Colonel James H. Kasler survives torture

Kasler portrait Feb 02

This is Maxine McCaffrey's portrait/collage of Colonel James H. Kasler about his experiences in and after the Vietnam War.

During the Vietnam war, Colonel Kasler survived 6 1/2 years as a POW in the Cuban torture program which involved beatings sometimes hourly with a fan belt, sleep deprivation for several days at a time, starvation, isolation, shackled in ropes and irons, untreated painful and infected injuries, and deprived of anything to occupy the mind. He spent a total of two years in solitary confinement in a stone enclosure with only a small slit at the top for light and air. The cell was just big enough to hold one cot and a waste bucket. During the years of torture he endured at the Hanoi Hilton, Colonel Kasler was one of only a few who never signed a propaganda pledge against his government or cried out during torture sessions.

Colonel Kasler explains how he survived as a POW in "Tempered Steel" when he speaks about Honor and Dignity:

People have asked me how I endured imprisonment, especially the torture. I remember one night lying in irons on the floor of the cell that we called the Ho Chi Minh Room. I was in great pain after a three-day torture session with the Vietnamese. I knew they would soon be back and I was very lonely. I wondered to myself, What the hell is a 43-year-old man doing lying in this filthy hole letting these animals beat the life out of him?

I asked myself, If I do what they are asking me to do, would my family forgive me? Sure they would. They love me.

How about God? Would he forgive me? Of course. He knows what I'm thinking right now and yes, he would, for ours is a merciful God.

Would my country forgive me? Certainly. No government in the world is more forgiving than ours.

They would all forgive me because they would all know, or at least would all want to believe, that I had done my best. Then why not end the suffering and the unending anxiety of waiting for them to come after you again?

It was a tempting thought. But there was another party I hadn't thought about yet: myself. One has to live with oneself, and as long as I possessed the strength and the mental faculties to resist, surrendering was out of the question. Nothing can destroy a person more completely than the loss of pride and honor.

Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Anyone can carry his burden, however hard, until nightfall. Anyone can do his work, however hard, for one day." That was the pattern of our lives in Hanoi during those early years of terror. We lived to endure each day, hoping that nightfall would bring a few hours of relief.

We easily could have compromised our beliefs and made our lives much easier by cooperating with the Vietnamese. But our goal was to return home with our honor intact. Some brave men did not survive the early years, but those who did came home with honor and dignity.

I hope people who read this account of me will recognize these two attributes--honor and dignity--are my most important legacy, as well as guiding principles for our country's future.

If you ask Colonel Kasler is he a hero, he'll tell you no, because he made a mistake and was captured. I'll leave it to you to decide if Colonel Kasler is a hero.