Gerald Coffee – Liberty University Convocation

Gerald Coffee – Liberty University Convocation

October 12, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


>>GERALD COFFEE: Thank you very much. Thank you. I am overwhelmed by you this morning. I hope you know how unique you are. I’ve been speaking for 35 years and I have
never experienced a morning like this with such spiritual and patriotic emphasis. You guys are amazing, and you honor me by
including me in this military emphasis Convocation, thank you so much. It’s a very special occasion for me. My wife Susan and my granddaughter Emma are
here in the audience with us. If they wouldn’t mind standing up, I’d like
to introduce them. Like most Navy pilots, I married so far over
my head I can’t believe it. I want to share some things with you this
morning that go hand in glove with what we’ve been doing this morning, what Johnnie’s been
talking about, and what you all represent and stand for. My crewmen and I were flying a combat reconnaissance
mission over the — over North Vietnam in February of 1966. Shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Captured immediately after a battle for our
capture. I ejected at very high speed, my forearm was
broken, my elbow was shattered, my shoulder dislocated. Many cuts and burns in the impact of a high-speed
ejection, by high speed I mean, 680 miles per hour. Imagine for a second bombing down the nearest
interstate highway close to the university here in your convertible with the top down
at 680, and stand up in the front seat. Give you some small idea of the impact of
high speed ejection. I was knocked unconscious and by the time
I regained consciousness, our capture was a sure thing. My crewman was killed that day, and I was
in for cataclysmic change. My captors took me to Hanoi, the capital city
of North Vietnam over a period of about 12 days, stopping each morning to take cover
under the camouflage netting or big groves of trees by small villages and hamlets. But the people could come out during the days
and take out their anger and frustration upon me, the captured U.S. air pirate, as they
called us. We — at dawn, we reached the capital city
of Hanoi, North Vietnam. Continued to the suburbs of Hanoi to the very
heart of the city and pulled up in front of a huge, formidable looking fortress of a prison. A prison called Hoa Lo which in Vietnamese
means fiery forge. And indeed, it was aptly named. Took me out of the vehicle to the arched doorways
and down to the corridors of the Hoa Lo prison to my first cell. Shoved me roughly inside, a heavy iron — heavy
wooden door slipped — slammed with a note of finality, a big iron bolt clanked home
in the lock outside with a note of finality. And I couldn’t believe this was happening
to me. Like most people, we always think it happens
to the other guy. Not so, of course. The cell in which I found myself was about
four feet wide, six and a half feet long. Along one wall was a concrete slab that jutted
out about 20 inches, that was my bed. The foot of which was a set of ankle stocks,
wooden on the bottom, heavy iron manacle that hinged down across the top that locked in
place with a big, rusty padlock. One tiny window very high in the back wall
with a double row of bars, through which I could see the shards of filthy broken glass
embedded in the concrete on top of the 16-foot wall that surrounded the entire block size
prison. A small tin bucket in one corner of the cell,
no lid. Supposed to take care of my physical requirements. And that old cell just reeked of the human
misery that had been there before me, I mean decades of human misery. And you can bet in those early, early days
and weeks and months, I prayed a lot. But they gonna realize that the nature of
my earliest prayers was really kind of futile, kind of useless. I seem to be expecting God to do everything
for me rather than taking an active role to do something for myself. I remember one of my very earliest prayers
of futility absurd, I remember praying “God, get me back to my family, to my country, I
don’t know how long I can endure in these circumstances.” If I could have somehow known that I was going
to be there for more than seven years, at the beginning, I don’t know what I would have
done. But gradually my prayers began to change and
I stopped saying “why me, God?” And I started saying “show me, God.” Show me what I’m supposed to do with this. What are You preparing me for here? How am I supposed to use this experience? Help me to go home, whatever that might be,
as a better, smarter, stronger person in every possible way that I can be. To go home as a better naval officer, to go
home as a better American, a better citizen, to go home as a better husband and father
and friend to all my friends. Please God, help me to use this time productively
so that it just doesn’t turn out to be a void or a vacuum in my life. And after that realization and commitment,
every single day began to take on a new meaning. Because now there was purpose, there were
ways to be better and smarter and stronger. New insights to get about myself, about my
comrades in the cellblocks around me all those years. And I’d pace back and forth in that tiny cell,
I could walk three short steps and turn, three short steps and turn, called this the Hanoi
shuffle, walking several miles a day that way. As I’d do that, it would sometimes occur to
me that whenever returned home, there might be some opportunities to share this experience. I thought of course of my family, my friends. I never dreamed that there’d be opportunities
