The following article originally was published October 12, 2009, by Grand Junction’s Free Press.
James Warner shares light of liberty
by Linn and Ari Armstrong
The Hanoi Hilton. That’s what we called the Prisoners of War camps in Vietnam. Thankfully, though your elder author Linn served in that war, he never got room service at the Hilton.
James Warner was not so lucky. When helping to set up a talk Warner gave in town last month, Linn learned that during the war Warner was imprisoned 650 miles to the north.
Several years ago, Linn met Captain Gerald M. Coffee, who spent over seven years in solitary confinement, the second longest imprisonment in northern Vietnam. Linn asked Warner whether he knew Coffee.
“Of course I knew of him, we spent several years together at the Hilton,” Warner said. “You don’t know someone when your only communication is tap tap, tap tap.” The prisoners had developed a code to communicate with each other.
During the conversation Linn was taken back to thoughts of the great friends that he got to know, such as Tracy and Redman. Yes, a band of brothers.
Warner, former legal council to the National Rifle Association, spoke at the annual Informed Gun Owners conference last month, an event hosted by the Pro Second Amendment Committee.
He titled his talk, “From the Hanoi Hilton to the White House: How I learned the Value of Freedom in a Communist Prison.”
Warner was held by force. He held his audience captive for ninety minutes with the power of his life’s story. Warner showed little personal bitterness toward the pilot who, Warner believes, made a mistake that cost him his freedom and gave comfort to the enemy camp.
Warner has written, “I was put in a cement box with a steel door, which sat out in the tropical summer sun. There, I was put in leg irons which were then wired to a small stool. In this position I could neither sit nor stand comfortably. Within 10 days, every muscle in my body was in pain (here began a shoulder injury which is now inoperable). The heat was almost beyond bearing. My feet had swollen, literally, to the size of footballs. I cannot describe the pain. When they took the leg irons off, they had to actually dig them out of the swollen flesh.”
Warner and his fellow prisoners would remember each other’s names, so that if one got out he could inform the families of those still held. This was the first time that many would learn whether their loved one was still alive.
Some of the POWs would remember great works of literature, surprised by how much of a reading or poem they could recall. Some thought of philosophy, remembering the historical importance that the Greeks played in saving the idea of the individual.
Warner wrote a text on math. He had to steal empty cigarette containers from the guards, soak the containers in water until the sheets of paper separated, and then compress the sheets under his straw mat until dry. Several times guards confiscated the pages, and Warner had to start again. But Warner completed the work and brought it back. It now resides at the Marine POW museum.
Warner, commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1966, volunteered for duty in Vietnam the next year. He flew more than 100 missions before enemy fire shot down his VMFA-323 just north of the Demilitarized Zone on October 13. He spent five and a half years as a prisoner. His chest full of metals, including a Sliver Star and two Purple Hearts, only begin to reveal the heart inside the chest.
Warner continued to unfold his life’s story. One could see and feel the spirit of the old warrior as he leaned on his cane.
Warner served as Domestic Policy Advisor to President Ronald Reagan, focusing on economic and health policy issues. You can thank Warner every time you drive down I-70, as he helped repeal the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. Warner has also won the H. L. Mencken award defending the First Amendment and gone to the Supreme Court defending the Second Amendment.
Warner joined a long line of great speakers brought to our community by the Pro Second Amendment Committee. Past speakers include David Kopel, lead scholar for the Independence Institute; Suzanna Gratia-Hupp, who advocated concealed carry after witnessing her parents’ murder in Texas; John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime; and former Sheriff Riecke Claussen.
After listening to Warner talk about his experiences and answer questions, the audience seemed emotionally drained, horrified by the details of Warner’s imprisonment and inspired by his continued resolve.
Warner said he has dedicated his life to the never-ending battle for freedom. Warner went through years of living hell, then went back to work defending freedom in America. Most of us have only to read about the issues and articulate the case for liberty. May we, like Warner, show the fortitude to overcome adversity and fight for our principles.
Linn Armstrong is a local political activist and firearms instructor with the Grand Valley Training Club. His son, Ari, edits FreeColorado.com from the Denver area.