutson said, “He leveled the rifle at me and just hosed off a burst of about six or seven or eight rounds. They all hit out in front of me. I was not hit. I didn’t know if this was a warning burst. The guy was just screaming and yelling. I just stood there. He dropped to one knee and brought the rifle up again. I’m not going to let him shoot me. I dove back into the hole. I was carrying a thirty-eight pistol on my hip and pulled it out and fired a round. I don’t have any idea where it went. I can tell you I was scared. This was it. A pistol was no competition with an automatic rifle. As he brought the rifle up to shoot, I switched my pistol to my left hand because I was already setting down, and placed my elbow on my knee to steady it and just took my time because I knew he was going to kill me. 

“I took my time and shot him. I hit him square in the face. At the same time, I heard footsteps off to my right and turned around to see a muzzle of a rifle close to my head. I took my pistol and fired at him. As I fired, whoever that was, fired at the same time. I became unconscious and the next thing I knew when I woke up, I was laying on my back, surrounded by Vietnamese with ropes tied around my neck, arms and wrists. They were cutting off my gear. They didn’t know how to work buckles, they didn’t know what Velcro was, they didn’t know what a zipper was. So, they were cutting everything off and not very carefully. That scared me too. They took everything except my flight suit and boots.” 

Knutson was covered in blood and blind in one eye. He was not sure if it was his blood or not. 

Knutson was now a prisoner of war for the next 2,673 days. 

“I was extremely afraid in different phases,” he recalled. “I wasn’t afraid again until they put me in a makeshift cell and left me alone for a while and all of a sudden, I had time to assess the situation I was in.”

Knutson’s mother and dad received a telegram the following day of his plane being shot down from the Navy saying, “We regret to inform you that your son’s aircraft has been shot down in enemy territory over North Vietnam. He is solicited as missing in action. It is unknown if he is dead or alive.” 

It would be five and a half years before his parents would learn that he was alive in a POW camp. His parents learned about his status, not through the North Vietnamese, but from a young American Navy sailor that was captured off the coast of North Vietnam. This young 17-year-old sailor named Douglas Hegdah, who convinced his captors that he was simple-minded, mentally slow and no threat to them. It was Hegdah, upon his early release, who memorized each of the prisoner’s names and notified the world about the condition of the prisoner of war camp, called the Hanoi Hilton and the names of the 256 prisoners being held there. 

“It was Doug that told my parents that I was still alive,” Knutson said. “Doug was my hero. This young kid was totally fearless, when it came to the chances he took dealing with the Vietnamese.” 

Hegdahl was one of three POWs who were released on Aug. 5, 1969, as a propaganda move by the North Vietnamese.

Knutson said a 24-hour day, in prison felt like 300 hours.

“It was total boredom,” he said. 

When first captured Knutson was tied to a stake in the middle of a courtyard guarded by soldiers who were protecting him but letting local villagers throw rocks and sticks and beat him. Knutson was taken to an interrogation room and interrogated by a Vietnamese officer where Knutson refused to answer questions, except for those that he was authorized to answer by the military code of conduct. 

Knutson said, “When [the officer] finally told me I had to answer and I refused, he had a guard butt strike me with his rifle knocking me off my stool.” 

From the interrogation room, Knutson was strapped face down in the bed of a truck, destination Hanoi. By the time he arrived in Hanoi he was “beaten to a pulp” from the ride. Arriving at an old French prison, he was placed in leg irons and had his wrists tied and had his elbows tied together. He was interrogated all hours of the day or night, sometimes for hours. 

“I would only give them my name, rank and serial number,” Knutson said. 

They wanted more and would threaten more. They would ask another question and when Knutson would answer it, he would be beaten with a bamboo stick. Knutson could keep track of time and the number of times the beatings happened. He cried out in pain and begged for mercy, and they stopped and left the cell. They came back and started questioning him again. 

“My behavior was no different from any other POW, but you can only go so far,” he said. 

They took him out of the stock and into another interrogation room and placed a piece of paper in front of him and wanted him to write a confession. Wanted him to write bad things about his country. 

Knutson said, “I can’t do that, I can’t take the treatment, but I can’t do what they are asking me to do. I said no.”  

His torture continued for the next five hours. Knutson found out that he was the first POW that this type of torture was used on because he was one of the first flyers to be shot down. He said one could tell himself that they would take the torture until they died. 

“Pain takes over,” he said. 

Knutson decided that he wouldn’t give them what they wanted. 

“I’m not going to tell them what they want to hear,” he said. 

The questions asked were, where are you from? His response was, Montana. Next question was, where in Montana. His answer was farm district number one. Next question, where did you live? His answer, farm district number one. New question, what did your father do for work? He was a chicken farmer. Next question was. How many chickens did he have? His answer, one. 

“It was a game for me,” he said. “When they caught on, I would be tortured again.”  

There were times I was put in a box cell. It is as high as the seat of a chair and about 4 feet long. You were put in there on your knees or on your back with your knees facing up. There wasn’t enough room to move. He said that the maximum time he spent in the box was 17 days.

Knutson lived in nine different prison camps. 

“I lived the first seven months in solitary confinement,” he said.

Knutson continued, “I was released from prison on the twelfth of February 1973 in Hanoi North Vietnam. I was on the very first plane to fly prisoners out of North Vietnam. The airplane was a C141 Star lifter. I was released with twelve other guys. We were given a new suit of clothes to wear. All the POW’s resented that outfit. We wanted to come home wearing our striped pajama prison outfits. We walked through a line and up to a desk. Sitting at this desk was an Air Force officer from the United States and a Vietnamese military officer. I walked up to that desk, I stood at attention, saluted at the Air Force Office and I said, my name is Rodney Allen Knutson, Lieutenant Junior Grade, United States Navy, reporting my honorable return.” 

Tears were running down the Air Force officers’ face. Another Air Force officer escorted Knutson out the door towards the plane that was going to start his journey home. The Air Force officer that was escorting him to the airplane started to ask Knutson a question, but couldn’t because he was crying and Knutson said, “So was I.”

As the plane taxied out to the runway, which seemed to take forever, each of the POWs sat quietly in their seats, white knuckled, holding on to the arm rests, staring straight ahead. 

The plane was lined up, ready for takeoff. The engines spooled up and the brakes were released, and the plane slowly gained speed. 

“The instant those wheels left the runway that airplane erupted,” Knutson said. “The guys started screaming and yelling, punching each other in the shoulders, hugging and kissing each other. So overcome with emotions. We are free.”

The flight took two and half hours to arrive at Clark Air Force base in the Philippines. Arriving at Clark Air Base the senior officer representing the POWs was the first off the plane. From that point on it was by the order of shoot down. Knutson was the 13th POW coming off the plane. 

“What shocked me the most was seeing small children waving the American flag,” he recalled. 

Knutson choked up at this point in the lecture and said, “There were little kids there. I haven’t seen a child in the last seven and half years. I was very happy to be home. I can tell you I had a wonderful Navy career. I was treated as a hero, and I didn’t think I was. None of us felt like heroes. I want all of you to know, I am OK.” 

Knutson and his wife moved to Thompson Falls 17 years ago. This was the second time Knutson shared his experience in Sanders County with the first at the Thompson Falls Elks Lodge.

“This was very moving,” retired veteran Bill Beck said of the lecture. “I didn’t expect to be in the mindset that I am now after listening to him.” 

Beck was one of 70 people that attended the talk.