like the ones that I’ve had. Like this one this morning, for example. Exceeding all of my dreams. But I thought to myself, “OK Coffee, what
are you gonna say?” How can you possibly condense the essence
of an experience like this, maybe 30, 35 minutes, and say anything that really makes any difference
at all? I didn’t know that — the answer to that
question the whole time I was in prison. The answer never really occurred to me until
I was final repatriate in February of 1960 — 1973. Seven years and nine days later, I came home,
I looked around and saw that so many changes had occurred in our country during those specific
seven years. It was late ’60s, early ’70s, incredible turmoil,
chaos, disillusionment, misunderstanding in our country. But I began to realize that the nature of
my incarceration, the key to my survival, was worth sharing. The key to my survival, not surprisingly for
you folks especially, was faith. When I say faith we automatically tend to
think a spiritual and religious faith, and that’s certainly part of it. But this context I’m talking about four specific
aspects of faith. First of all, faith in myself. Faith in myself to simply do what I had to
do. The second aspect of faith was faith in one
another. Faith in those men in the cell blocks around
me, my fellow American, my fellow POWs. Faith in my family, half a world away. The third aspect of faith was faith in my
country, America. Her basic institutions that our national purpose
and cause at any given time. And the fourth aspect of faith of course,
faith in my God. Certainly, the foundation for it all. Let me just give you a little insight into
each one of those aspects of faith this morning in the time that we have because faith was
certainly the key to my survival, and can be for anyone’s. Keeping faith in myself that I simply did
the things that I had to do. Faith in myself to obey the American fighting
men’s code of conduct, now the American fighting men’s and women’s code of conduct. Which outlines our behavior and requirements
and, and, and exacts the, the things that we need to do in those kinds of circumstances
as a prisoner of war. By minimizing my value to the enemy, they
looked at us as resources to be exploited for military information, of course, early
on. But for propaganda the entire time. It was just another level of combat. We all realized that we were still in combat
but a different nature. Minimizing my value to the enemy, to the best
of my ability. Staying as good of shape as I possibly could,
staying in good physical shape. Doing those — walking those several miles
on my cell each day, doing pushups and sit ups on my little concrete slab each day. It led — at least as many as my diet or
injuries might allow at any given time. Staying as good as physical shape as possible,
learning the value of good physical conditioning. Staying awake and alive intellectually. Early on I thought my brain was going to atrophy
from lack of use. Just the opposite took place, we devised all
kinds of ways to stay busy and active and vital and thoughtful. Sometimes I would be so busy. We’d do memorizing, we’re memorize the names,
over 600 men that were there with us so that ultimately when we release, if they weren’t
all released, we could tell who the men were who were the POWs. Passing information through the walls from
cell to cell by tapping from cell to cell. Studying foreign languages, science, mathematics,
petroleum engineering, art, history, any, any knowledge that any man had to pass on
and share with fellow prisoners there. It became like a small university in downtown
Hanoi. When I was released, I went to UC Berkeley
for a couple of years getting a master’s in political science. I figured if I could survive seven years in
a communist prison, I could hack two years at Berkley too. It’s almost wrong. Using that time productively, recognizing
that it was an opportunity. When is the last time, for example, you had
a chance to saw — to, to endure, to experience solitary confinement, and the advantages of
solitary confinement. Does that sound weird? But it’s true. What — last time you took a, a chance to
go see your favorite little nook of the campus here, just simply sit down and think about
your life and how you got to where you are and why you have the strengths and weaknesses
that you do. It’s best to maximize those strengths and
where you’re going in the future. Never underestimate the value of solitude,
in moderation. Used that time as well to learn, as I said,
to learn everything that we could from one another by tapping information through the
walls. One of my friends there was a real Godsend,
when he was a mom — when he was just a youngster, his mom forced him to learn a brand new poem
every year to recite it at the Thanksgiving family reunion. He hated it, but like most moms, she had the
hammer, so he did. He passed some of that classic poems, poems
to us. Poems like the “Ballad of East and West,”
“Gunga Din,” Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” you’ve probably heard where a father’s
giving advice with his son. Especially the verse in the poem “If”
it says “if you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve their term long after they
are gone and yet hold on, when there’s nothing left within you but the will that says to
them ‘hold on.'” Hold on. William Ernest Henley’s poem “Invictus”
which says in part “out of the night that covers me, black is the pit from pole to pole,
I thank the God I knew to be for my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have
