Daytona Beach vet shares his vivid saga
Former POW part of ‘Vietnam War’ series
Hal Kushner, a Daytona Beach ophthalmologist, tells his story of survival vividly in “The Vietnam War,” a 10-part epic starting tonight on PBS.
The Army doctor was aboard a helicopter that slammed into a South Vietnamese mountain in 1967. The Viet Cong captured him, took his boots and forced him to walk for 30 days. A woman gave him a bamboo stick to bite on as she treated his wounds with a fiery rod.
Kushner, 76, tells of struggling to exist in jungle prison camps, suffering beatings and having little to eat.
“I think it comes down to a matter of luck and calories in the end,” he said Friday. “Most of our people starved to death.”
He buried 13 fellow prisoners who died of sickness, starvation and sadness. When he was transported to North Vietnam, he walked 540 miles in 57 days.
His saga of five and a half years as a prisoner of war exemplifies the personal style of
“The Vietnam War,” the latest PBS documentary from Ken Burns (“The Civil War”) and Lynn Novick (“The War” with Burns).
“I’m a practicing physician,” Kushner said. “I see a lot of young people in my practice, high school kids, college kids. The war is as remote to them as the War of 1812.”
Through the film, he hopes people understand the profound change the Vietnam War caused in the culture and the sacrifice and service of ordinary servicepeople.
Kushner doesn’t appear until the sixth part, airing Sept. 24, but he makes a strong impression.
“He is one of most extraordinary American human beings I’ve ever gotten to know,” Novick said. “I feel very, very fortunate that he was willing to let us bring his quite remarkable story of what happened to him during the Vietnam War to the American public.”
Kushner cites Novick as the reason he participated.
“Lynn Novick called me in 2011,” he said. “She asked if I’d be interested in it. I said I didn’t know. She flew to my home in Daytona Beach, spent a night and a day there. I think we auditioned each other. She told me a little about the project. I really liked her, she’s a sweetheart. Because of her personality, I signed up.”
Directors Burns and Novick had that effect on dozens of people who tell their stories in the 18-hour series that airs at 8 tonight through Thursday this week and next.
Kushner and the other witnesses help explain the U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese civil war in the 1960s and ’70s.
He recalls that he never prayed in the prison camps but he did have a mantra: “I’ll be here when the morning comes.”
“I just used to say that every night before I went to sleep,” Kushner said. “I don’t think there’s anything profound about it.”
Novick stressed that the film puts everyday people at the center. “There are no experts in the film, there’s no Monday morning quarterbacking,” she said. “It’s people looking you right in the eye and telling you what they went through.”
The film does share insights into Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — heard in private recorded conversations — as well as North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Henry Kissinger, John Kerry, John McCain and Jane Fonda are seen in archival footage. Most speakers are unfamiliar, and they include people who fought for South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.
“At the time, most of us in the government and the ordinary citizenry felt like it was an effort to stop the march of communism,” Kushner said. “Our leaders didn’t understand at the time that they were nationalists as well as communists. It was quite rational to oppose international communism, which was advocating world revolution and changing our economic system.”
The story looks a lot different now when everything is 20⁄20 in hindsight, he added.
The filmmakers leave the interpretation of events to the audience, Novick said. “We Americans have some sense that the Vietnam War is a divisive and painful subject for Americans, but we don’t like to talk about it,” she said. “But we get upset that we haven’t been able to figure out what we think about it. We’re still arguing about it.”
When speakers in the film saw portions in 2015, there were discussions that were “respectful but heated, and that’s part of the story,” Kushner said.
He traces his strong patriotic views to being an Army brat born in 1941. “I’m a Pearl Harbor survivor. My dad was a captain in the Army Air Corps at Pearl Harbor,” he said.
Kushner said he doesn’t tell his story often.
“I have refused about a thousand invitations to speak,” he said. “I am not a professional ex-POW. I don’t ride in parades, I don’t open shopping centers. People who know me know I was a POW, and my patients kind of know it. It’s not something I advertise.”
Hal Kushner, of Daytona Beach, reveals the story of his survival.