Students Learn From a Vietnam POW Veteran About Faith
Name, rank and serial number: the only information American prisoners of war were allowed to disclose to their North Vietnam captors during the Vietnam War that ended nearly 50 years ago. Ralph Galati, a retired pilot from the U.S. Air Force. knows this from his 14-month imprisonment at Hoa Lo Prison, known as the Hanoi Hilton by the POWs held there.
As a guest speaker in Sister Elaine Glanz’s Young Adult Literature class, Galati shared the details of his imprisonment. But before he explained the horrors, he emphasized how important it had been to keep faith in God, his fellow prisoners and in his country. “Usually, faith is one of the things that sustains you regardless of who you’re praying to. There are no atheists in foxholes,” he told the students. Speaking from his personal experience, he noted that, “Faith tends to be a really big factor in military life, and as you’ll find out, in adult life too.”
Opportunities to hear first-hand accounts of a pivotal time in U.S. history illustrates Immaculata’s commitment to education that develops the whole person. Students in Glanz’s class had just finished reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which chronicles the struggles faced by American soldiers on the ground during the Vietnam War. With the passage of nearly half a century, the students were not very familiar with the events and details relating to the Vietnam War and that tumultuous time in U.S. history, but Galati noted some universal themes every generation understands, such as faith and its role in survival.
A Philadelphia native, Galati spoke candidly about his experience as a POW. As a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force (USAF), he completed USAF flight training and became a weapon systems officer and forward air controller in the F-4 Phantom aircraft assigned to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand in 1971. On February 16, 1972, his plane was shot down over North Vietnam, and he was captured and taken prisoner along with his copilot.
The first aviator was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese in August of 1964. By the time he and Galati met, the other pilot had already been a POW for eight years. Approximately 590 Americans were held at the Hanoi Hilton, including future U.S. senator, John McCain, who spent 5-and-a-half years there.
During Galati’s first 75 days in captivity, he endured complete isolation. He vividly described the unbearable loneliness. “When you have nothing, when one hundred percent of your freedom has been taken away from you, you are dying to communicate with anyone. It’s hard to describe what that total loss of freedom is to people, but when you’re begging for water and toilet paper, you’ve lost everything that you’re comfortable with,” he said. He plainly stated that on any given day, prisoners could be beaten or killed. Galati found inner strength in his faith.
One day during his captivity, a small piece of paper was inserted onto a stick and delivered through a small opening in his 4 X 4-foot cell. The message read “You’re not alone. Keep the faith.”, and it was signed “GBU.” Those words helped him endure until he was finally moved to a room with another American POW where he discovered that GBU wasn’t a person, it was shorthand for God bless you.
Galati and his cellmate were not alone, as about a dozen additional POWs now occupied a wing of the prison. Despite leg chains and the presence of rats, Galati and his fellow prisoners found solace in the military’s unwavering commitment to structure, familiarity with the chain of command and comradery. Every POW’s goal was to “return with honor,” regardless of the hardships they faced.
Joud Madanat ’26, a political science and international relations major, was moved by Galati’s presentation. She noted that his descriptive narratives were profound. “I never thought about the conditions of the camps,” she acknowledged. “No one ever taught us about that.”
Prior to the presentation, Sister Elaine invited Danny O’Rourke ’26, a communication major, to join her and Galati for lunch. O’Rourke comes from a family with a strong military tradition, including his two brothers-in-law who are currently in the military. The message that he took from Galati’s experience was his ability to do his job while keeping his faith throughout his entire period of captivity.
While conditions at the Hanoi Hilton were undeniably dire, Galati continually underscored the role his faith played. “Faith was really an important part of everything,” he told the students.
Galati’s message of faith, along with his resilient attitude, helped him survive 14 months of hell. It is a timeless lesson for the students to learn no matter what world events are occurring.
Ralph Galati’s Honors
- The Silver Star
- The Bronze Star with Valor w/1 Oak Leaf Cluster
- The Air Medal w/4 OLC
- The Air Force Commendation Medal w/2 OLC
- The Purple Heart w/1 OLC
- The POW Medal
- Lifetime Achievement Award from the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce
- Lifetime Service Award (Veterans of Distinction) from the Philadelphia Business Journal
- Eagle, Globe and Anchor Award from the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation
- Patriotism Award from the Washington Crossing Foundation
- Legion of Honor Gold Medallion from Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation
- The Philadelphia Bowl from the City of Philadelphia
- The Magis Award from the City of Philadelphia