How a Thai Special Forces Soldier Ended Up in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes

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Deputy Secretary of Defense William P. Clements presents the Legion of Merit and Silver Star to Capt. Chaicharn Harnavee of the Royal Thai Army in March 1975. (Department of Defense)

Inside the Pentagon is a special room dedicated to preserving the memories and actions of America's bravest troops. The Hall of Heroes is dedicated to the more than 3,400 U.S. troops who have received the Medal of Honor, and features all of their names.

The room, dedicated in 1968, also has a few special features, including one photo of a foreign national, Chaicharn Harnavee. A world away, Chaicharn was locked in North Vietnam's infamous "Hanoi Hilton” prison that year. He wasn't the first resident, but he would be the last. Along the way, he would save the lives of countless American prisoners there. That's how his photo ended up in the Hall of Heroes.

In May 1965, then-Sgt. Chaicharn Harnavee accompanied an American civilian pilot on a resupply mission to help construct a hospital in Laos. Chaicharn was a member of the Thai Special Forces in Laos, and it was his day off, but Ernest Brace needed a spotter and the construction crew needed supplies.

Along for the ride were a Laotian Special Forces soldier, a Lao woman and her baby. They arrived at the airfield in Sayaboury Province, Laos, and offloaded their cargo. As they prepared to return home, they started taking heavy small arms fire. When the shots killed their human passengers, Brace and Chaicharn darted for the treeline, but found themselves face to face with 300 communist soldiers.

The two were taken prisoner and forced to march for about two weeks toward Dien Bien Phu, with little food and no medical treatment. They spent three years at the camp in North Vietnam in ankle stocks, hands bound and unable to communicate with each other. They also underwent routine beatings.

In 1968, they were moved to Hua Lo Prison in Hanoi, known to the Americans as the Hanoi Hilton. There were already American prisoners of war incarcerated there, but Chaicharn didn't know that right away. He was immediately placed in solitary confinement, where he spent two years.

When he was released from solitary, he would be allowed out of his cell for two hours a day to clean in the water purification plant. After a year of cleaning the plant, he would make contact with another prisoner, his first in nearly six years. A South Vietnamese Air Force pilot he knew as "Maz" taught him the prisoners' "tap code" so he could communicate with others.

Through the tap code and a series of hand signals he picked up from Maz, Chaicharn began to learn English and could better communicate with other prisoners. Eventually, Chaicharn used the access he had to the facility during his cleaning; he began to steal for himself and the other prisoners.

Small items like pencils and paper were used to help prisoners signal to one another. As his English improved, he got prisoners items they needed. He even smuggled his own food to the Americans who were slowly starving to death. Chaicharn is the reason many of the downed U.S. pilots who were repatriated after the Vietnam War made it home at all.

Sgt. Chaicharn Harnavee was not released in 1973 with the Americans, however. After one month of being alone in the prison, Chaicharn was taken to a prison camp along North Vietnam's border with China, where he was placed in charge of 216 other Thai POWs. This camp was different from Hua Lo; it was a "re-education" camp.

The North Vietnamese instructed Chaicharn to ensure the Thai prisoners completed their re-education work and became loyal communists. He refused and was placed in a three-foot-by-six-foot box, with just one hole in the top, for six months. At the end of the punishment, he was asked whether he would help re-educate the prisoners; he again refused.

Chaicharn had no idea that the freed Americans had begun to ask questions about him and were pressuring the U.S. to find out. He was finally released on Sept. 29, 1974, after nine years, four months and eight days held captive. After he returned to Thailand, King Bhumibol promoted Chaicharn to captain.

Capt. Chaicharn was soon invited to the U.S. by the former POWs he helped during their captivity. He visited the Pentagon, where he was presented with the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit.

Today, a photo of Chaicharn Harnavee hangs in the Hall of Heroes because of his service to those prisoners at Hua Lo. He retired from the Thai armed forces as a colonel in 1992 and continued serving as a public official until his death in 2018.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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