not whence nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeoning of chance my head is
bloody but I’m bowed. It matters not how straight the gate, how
chart with punishment the scroll. I am the master of my fate, I am the captain
of my soul.” Sound familiar? That’s the point, we are the masters of our
fates, we are the captains of our souls, accountable and responsible. Faith in myself there to simply plant my feet
and, and, and to, and to not lose faith in what I was doing there and to gain strength,
to plant my feet and say once and for all, that’s right and that’s wrong and by God I
know the difference. And not allow ourselves to sway back and forth
with what may be stylish, or fashionable, or, or politically correct, but to take that
the things that we each know down deep are right and just and moral, no revelation for
anybody in this, this hall, but that kind of faith in ourselves. Translating my prison experience to my daily
life since I returned home. At one time or another, we’re all POWs. Prisoners of woe, as in, “Oh, woe is me,
man.” I wish that hadn’t happened. I wish I was doing something else. I wish I was somewhere else. But for now, it might not be possible. Sometimes you simply have to — it’s a
matter of change. But in the process, learn about ourselves. Understand how strong we can be. We stayed so busy in those cells in Hanoi
learning as much as we could from each other, that sometimes we’d go to slab at night, not
go to bed we’d go to slab at night, and I’d say to myself “gee, I didn’t get done everything
I wanted to do today.” In a cell by myself. Keeping faith in myself. Faith in one another. In order to keep faith in one another, to
maintain our military chain of command we had to communicate with each other, but if
you were caught communicating, you were punished severely. By punished I mean you’d have to go to interrogation,
they would torture you to sign an apology for breaking the prison regulations. And you know, the guy had 17 apologies in
his file cabinet behind him but you know, you’d always make him force you to do it the
next time, you’d never give in. Never surrender, always go back and fight
from the beginning again. Never surrender. And — because communication was so important,
I want to explain to you how we did that. We used a little system that we called tap
code. Tap code is not Morse code, it’s based upon
25 letters of our alphabet. We throw away the letter K because we can
use a C interchangeably, it makes the same sound enough of the time. Arranged those remaining 25 letters in five
rows of five letters each. As you’re looking at it, it would be A through
E atop the cross — across the top row, F through J in the second row, third row of
letters, the fourth row of five, the fifth row of five but — Z in the lower right-hand
corner. It’ll be five horizontal rows and five vertical
columns of letters all in the same square. It’s not that high-tech, hang in there, guys. A was in the top row, and the first — the
top row in the first column, I want to tap on an A on the wall, I tap once for the row,
and once for the column so A was one and one. B was in the first row but the second column
over, one and two. C, first row, third column over. F was second — oh that was F, I’m sorry,
I got ahead of myself. F is the second row, first column. C was, one and three, first row third column
over. N is right in the middle of the square, third
row, third column. Three and three. Z, down in the lower right-hand corner then
would be, would be, five and five, right on. Fifth row, fifth column. Let’s say I’m there, inspired by you guys,
I want to tap out the word Liberty University. We talked about you guys all
the time. L-I-B-E-R-T-Y-U, Liberty U. How about Training Champions for Christ? T-R-A-I-N-G — which was an abbreviation
for the -ing suffix. Champions, C-H-A-M-P-I-O-N-S. For, abbreviation. Christ, C-H-R-I-S-T. How about go flames? O-F-L-A-A-M-E-S. How about … All right, how about America? A-M-E-R-I-C-A. We tapped so much that … you’d come back
from an interrogation, and maybe the interrogator had let slip some news going out here in the
world and you got to show it, show it, to share it with the rest of the guys in your
cell block. The guard is shove you back in your, in your
cell, close the door, lock it. You watch the shadow disappear in the crack
of the door to make sure he left. You hurry over to the — well you didn’t
have to hurry very far, it’s right there. Call up the guy in the next cell, of course,
you got an American over there. You pass on that news, wait a few minutes,
put your ear back on the wall, the whole cell block would sound like an office full of professional
secretaries pounding on their computers as that news being passed from cell to cell to
cell. You spent hours on the wall with that guy
next door. You get to know him and love him like your
own brother. And when he was over there down and hurting
and being punished for whatever the reason, his ankles locked in those stocks at the foot
of his slab, his hands cuffed tightly behind him, sometimes backwards, and he’d been like
that for three weeks or a month, you get to your wall frequently each day and you tap
to him. G-B. God bless. And he knew that also meant “be tough babe,
hang in there. I love you and I’m praying for you.” And you bet you were. And then he knew that you needed him for the
very same reasons. He would always be there for you, too. Every night when things quieted down before
