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Tortured Logic

Guarding POWs the old-fashioned way

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In the summer of 1966, the U.S. Navy was short of living spaces for personnel in its port support facility at Danang, Vietnam, which was then under construction. But it had many troop transport ships in the 7th Fleet, cruising the western Pacific or anchored in Danang harbor.

Greenfield native Marty O'Malley -- then a Navy lieutenant, now a borough councilor in east suburban Forest Hills -- oversaw some of the troops who slept in these ships by night and built the piers by day.

"The admiral technically owned these sailors," recalls O'Malley. "He would say to me" -- through a subordinate, of course -- "'Lieutenant O'Malley, make sure these sailors don't go out and fuck up the ship,' and the captain would say, 'Don't you let these sailors fuck up my ship.'"

Today, O'Malley jokes about talking like a sailor. But this a war story.

As in many war stories, the names and dates have faded, but the weather is still almost palpable. It was, of course, "hotter than hell."

O'Malley's passion about the experience of war can be almost that hot today. When he marches against the current war, he wears a "Vietnam Veteran" ballcap. Last year, when President George W. Bush's service record was under its greatest scrutiny yet, O'Malley was happy to display his own discharge papers from the fall of 1966.

That summer, the 7th Fleet provided a platform for jets to attack North Vietnam -- and a way to rescue pilots who were trained to head to sea "and then punch out [so] you don't have to go to the North Vietnamese POW camp."

The vessels started patrolling closer and closer to the coast. "So somebody in North Vietnam comes up with this idea: 'Let's throw a brush-back pitch at the 7th Fleet,'" O'Malley says.

The next thing he knows, a dozen North Vietnamese sailors have been captured after trying to torpedo the U.S. Navy from tiny PT-type boats.

Having seen aircraft carriers and battleships from a PT boat when he was stationed in San Diego, O'Malley can only marvel at their chutzpah.

"It would be like sitting in a matchbox in a pond," he says. "The [North Vietnamese] who weren't injured, I got."

The officers' quarters on one troop transport were jury-rigged as a prison. O'Malley issued .45s and clubs to a dozen sailors, overseeing their work as guards.

"This was the comfortable part of the ship," he recalls -- it was air-conditioned, for one. "The prisoners weren't asking for anything at first" -- in fact, they were hoarding the food, which was typical Navy chow but came in a "deluge" of typical American portions. "The vast majority of the time they're sleeping, sitting at desks ... entertaining themselves. I saw them two or three times a day, the whole time they were there."

One of the Marine Corps interrogators charged with debriefing the prisoners bunked with O'Malley. "He wasn't divulging state secrets to me," O'Malley says. But, "As the interrogation wound down, my roommate and his buddy ... explained to me that they got promoted and one of them got a commission ... because of the brilliant work that he did. 'I cracked this case because these prisoners were so impressed with the humane treatment that they received during the interrogation,'" O'Malley recalls hearing.

"We were treating them like U.S. sailors," O'Malley says today, with some pride. The prisoners were given food, toiletries -- "all the amenities of living," he says. "'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you' -- that was our standard."

A standard that, unlike the "war on terror" today, included avoiding the use of torture.

Torture "wasn't even in our frame of mind," O'Malley says. "You can't imagine what kind of mind-boggling concept it is to realize our administration is discussing what degree of torture is appropriate for American interrogators" today. He bristles at the recently signed bill that has Congress and the president debating about who can interpret the Geneva Convention, or whether "water-boarding" will be allowed.

Americans have certainly employed torture in war, conquest and plain old law enforcement. The difference today, O'Malley says, is that "we have legitimized the discussion of degrees of torture as part of the American discourse."

Does O'Malley believe hearing about this 40-year-old incident will start someone thinking differently about torture today?

"Thinking?" he says. "We start that up, where will it lead?"

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