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HOLY COW! HISTORY: The Brilliantly ‘Stupid’ American POW

The North Vietnamese didn’t know what to make of their prisoner.

Hours upon hours of first abusing him, then pumping him for military information, had produced nothing but a nasty nickname for the young American sailor. To their thinking, he was simply dumb as a rock.

Which was exactly what Petty Officer 2nd Class Doug Hegdahl wanted them to think. Because he was anything but stupid. Indeed, he cleverly used what his captors believed to be idiocy to brilliantly outwit them.

The road that ultimately led Hegdahl to Hanoi started nearly 7,700 miles away in his hometown of Clark, S.D. (Population 1,148 in 2020.) The chance to see the world appealed to the innocent small-town boy who had seldom been far from home. So he signed up for a hitch in the U.S. Navy in 1966—just as the Vietnam War was ramping into overdrive.

He found himself onboard the USS Canberra in the Gulf of Tonkin a few months later. Early on April 6, 1967, as the cruiser was blasting away at targets on the North Vietnamese coast, Hegdahl stepped onto the deck, either for some fresh air or for a quick smoke. That was a huge no-no when the big guns were firing because a sailor could be knocked overboard. Which was exactly what happened.

He swam for a few hours until being picked up by local fishermen, who promptly handed him over to the North Vietnamese military.

The goons who interrogated him didn’t buy his tale of being blown into the water. They suspected he was a commando on a secret mission. Hegdahl realized he was in seriously hot water and had to act fast.

So, he decided to play dumb. Really, really dumb. Talking in an exaggerated country accent, he claimed to be a simple farmboy. They beat him for a few days, but he consistently stuck with the bumpkin act until the North Vietnamese came to believe him. When they tried to get him to sign a propaganda statement, he readily agreed—except for the unfortunate fact that he couldn’t read or write, he said. It rang true to his captors since most Vietnamese farmers were illiterate.

They brought in a tutor to teach him basic reading and writing. The teacher quit in frustration a few weeks later, saying the prisoner was just too dumb to learn. The North Vietnamese finally threw up their hands in frustration. That was when they started calling him “The Incredibly Stupid One.”

What they didn’t know was Hegdahl was far from stupid. Convinced he was useless, he was allowed to roam around at will inside the prison compound. Yet during those solitary walks, he quietly poured dirt into the gas tanks of military vehicles, disabling five trucks.

With the help of an American Air Force officer, he memorized the names, capture dates, and other important details about more than 250 U.S. POWs. (He committed all that extensive data to memory by singing it to the tune of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”)

When he was transferred to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison, Hegdahl quickly learned his fellow prisoners had vowed to reject an early release if it became available. They would all leave together or not at all.

Two agonizingly long years later, the North Vietnamese decided to return three POWs as a propaganda measure. Because he was dismissed as such a low-value captive, Hegdahl was selected to be one of them. He initially refused to go. But his cellmate and Navy superior ordered him to accept the offer because of the wealth of critical information he had memorized.

And so Hegdalh was turned over on August 5, 1969, and immediately provided a library of important details to U.S. military officials.

But he had a score to settle with the brutes who were still holding his comrades in Hanoi.

At the secret Paris Peace Talks in early 1970, North Vietnam’s negotiators denied abusing POWs. So Hegdahl was sent to the meeting, where he looked his former captors in the eye, called out their lies, and helped pressure them into eventually agreeing to release the American prisoners. It took a while, but on February 12, 1973, the first POWs were let go. By late March, all 591 had been set free.

And “The Incredibly Stupid One” had played a big part in making it happen.

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Marjorie Margolies: Roe Decision May Make 2022 Another ‘Year of the Woman’

Delaware Valley Democrat Marjorie Margolies was swept into Congress in 1992 by the success of Bill Clinton and a wave dubbed “The Year of the Woman.”

She was swept out two years later amid a Republican wave that ended nearly four decades of Democratic control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Her cause was not helped by her high-profile vote to put Clinton’s tax-hike plan over the top in Congress.

Looking at the current political climate, Margolies sees the potential of a Year of the Woman redux, thanks to the leaked U.S. Supreme Court decision suggesting Roe v. Wade may be overturned.

