Porter Halyburton was born in 1941 and grew up in Davidson, North Carolina, with his grandparents because his parents divorced when he was young. His grandfather taught at Davidson, and Porter later attended that university. He enjoyed sports and being outdoors, often roaming the area around Davidson with a .22 rifle and a slingshot. His mother sent him to Sewanee Military Academy to better prepare him for Davidson, where he majored in English literature. His got engaged to his wife Marty after he graduated from college (she had attended Queens College in Charlotte) and they were married in December 1963. Porter had received ROTC credit for attending Sewanee and did not have to take ROTC in college. However, after graduation, when many of his friends were commissioning, he decided to join the Navy and was attracted to Naval Aviation. He trained as a RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) on the F-4 Phantom. In 1965, when his daughter Dabney was five days old, he deployed aboard USS Independence to the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. He was assigned to VF-84, the Jolly Rogers, and flew missions from both Yankee and Dixie Station. He was beginning to become disillusioned with his missions, feeling that they were not authorized to attack good targets and the ROE (Rules of Engagement) were overly restrictive. He had flown 75 missions before being shot down over North Vietnam on October 17, 1965. After he ejected, his aircraft “hit the side of the mountain spectacularly.” He recalls being shot at from a village, but immediately after he was captured, he was “treated pretty well.” Upon reflection, he felt that the SERE (Survival Evasion Resistance Escape) school that he completed before deploying was counterproductive. After being taken to the Hanoi Hilton, he was initially kept in the “Heartbreak Hotel,” a group of 8 cells where a number of the recent arrivals were kept. There he was able to begin communicating with other POWs, including Dave Wheat and Jim Stockdale. As a POW, he maintained a Stoic attitude, realizing that even though the Vietnamese took away “every single freedom a human being enjoys,” “how you choose to react to that situation is the ultimate freedom.” When Fred Cherry, an African-American Air Force pilot, was shot down, the Vietnamese put him in a cell with Porter, intending to inflame racial tensions; instead, “taking care of Fred gave me something important to do.” He credits Fred with changing his whole outlook on being a prisoner, noting “we had to take care of each other.” He was released on February 12, 1973, and the hatred he felt towards his captors, which was useful as a POW, melted away when he forgave them as a means of self-protection. He has returned to Vietnam and visited the Hanoi Hilton and the Zoo, but he has never found his crash site. His first return visit was on the 33rd anniversary of his being shot down.
In this interview, he talks about his childhood, his college years, joining the Navy, and his experiences as a POW. He describes being shot down and captured. He recalls how covert communication kept the POWs going even though punishment was severe if discovered. He describes isolation and how not being able to communicate “does funny things to your mind.” To keep his mind active, he wrote poetry and songs in his head, which he later transcribed. He remembers memorizing a list of 350 names so that if any of the prisoners were released, they could provide a comprehensive list of those who were being held captive. Finally, he reflects on his service and captivity, noting that those experiences provided lessons that continue to guide his life.