By Bryan Lockerby
I am sick of superheroes. They are not real. Superheroes are fantasies created in our imagination. They are in movie theaters, in the news, and at conventions. We are blasted with way too many advertisements on television. In the next 5 years, 30 or more superhero movies are expected to be produced and shipped out to the masses.1
They do not make quality movies anymore about real heroes. Now, you may have heard of people, like Senator John McCain, retired Navy Captain Charlie Plumb, and retired Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale, for starters, who spent years as POWs in a North Vietnamese prison camp called the Hanoi Hilton. They survived years of brutal torture and kept their composure to eventually be released after the war and welcomed home.2 But, what the history books miss are stories of heroes, like retired Navy Petty Officer Douglas Hegdahl III, whose name is buried in only a few books.3
There is good luck, bad luck, and no luck. Hegdahl had all three. You see, as an E-2 seaman, he literally was knocked from his own destroyer near the coast of Vietnam after he got up early for his shift and happened to stand under one of the deck guns when it launched an artillery salvo. He was able to swim toward shore and was captured immediately. Hegdahl was taken to the Hanoi Hilton, which was only intended for military officers, like fighter pilots and commanders. So, here is this 21-year-old, second-class, enlisted person—the lowest ranking of everyone—stuck there. But, Hegdahl was smart…by pretending to be dumb. The story of how he got there was so unbelievable and his ability to act dumb so convincing that the guards gave him complete access to the prison camp as a custodian.4
He took advantage of this access and, during the time he was imprisoned, single-handedly destroyed five North Vietnamese trucks by pouring dirt in the gas tanks. By pretending he needed new glasses, he memorized the route from the prison into the city of Hanoi, even while blindfolded. Yet, more astounding, by making clicking noises and listening to the light taps of confined American POWs, he memorized the names, capture dates, methods of capture, and personal information of over 250 prisoners, all to the tune of the nursery rhyme “Old McDonald Had a Farm.”5
As a sign of good faith, the North Vietnamese released some of the prisoners early while the war still was underway. Hegdahl was one of those released against his wishes, but at the orders of the ranking American POW commander who knew the value of the information that E-2 Hegdahl possessed. Upon his return to U.S. soil, he provided the American intelligence officers with all the detailed information about the U.S. prisoners he had memorized. But, that was not enough for him. Word is that he personally traveled to or called the homes of many American POWs and told the families about the status of their loved one. It gave the families hope, and the American POWs also were given hope, knowing their status now would be shared.6
Mr. Lockerby, the administrator of the Montana Department of Justice, Division of Criminal Investigation, delivered this speech on July 15, 2017, at the Montana Junior Police Leadership Academy Graduation in Helena.
Look Around You
Yesterday’s heroes are sitting behind you as your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. They spent the last 15 to 17 years getting you ready. Their influence now will start to fade as you develop yourself and start looking beyond high school and toward a career. However, they left you grounded with your morals and your integrity. That is the root system and structure. What rises above becomes your character.
Today’s heroes are standing behind you, gathered around this room. They were your instructors this week, and behind them were the chiefs, sheriffs, and commanders who let them be here. Someone had to cover their shifts, and a spouse had to mow the lawn or do double duty to get the kids to their events. Everyone was willing to pitch in so your experience could be complete. Tomorrow, many of them will be back behind the wheel of a squad car responding to calls and emergencies for people they never have met.
Tomorrow’s heroes are here in front of me—the 32 of you, our future heroes and our leaders. I say leaders because here at the police academy, we spend a lot of time training on leadership for law enforcement. I did not realize this at the time when I signed up over three decades ago. I only signed up to look cool in a uniform and maybe meet women, but people need leadership in times of crisis. It might be alcohol, drugs, a mental health crisis, whatever circumstances beyond a person’s control, and what they need most often is leadership—someone who can make the right decision, at the right time, for the right reason, with the right training.
So, out of 1 million people in our state, only 32 of you were selected. That is pretty rare, and it makes you pretty special. Do not let us down. Remember what this experience did for you this week. Be whomever you want to be in life. We are not expecting you to get into law enforcement; that is for you to decide. Regardless, be the young leaders that we expect you to be, and let us not waste time in a fantasy world of superheroes. Heroes are in front of us, and they—you—are real. Thank you to the cadre—your parents, the chiefs, the academy, and to you. Congratulations!
“Tomorrow’s heroes are here in front of me...”
Mr. Lockerby can be reached at BLockerby@mt.gov.
1 Adam Chitwood, “Upcoming Superhero Movie Release Dates: From 2017 to 2021,” Collider, October 18, 2017, accessed November 13, 2017, http://collider.com/upcoming-new-superhero-movies-2016-2020-release-dates/.
2 Brett Johnson, “Vietnam POWs Reunite for Hero,” Ventura County Star, April 19, 2009, accessed November 13, 2017, http://archive.vcstar.com/news/vietnam-pows-reunite-for-hero-ep-372038230-350907161.html/.
3 Heziel Pitogo, “How Vietnam War POW Doug Hegdahl Tricked His Captors by Playing a Fool and Memorized the Names of 256 POWs of His Camp,” War History Online, August 6, 2015, accessed November 13, 2017, https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/doug-hegdahl.html.