Jerry Coffee: The Vietnamese P.O.W. Who Went Beyond Survival

Imagine you’re driving a convertible at breakneck speed on a long, straight road when suddenly, you stand up on the driver’s seat.

Boom!

The air hits you with so much force that it feels more like a wrecking ball.

OK, now imagine the same scenario played out closer to 700 mph and, instead of standing, a rocket underneath your butt fires you upwards with 12g acceleration.

What’s 12g acceleration? Well, jump into an elevator in the lobby, press a button and – bang – less than one second later, you’re on the 20th floor.

The sheer violence of the ejection from the aircraft knocks you unconscious and you have burns from the rocket propellant, a broken arm, a smashed elbow and a dislocated shoulder.

Amazingly, you’re alive – you could’ve easily drowned when you splashed down in the ocean but your training took over and you ran through the appropriate procedures (oxygen mask off, release parachute) even while you were passed out.

You get captured by the North Vietnamese and taken to the notorious Hoa Lo prison (aka the “Hanoi Hilton”) where your cell is about the same size as a household door, around 3 feet wide by 7 feet long.

Your “bed” is a concrete slab just 2-feet wide jutting from the wall, and your “toilet” is an uncovered bucket.

You’re beaten and tortured on a regular basis, living in fear of the sound of a key unlocking your cell door.

For Captain Gerald Coffee, U.S. Navy, that’s how you spend the next 7 years and 9 days.

Now, that doesn’t sound so bad if you say it fast enough, right? “Sevenyearsninedays”

But try thinking back 7 years from today and remembering what you were doing back then – now imagine that you’d spent every day from then until now in a room not much bigger than your own body.

It’s a horrifying thought.

So nobody would blame Jerry Coffee for being filled with resentment and hatred for those lost 7 years.

But he has a different take on things:

I’m the happiest guy I know

I’m so grateful to be able to survive that experience, have that experience and make it count for something

And, according to him, we all have the ability to go beyond mere survival.

Five Keys to Going Beyond Survival

When he was first incarcerated, Captain Coffee endured the most depressing hours of his entire life, as he put it,  “…engrossed… in my misery and self-pity…”

But he soon realized that while he couldn’t control his circumstances, there were always things he could control.

You have control, you’re not victimized – you can make anything you want out of something

Obviously, the most important thing was that he was still alive, and that meant there was always the possibility of release, rescue or escape.

But he didn’t just lie on his bunk and surrender to fate, praying that things would somehow work out – he took control in whatever ways he could, however small.

1. Movement

In spite of being injured, malnourished by starvation rations, and tortured on a regular basis, Captain Coffee soon mastered the “Hanoi shuffle”.

That meant walking three steps (the cell being only 7 feet long), turning, walking three steps, turning… over and over and over again.

He covered 3 miles every day, which meant over the course of his captivity, he walked something like 7500 miles – almost the exact distance from his cell in Hanoi to the coast of California.

He did push ups on the concrete bunk, knowing that he had to be in the best possible shape in case an escape opportunity presented itself.

But more than that, he understood that getting moving and using your body always changes your state of mind for the better.

Movement is that fundamental.

2. Communication

Captain Coffee spent the majority of his time at Hoa Lo in solitary confinement where talking meant brutal punishment.

So, how did he and his fellow POWs communicate?

Well, they all became experts at tap code (basically, a way of communicating words one letter at a time using a 5×5 grid).

So “A” was 1-1 (first row, first column), “B” was 1-2 (first row, second column), and so on.

To keep things simple, they omitted “K” since “C” could be used instead, and they came up with all kinds of abbreviations, a bit like texting on your cell phone.

They also figured out a way to communicate using the same principle via coughing, sneezing, hacking and clearing their throats.

So, they could be “talking” about the Super Bowl result or that Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon (new POWs always had a ton of information to share), right under the noses of the Vietnamese guards who remained completely oblivious.

The men spent hours tapping on the wall, sharing information, learning and giving encouragement – especially to guys being punished by being shackled to their concrete bunks for weeks on end.

Essentially, they created their own support network (“unity over self”) that caused each man to get outside of himself and focus on his fellow POWs.

After all, we tend to do much more for others than we ever would for ourselves.

3. Use time productively

Captain Coffee took every opportunity to learn and feed his mind.

He studied the insects and geckos that came into his cell, he memorized the names and details of over 600 fellow POWs in case he was freed and able to pass on the information.

He learned anything and everything he could from his fellow captives: from poetry and philosophy to mathematics and French.

In fact, he gained a two-year credit for the French he’d learned in Hoa Lo when he enrolled at UC Berkeley after he was repatriated to the US.

All from having the right mindset and tapping on a wall, one letter at a time.

4. Focus

Very early in his captivity, Jerry Coffee chose to give each day a new meaning and use the experience to his advantage in whatever ways possible.

Instead of focusing on “why me?”, he focused on “show me”.

Show me how I can use this time productively, to go home as a better person/husband/father

In reality, there’s an empowering meaning in every situation but we have to look for it by first asking the right questions because questions direct our focus.

If you focus on why something won’t work, you’ll get a hundred different and perfectly valid reasons.

While if you focus on what you can do to make it work, a whole new world of possibilities opens up.

Ultimately, Jerry Coffee became a master at directing his focus and habitually asking empowering questions instead of dwelling on how unfair life was.

In a nutshell, he took control of his mind rather than let his mind control him.

5. Gratitude

One of Captain Coffee’s favorite quotes is “Happiness is directly proportional to gratitude.”

No matter what the circumstances are, you can always be grateful – grateful to be alive, grateful to have the support of others, and support them in turn, grateful to be able to learn.

In fact, the experience had such a profound effect on Captain Coffee’s ability to control his focus, state of mind and the meaning he gave things that he was actually grateful for having had it.

Like he said:

I’m so grateful to be able to survive that experience, have that experience and make it count for something

That mindset is how he both went beyond survival at Hoa Lo and became a successful author and inspirational speaker after retiring from the Navy in 1985.

Just a Man

Now, it’s easy to think that Jerry Coffee possessed special talents or abilities that made survival easy for him, but impossible for regular folks like you and me.

Well, that’s flat-out wrong.

As far as he’s concerned, he’s nothing special and we all have what it takes to do as he did.

As he says:

At some time or another we all get shot down, we are all POWs, prisoners of “woe.”

Be tough. Bounce back.

Learn not just to survive, but to go beyond survival: finding the purpose in our adversity.

Ultimately, it comes down to choice.

Choosing what we focus on.

Choosing the questions we ask ourselves habitually.

Choosing the meaning we give things.

Choosing the actions we take consistently.

And the most important thing?

The belief that choice is always available.

– Tim

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Reference: Beyond Survival : Building on the Hard Times – a POW’s Inspiring Story, by Gerald Coffee, Captain U.S. Navy (Ret)

Images:

Capt. Gerald Coffee by MC2 John Wallace Ciccarelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hanoi Hilton cell by mattjkelley

Bigstock

Berkeley glade afternoon by Gku (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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