you go to sleep you tap to the guys that beside of your cell, they tap to you first, whichever. You’d exchange G-N. Goodnight. G-B-A, God bless America. Every single night. Tap goes first you can flap your clothes,
flap, flap, flap, flap, flap, flap, flap, sweep the floor, swish, swish, swish. Communicate to the whole cell block at one
time as gravy like a broadcasting system. We developed another unique aspect of tap
code called vocal tap. Vocal tap. This is the way you translate those taps on
the wall, one through five to five noises that we tend to make as people anyway. They translate it like this. You make the right noise with the right number
and you can always communicate. [tap] [cough]
[tap, tap] [sniff, sniff] [tap, tap, tap] [uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-um]
[tap, tap, tap, tap] [khucsch] [tap, tap, tap, tap, tap] [a-choo]
So, you’d cough and hack and sneeze and spit and you know, I was standing in a small courtyard
one time waiting to be interrogated, a guard about six feet away from me, his rifle slung
over his shoulder, waiting for the interrogation. And through a very high window in the cell
next to me I could hear a guy coughing and hacking and spitting and sneezing, he sounded
like he’s about to die of pneumonia, but he’s telling me that just before he’d been shot
down the Green Bay Packers had won the Superbowl. And this, and this was 1966, the year the
first Superbowl. I didn’t even know what it was, but I knew
who won. Communicating, making it a sacred obligation
to teach each man how it works. In one case the guy in the cell next to me,
the new guy who got moved in didn’t know, didn’t know how to communicate so I had to
whisper. I would set up a little clearing so then I
whispered out my window so that he could hear me, “Hey, new guy, cell number eight, listen
up.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, I hear you, who’s that?” So, I introduced myself and got his name I
said, “Listen, we can’t talk like this all the time. It’s too dangerous. Somewhere on your wall you see a little 25
letter matrix.” He said, “Yeah, I thought that was a calendar
or a game or something.” I said, “How we communicate, you tap first
for the row then the letter. A is one and one, B is one and two. You study it, I’ll call you this afternoon.” He said, “OK, I’ll be ready.” So, we sign off. So, that afternoon I went on one end of the
roving guards are off on the far corner of the prison, I give him a call. Got my ear on the wall, I’m waiting. Pretty soon through my window I hear “four
one, three two, four four, one five, two two, four one, three.” “No, on the wall dummy, on the wall.” I hate to say it guys: he made Air Force general. Tap code was our lifeblood. And the importance of communicating by keeping
faith in one another. Faith that every other man was doing his best
to maintain the same standards of resistance that you were. Keeping faith in one — and in our daily,
our daily lives, faith in one another right here at home. Communicating openly and honestly based upon
faith in each other. Saying what needs to be said, for example. Not what we think somebody wants to hear. That kind of faith in one another. The third aspect of faith was faith in our
country. You say, “You know, how can you have faith
in your country?” Every day there, for the seven years and nine
days, through the loudspeakers in each cell located right on the wall, with no on-off,
or volume switch, we heard everything that was bad about the United States of America. All the negative, all the sleaze, all of which
we sometimes have the least to be proud. Where do I — every antiwar statement by
entertainment celebrities and politicians. Learned about all the antiwar statements coming
from home. About the antiwar movement, heard about the
assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, of course. All the things that made us feel so badly
about what was going on at home here without us. And sometimes after four, five, six years
over a wave of negative propaganda about our country and our cause, you have to say to
yourself “wait a minute man. Don’t believe that junk. You’re an American, you believe that, that’s
your home. This is not the place to change your mind,
dummy. Keep faith.” And I reached into my past and I latched onto
the words that a high school history teacher once told me about all the reasons our country
had been able to stay strong and to endure for almost two centuries at that point. Or something my Boy Scout master had told
me about all the reasons to be proud of our country, the freedoms that it guarantees,
not only for ourselves but so many other countries, so many millions of people around the world. Keeping faith in my country was tough there
sometimes but I had many reasons to do it because the alternative was so obvious around
me each day. Seeing communism up close and personal. For seven years and nine days convinced me
that we were right to be there in the pursuit of that cause trying to — for the cause
of freedom for the people in South Vietnam, that it was worth it and worth doing. Worth doing right. And it’s just that a real shame that we gave
our — gave that victory away. We turned our victory into defeat, politically,
after the war. Keeping faith in America. All the reasons to have faith in our country. Today, all the reasons. 9-11 changed everything, really. It should, it should sharpen — it should
heighten our understanding of our country is worth defending. Our country which embodies our way of life,
our beliefs, our values, is worth defending. And sometimes, worth dying for. Keeping faith in America on a daily basis
