John Dramesi wasn’t the best wrestler when he first took to the mat as part of the inaugural 1948-49 Haddonfield Memorial High School wrestling team.
In fact, he wasn’t very good at all.
“I can remember my first year of wrestling I lost every match,” said Dramesi, who is being honored along with his brother Leonard Saturday at the Bulldawgs match against Buena at 10 a.m. “I never got pinned though; I can tell you that.”
The toughness he showed way back in 1948 was a mere fraction of the inner and outer strength he would need years later.
Dramesi, 80, is a retired U.S. Air Force officer who was held as a prisoner of war (POW) for six years at Hanoi Hilton in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
As a POW, Dramesi underwent unthinkable types and amounts of torture, yet never broke. He was held along with Sen. John McCain, who later called him “one of the toughest guys I’ve ever met.”
Dramesi, who graduated from Rutgers University and its Air Force ROTC program in 1956, was trained as a fighter pilot flying F-105 Thunderchiefs. He was shot down over North Vietnam and captured on April 1, 1967. He spent the next six years of his life as a POW before being issued his release. Dramesi planned two escapes, but both fell through. The second planned escape resulted in the death of his partner, Edwin Atterbury, and subjected Dramesi and the rest of the POWs to even more torture. A third escape was planned, with the aid of Navy SEAL Team 1, but was called off when one of the team members was killed.
Dramesi and his fellow soldiers were left to lean on their strength and unity to get them through each day of pain and suffering. He said that some of the very lessons he learned while on the wrestling mat, such as mental and physical strength and the importance of team unity, helped give him strength during the most difficult of hours.
“All of those things carried over,” Dramesi said. “They applied then and they apply now. You will not be able to compete in today’s technological world if you don’t have persistence, heart, intelligence, heart, strength, talent and the literal will to compete. Regardless of whether you are talking about business or sports or the military, it’s a combination of all those things and in the end whoever has the greater unity wins.”
One of the greatest symbols of hope in American history came from Dramesi when he returned home from Vietnam. While held captive, Dramesi was desperate to find a way to keep all of the POWs connected under one belief. Knowing there was no better symbol of hope than an American flag, he looked for a way to create one with the few supplies they had.
“In a situation like that you look to get some type of symbol or symbolism to get that unity,” he said. “In Vietnam and as POWs that was a necessity because of the environment and the treatment. There had to be a reminder for us to dedicate ourselves to and remain a unit.
“I decided, what better symbol than the flag.”
Protecting the Stars and Stripes
So Dramesi got a handkerchief and started collecting different colors of cloth given to him by other prisoners. He was able to replicate the red and white stripes while knitting in stars in a patch of blue material.
“It was sort of a joint project but I was doing the work of hiding it,” Dramesi said. “I was the one insisting that we dedicate ourselves each day to the flag to maintain that unity.”
When news broke that the group of POW was being released Dramesi wanted to make sure the flag made it out with them. He sewed the flag in between two Vietnamese handkerchiefs to conceal it. He then made sure the flag made it through a strip search by a method he still can laugh at today.
“When we were going through the inspection prior to being released I had the handkerchief in my hands when we were being stripped to make sure we weren’t carrying any contraband,” he said. “I was coughing and sneezing all over the handkerchief so that when I made an effort to hand it to a guard, he didn’t want any part of it. So they let me hang onto it when they searched my naked body.”
Dramesi said he believes that flag was the only item to make it out of the camp and back to U.S. When he landed back on American soil, Dramesi held the flag proudly with the help of a fellow POW as newspapers from around the country photographed the patriotic image.
Shortly after, Dramesi was invited to the White House by President Richard Nixon. At the White House he presented the flag to Nixon. It currently resides in the archives, while there is a replica that is currently in the Nixon Library in California.
To honor Dramesi and all of the other POWs, members of the Bulldawgs’ wrestling team has been wearing a version of that flag on their singlets this season.
Returning home to share his story
Dramesi, who remained with the Air Force for 10 additional years before retiring, currently lives in Western Pennsylvania spending his time raising cattle on a 126-acre farm. His trip back to Haddonfield this weekend will be his first time back in 10 years, he estimates. Dramesi said he doesn’t go out of his way to talk about his past and what he had to go through—he made his opinions known in the book Code of Honor—but is happy to tell people about the important life lessons he gained while at Haddonfield.
“The lessons are carried through and remembered so I don’t talk about it, but when the subject comes up I smile,” he said. “I look back and say, ‘My God, Haddonfield did contribute to the things I did in life,’ and I don’t doubt that everyone else who was with me benefited from it.”
In regard to the rest of his wrestling career, even that part of his life turned out to be quite successful. After going about .500 in his junior season, Dramesi lost just one match his senior year.
“I know wrestling is a combination of many things: talent, strength, speed, heart, endurance, etc.,” he said. “In the beginning we knew absolutely nothing and in the end we learned quite a bit. Wrestling helped us develop all of those attributes that make us what we are today.”
That’s a message that Dramesi hopes to tell the Bulldawgs on Saturday. Considering the source, it should be impossible for the words not to get through to the current wrestlers.
“One of the things that I’m going to be mentioning is that it’s not so much an individual sport but in fact a team sport,” he said. “We are all sort of an American team. We were all working and learning and improving together.“