Photo by Deneen Underwood
Artifacts from Col. Robert Sawhill’s military service displayed at Carnegie Historical Society.
By Bob Podurgiel
Over his five-and-a-half years of imprisonment in the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese tried plenty of techniques to break Carnegie native Colonel Robert Sawhill and force him to reveal military secrets or become a propaganda tool for the Communists, but everything they tried failed.
Isolation, physical and psychological torture, food and water deprivation. None of it worked. After a while, the North Vietnamese even offered to release Sawhill from imprisonment early, but he told his captors, “Let the men with families go home first.”
Todd DePastino, executive director of the Veteran’s Breakfast Club, a local organization dedicated to preserving the stories of America’s veterans, featured the life of Col. Sawhill in a recent 90-minute edition of his audio and visual podcast series focused on veterans.
Sawhill, who received the Silver Star, one of the nation’s highest military awards, for his resistance against his captors and exemplary service to his country while a POW, was also one of nine highly decorated servicemen inducted this April in the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall Museum’s Joseph A. Dugan Jr. Hall of Valor.
Photo by Sonja Reis
One of many photos of Col. Robert Sawhill displayed at the Carnegie Historical Society
For the podcast, DePastino brought together members of the colonel’s family and Vietnam War veterans to lend insight into the life of Sawhill during the Vietnam War and what he endured during his 2,031 days as a POW.
Sawhill grew up in Carnegie and went to school at Carnegie High School and the University of Pittsburgh before joining the U.S. Air Force, where he became a pilot flying F-4 Phantom jets in combat missions over North Vietnam during the war.
On Aug. 23, 1967 he took off from Ubon Airfield in Thailand in his F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber with the mission to bomb Yen Vien, North Vietnam, six miles northeast of Hanoi. His plane encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire, and J.C. Luther, lieutenant colonel, USAF, Chief Casualty Division, informed the Sawhill family back in Western Pennsylvania, he would be recorded as Missing in Action until his true status could be determined.
Sawhill survived the crash of his aircraft, but he ended up as a prisoner of war of North Vietnam in the Hao Lo prison complex, ironically referred to by the American POWs as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
One of his fellow prisoners, Col. George E. Day, after his own release wrote about Sawhill’s courage in a report he filed with the Air Force.
“Immediately on arrival, he was beaten and mistreated and spent the first three days of his tenure in the kneeling torture in an effort intimidate him and to indoctrinate him to soft-pedal the resistance effort and the resistance posture of the camp. Despite this torture, he immediately entered and participated in establishing communication procedures with the Camp Commander and communications links with other buildings in the camp. He assisted in developing resistance techniques, which were effective and rational with the primary goal of maintaining our honor to the strongest degree possible, and resisting the Communists to the maximum extent.”
When he was released from the prison camp on March 18, 1973, Sawhill remained in the Air Force, and retired in September of 1982. He died in 2008 at age 78, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
After presenting his podcast, DePastino said he was intrigued by the story of Sawhill, especially how he found the courage to survive and come out of his ordeal stronger.
“He went through the most traumatic experience imaginable, yet emerged as an intact, functioning human being,” DePastino said.
Before starting the Veterans Breakfast Club in 2008, DePastino earned a Ph.D. in history from Yale University and taught American History at Penn State’s Beaver Campus. He now works full-time on preserving the stories and memories of veterans and said Sawhill’s positive attitude toward life is one he has seen other Vietnam veterans adopt.
“I have heard them say, “’I never had a bad day after Vietnam,’” said DePastino. “We can learn from our veterans what the secret recipe is for developing courage, faith and wisdom. What it means to live life as a full human being.”
During the podcast, Sawhill’s family members attributed his survival to his strong commitment to his family, his faith, and his deep sense of honor and duty to country.
They said he seldom talked about his POW experience unless he was asked a specific question, but one time stood out in their memory. When gathered for a family dinner, the children at the table were complaining about eating corned beef, cabbage and potatoes. Sawhill told them, “Try eating rat tail soup.”
DePastino has presented more than 100 in-person and online presentations about the lives of local veterans, but said he will be expanding the program to include veterans from other parts of the country. He also publishes a quarterly magazine full of stories about veterans called VBC Magazine with a circulation of 15,000 copies.
“We want to build communities of listening around vets and their stories,” he said.
Those interested in learning more about the work of the Veterans Breakfast Club can do so by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.