in spite of the inputs we get each day, should be easier than we sometimes make it. Keeping faith in America, like we did in Hanoi. The fourth aspect is faith in my God and in
some audiences I have to say “now look, this is a very — I realize — very personal
thing, you know.” But, but in this audience, I don’t have to
say that, obviously. Keeping faith in my God is very plain in its
face value. The first two English words that I saw scratched
on the wall of a cell there by another American had been there before me were two words with
an equal side between them. And that little formula simply said God equals
strength. God equals strength. And for me, that really worked. I’ll tell you, I was never, ever totally alone. I could always find a little bit more strength
when I needed it. And every man had his own personal, spiritual
routine on a daily basis but for sure, every Sunday morning the senior officer in each
cell block would pass a certain signal on the wall. Church call. Wait a few minutes for it to circulate to
the other cells then every man would stand up at his own cell, if we’re able to, and
at least in some semblance of togetherness, we’d all recite the Pledge of Allegiance to
our flag. One nation under God. Recite the Lord’s prayer. And frequently, the 23rd Psalm. Focusing upon that part of the 23rd Psalm,
“thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies. Anointeth my head with oil, my cup runneth
over.” As you looked at the communist officers and
guards who kept us there, we recognized that in spite of the fact that we were the ones
incarcerated, it was our cup that runneth over. Because we knew that someday, whenever, however,
we’d return to a beautiful and free country. But they’re living out their entire lives
in that country. There’s — yeah, the economics are good in
Vietnam now and their, their businesses have come along but they don’t have freedom. They don’t have freedom of thought, freedom
of expression, freedom to assemble, freedom of the press. And that freedom doesn’t come free. Those seven years under communism taught me
many lessons about my spirituality. Easter time of 1966, I was taken to an interrogation
room to sit down across the table from a very old and venerable Vietnamese priest, Father
Jean Baptiste Ho Tam Dien. Had a little wispy beard and rimless spectacles
that walked in and he’s sitting at a table with a blue cloth and a dish of candy and
some fruit on the table and so I’m — he’s there supposedly to hear my Easter confession. I sat down, I could see the reflection of
the Vietnamese officer standing behind me. They were telling him that it was his Christian
duty to help me. It was my Christian duty to write letters
of propaganda to my family and to the GIs fighting in South Vietnam and to cooperate
with the, with the communists. He knew that he was being used but he was
fighting for his survival just like I was. Before I left in that night, he passed me
a little plastic rosary, with the crucifix, you know, and the beads. I took it back to my cell with me and had
it for about three months before it was taken away. But while I had it, I derived a great deal
of comfort from it. Not just spiritual comfort, that of course,
but also learned that whenever I was being punished, whatever the reason, and my ankles
were locked in the stocks in the foot of my slab, and my hands were cuffed tightly behind
me, and I’d been like that for days and days and days. I found that, by using that little rosary
as a key, I could open almost any pair of handcuffs that they could find to put on me. Truly. In the middle of the night my, my buddy in
the next cell would be down on his hands and knees clearing under the crack of the door,
watching for the feet of the guard so I could unlock my cuffs and put my shoulders forward
and maybe rest and get a little sleep. And then the next week I’d be down on my hands
and knees clearing for him while he got out of his handcuffs the same way, or his way. Those seven years taught me that we cannot
conduct our businesses, we can’t defend our country, we can’t educate our youth, we can’t
make our country a success in a spiritual vacuum. God equals strength. That’s the last line of defense. I found that it works, and can work for any
of us. Faith in myself, faith in one another. The kind that allows us to communicate openly
and trustingly with one another to solve problems together. Faith in our country, America. Understanding its history, its traditions,
its value, and the fact that freedom is not free and that is requires sacrifice. And faith in my God. Those four aspects of faith constituted my
key to survival. This morning, my mission is to simply plant
the seed of belief in each of your minds. That had that somehow been you in my little
rubber tired sandals all those years, with the same training and orientation going in,
you could have survived that experience for the same reason that I did. We all come equipped, believe me, it’s inside
of you. You just bring it forth when it’s necessary. And for your help all those years, I knew
that I would be serving your prayers, the prayers of your parents and your grandparents. And for the values that you stand for. Those are the ones that sustain me. And I want to thank you so very much for being
there for me, I felt every one of your prayers. And thank you so much for this privilege this
morning, for your help all those years. God bless you. And God bless America. Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s you guys. Thank you. Thank you.