“It’s extraordinary to me that after all of these years, a woman’s right to choose is being seriously questioned,” said Margolies. “I think we will see a remarkable reaction from women across the country saying, ‘Not on my watch.’ It looks like 24 states will immediately have laws to eliminate or restrict abortions. I find that appalling. I think it will make an incredible impact on the midterm elections, especially down-ballot races. Keep your eyes peeled.”

Margolies, an Emmy-winning TV journalist, the first unmarried American woman to be permitted to adopt foreign children, and an author is now the founder and president of Women’s Campaign International.

“Since 1998, we’ve been traveling around the world helping women, getting them to the table,” she said. “Sometimes, it was political. Sometimes it was financial.”

Now Margolies and Women’s Campaign are helping Ukrainian refugees. But they are also doing their best to help the Afghan people who were left behind after the U.S. precipitously withdrew from that country and allowed it to fall to the Taliban.

“We’ve had a program in Afghanistan since 2006,” she said. While members of the organization have escaped, others who helped them, such as doctors, lawyers, and professors, remain stranded and “are now in hiding and starving.” The group has been able to get some money to them through people traveling to Afghanistan, she said.

The nonprofit had dozens of people working for it in Afghanistan. “We worked with two government ministers,” Margolies explained. “They were interested in women’s issues. They were amazing. They helped us. One of them was immediately killed by the Taliban. The other, who had six kids, we got out, and he is here now. But it was really difficult. And we got out several of the women who had papers. But many of them did not. (They are) just incredible people who are in hiding with their families. We’re figuring out how to get them out.”

“It’s so dramatic. I can’t even begin to tell you,” she said. “And for Ukraine, we’re figuring out how we can reach out.” Many Ukrainians don’t want to immigrate to the U.S., she said.

“They want to go to places in Europe because they want to go home,” said Margolies. “We’re an organization that’s really good at figuring things out.”

Margolies’ new memoir “And How Are the Children?” tells how she was a journalist doing stories about adoption and hard-to-place children when she got the idea to adopt a Korean orphan.

Although she faced major roadblocks as a single woman, she eventually adopted her daughter, Lee Heh, from Korea. Later, after writing about Vietnamese orphans, she adopted a second daughter, who she named Holly, from Vietnam.

One day she interviewed Ed Mezvinski, a congressman and divorced father of four daughters. They fell in love, married, and had two more children.

Margolies never said no when asked to help and took in a series of refugees, including a Vietnamese family who stayed in the sizeable Margolies-Mezvinski home in Penn Valley for 25 years.

“There were 11 kids,” she said. “But it’s what made me get so interested in refugees.”

Her Vietnamese son, Vu, is now an anesthesiologist. His biological mother also lived with them and she was a very traditional Catholic and wanted him to become a priest.

Vu told Margolies, “‘I want to be Bar Mitzvahed like everyone else.’”

Later, when her son, Marc Mezvinski, married Chelsea Clinton, Vu was his best man.

Margolies was only in Congress for two years and lost her bid to be re-elected because she voted to clinch Clinton’s omnibus budget bill.

“He just sent me a book,” she said.  Inside the copy of “Putting People First, President Clinton Select Remarks 2001-2021,” Clinton included a note. “First you saved my presidency and then you gave us Marc and you gave us this family of our dreams.”

“It’s tough being a woman in politics,” said Margolies. She was a busy reporter and mother with a large household in 1991 with no plans to run for office. But she decided to run for Congress in Montgomery County, then largely Republican. Margolies handily won a primary, lived through a house fire, and had her daughter, Lee Heh’s wedding during the campaign. But she thought she would lose to Republican County Commissioner Jon Fox. However, she said she surprised herself by winning, partly by allowing voters to think she would not raise their taxes.

“I had gone to Washington to make tough decisions and that (voting for the tax increase) was one of the toughest,” she wrote in her book. In 1994, she lost to Fox.

Margolies headed the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 and from that conference her nonprofit was born, empowering women to take part in democracy around the globe.

Margolies also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, her alma mater. She is the mother of 11 and the grandmother of 21.

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