When I first met Render Crayton, the man who was to become my friend, in Sun Valley, Idaho in the 1990s, I was struck by something that set him apart from my other neighbors and friends: a rare combination of humility, peacefulness and yet an inner strength of what seemed unusual proportions. Several years later as we were about to have lunch together, a mutual friend happened to mention that Render had been a POW in Vietnam. As a result, I began to understand how the pieces fit together.
Our lunch was thoroughly enjoyable but I did not ask him about his experience in Vietnam. At the time, I was working on a project for the San Diego Veteran’s Museum that was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I was interviewing and preserving the stories of heroic aviators including Medal of Honor recipients (Leo Thorsnes, Patrick Brady and Tom Hudner), Tuskegee Airmen (Lee Archer) and many others (Dick Rutan- the recipient of five Distinguished Flying Crosses, and someone you may have heard of: George H.W. Bush, and San Diego’s own Denny Schoville, to name a few).
As I interviewed each one, I had a mahogany model made of their airplane, painted precisely as they had flown it, had it signed by them and that too became part of the collection.
I mentioned what I was doing and asked Render if he would like a model of his airplane. My only condition was that he also sign one for me and one for the museum. I explained that I had always felt badly when our troops came home from Vietnam that they did not receive a warmer welcome and that included our POWs and that I would be honored if he would allow me to build one for him. Render said he would love to have one and my work began.
I had already read numerous accounts of the brutal treatment our POWS received in North Vietnam and did not need to inquire about his experience and he never offered to talk about it. (For those of you who would like to know more, I would suggest the excellent documentary by PBS “The American Experience: Return with Honor”, 2008, narrated by Tom Hanks, or “Defiant” by Alvin Townley, St. Martin’s Press, 2014). However, the Department of Defense maintains a POW website that provides the basic information for each of our POWs and I researched Render’s story.
Render was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1933. He eventually joined the Navy and earned his wings as a fighter pilot. And he was a good one. He was promoted to a flight instructor in the early 1960s and assigned to Naval Air Station Corpus Cristi, Texas, where among many others, he was John McCain’s flight instructor.
In the fall of 1965, as the Vietnam War escalated, he was transferred to the USS Ticonderoga, a World War II Essex class aircraft carrier, and assigned to VA 56. The squadron was flying A-4E Skyhawks and was assigned to combat missions over North Vietnam. In September 1965, James Stockdale, who had flown A-4Es in VA 56 and later on USS Oriskany, was shot down over North Vietnam and had, himself, become a POW.
On February 7, 1966, Render took off in his Skyhawk and headed to Chu Dien Chau in Nghe An Province, North Vietnam. His plane was severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire and he was forced to
bail out. Despite incredible efforts to rescue him, with numerous search and rescue aircraft subjected to intense ground fire, he was captured. He was not to return until seven years later, on February 12. 1973 ( a total of 2,570 days in captivity).
Render became Senior Ranking Officer in the Son Tay Prisoner of War Camp, about 23 miles outside Hanoi until 1970. In late 1970, he and his men were transferred to Hoc Lo Prison, sarcastically referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton” where the vast majority of other POWs were being held. However, American military intelligence did not know of the transfer. Instead, they received sporadic but unconfirmed reports that our men were dying from almost daily beatings, torture and near starvation, and living in squalid conditions. Many were experiencing severe depression after years in solitary confinement. The US Air Force was determined to mount a rescue mission and initiated the first large special forces rescue mission in history under the command of legendary Army Colonel Anthony “Bull” Simons. Despite meticulous planning and preparation by helicopter pilots and rangers (all of whom were volunteers), when Simons and his men reached the camp, it was empty.
Meanwhile, Render and his men at the Hanoi Hilton had, unknown to them, over 1,000 days left in captivity and the frequency and severity of the beatings and the torture and the terrible living conditions at the Hanoi Hilton were only marginally better than before. Eventually, after returning home in February 1973, Render received one of the Navy’s highest honors: The Navy Distinguished Service Medal. It read in part: “He provided superb leadership and guidance to his fellow prisoners during extended periods of severe pressure…by setting a pattern of resistance for all to follow. His extraordinary courage, resourcefulness and sound judgment reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the US Navy and the United States Armed Forces.”
What followed our lunch together in Sun Valley was frankly a fitting end to this story. Early one morning, I was on the phone with Pacific Aviation in Phoenix, that was building Render’s model A-4E airplanes because they wanted to make sure they had the correct tail insignia for his squadron. (At various times in 1965-66, the squadron had three different insignias.) I called Render in Idaho and he faxed me a squadron photo which I then forwarded. At about that time, I realized that I was supposed to be at the airport for a flight to Las Vegas for a mediation. Blessed to be living in Point Loma, five minutes from the airport, I was able to shower, dress and get to the gate just as the door was closing for my flight. My great friends at Southwest swung the door back to let me in and told me that there was one seat left somewhere in the back. After finding it, I crashed into my seat as one big sweating hulk. Sitting next to me was an older gentleman with a US Navy hat on. Eventually, we struck up a conversation that went almost verbatim as follows:
Jim: “when were you in the service”
Answer: machinist mate.
Jim: “humm, were you on carriers?”
Jim: “Were you ever on the Ticonderoga?”
Jim: “Any chance you were in VA 56?” (By now he is giving me quite a look-somewhere between startled and suspicious)
Jim: “Any chance you were in VA 56 in February 1966?”
Answer” “No, I was transferred to the USS Enterprise in January.”
Thinking the chain had been broken, I happened to add one more for the heck of it:
Jim: “Any chance you knew LCDR Render Crayton?”
Answer: “Oh my god who are you? I was the guy who maintained Render’s plane.”
Jim: “When was the last time you talked with Render?”
Answer: “January 1966, the day I was transferred off the Ticonderoga.”
Jim: “Would you like to say hi to him.”
Answer: “Of course I would but I have no idea where he is.”
Jim: “I do.”
When we both got off the flight at McCarron Airport all I had to do was hit the redial button on my phone. As fate again intervened, Render was still home. I handed the phone to his shipmate and stood there surrounded by slot machines and noisy gate announcements for a half hour while they talked, laughed and in his case cried. People walking by stared at us but neither one of us gave a damn about what people thought. It is a moment in my life I will never forget. The odds of my ending up sitting in that seat and meeting his machinist mate buddy were roughly l in 330,000,000.
Several of Render’s friends and fellow POWs went on to lead high-profile lives: Bud Day and Jim Stockdale received our nation’s highest honor (The Congressional Medal of Honor); two became US Senators (McCain and Jeremiah Denton). Render returned to civilian life and was very successful and has enjoyed his well-deserved retirement. He now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona and was recently interviewed about his life-long friendship with John McCain, when McCain died in August 2018.
Footnotes: A thoroughly researched and well-written account of the Son Tay Rescue Mission appeared in Air Force Magazine (November 1, 1995). Bull Simons is worthy of a visit to his Wikipedia page. Among other accomplishments, Simons was recruited in retirement by H. Ross Perot and led the successful privately funded rescue mission to free Perot’s EDS employees in Iran after the revolution immortalized in Ken Follett’s best-seller: “On Wings of Eagles” (William Morrow & Co, 1983). Colonel Simons legacy has been honored with a 12 foot tall bronze statue in his Ranger uniform that stands in front of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.