RAF Alconbury hosts multi-national POW/MIA remembrance run

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
It was his 23rd mission - flying directly over Hanoi, North Vietnam, Oct. 26, 1967. Everything was fine until "a Russian missile the size of a telephone pole came up."

The sky was full of them, the U.S. Navy pilot said. It blew the right wing off his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and sent him into an uncontrollable, downward spiral.

Frantically, the pilot pulled the ejection handle and was instantly knocked unconscious by the force at which he was thrown from the aircraft. Although he didn't realize it at the time, he had suffered a broken leg and two broken arms. His seemingly lifeless body hung by the strings of his parachute like a marionette as he slowly descended toward the Western Lake of Hanoi - extremely hostile territory.

Nearly 47 years later, Service members began tying their shoes in preparation for a POW/MIA Recognition Run at RAF Alconbury, United Kingdom, Sept. 19, 2014. Prisoner of war stories, like those of the downed-Navy pilot over Hanoi, spurred them onward.

"We are here to show our support and let POW and MIA personnel know they are not forgotten," said Master Sgt. Kaden Brooks, U.S. Africa Command Joint Analysis Center theater intelligence group superintendent. "These are guys missing in war. They pretty much gave everything."

Motivated by the memory of those who are not forgotten, Brooks pushed himself to complete 20 laps, totaling five miles, around the track. Every time he passed the starting line Brooks would see the names and faces of several prisoners of war and missing in action personnel, posted to a nearby canopy.

"It's important to come out here," Brooks said. "We need to send a message that we are still looking for them and we won't give up until they are found."

The days following the pilot's crash were spent in a daze. He remembered several North Vietnamese pulling him from the lake and stripping him - their standard procedure. As he fought through the pain of broken bones and nearly drowning, a nearby crowd began to taunt and assault him. One slammed the butt of a rifle on his shoulder, while another stuck a bayonet in his foot. Death seemed to be inevitable until someone called the mob off and had the pilot transported to Hanoi's main prison.
Every day the guards would "quiz" him several times. They charged him with war crimes, beat him unconscious and tortured him.

"You will not receive any medical treatment until you talk," one of the guards shouted.

Each day he would only respond with his name, rank, serial number and date of birth, as required by the Geneva Conventions and the Code of the U.S. Fighting Force.

"I didn't believe this," the pilot said during an interview years later. "I thought that if I just held out, that they'd take me to the hospital. I was fed small amounts of food by the guards and also allowed to drink some water. I was able to hold the water down, but I kept vomiting the food."

The days passed and the pilot's condition worsened. His knee began to resemble the size, shape and color of a football. He was dying and all his captors cared about was obtaining military information.

Though unique, the pilot's story is not uncommon. To date, there are 83,189 U.S. Service members unaccounted for from past conflicts dating as far back as World War II. For five-and-a-half years, the pilot lived the life of a POW in North Vietnam. His pain from living with minimal care in abhorrent conditions was solemnly honored when British nationals working at the 423rd Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department showed up to the Alconbury track wearing full firefighting gear and ready to run.

"I think it's important to remember the POW's and those persons missing in action," said Terry Beal, 423rd Civil Engineer Squadron fire department crew manager. "I personally know several who were British veterans of the Korean War, and they have friends who were left behind there."

While many of those missing-in-action Service members have been confirmed as killed, Beal said many have yet to be transported home, and some are still unaccounted for.

"We are running in full gear to remember what these people did - the sacrifices they made," he said. "We also remember what some of them might still be going through."

Days turned to weeks, weeks to months and months rolled by into years as the pilot survived through periods of favorable and unfavorable treatment. Once his captors learned his father was a Navy admiral, the pilot was given access to medical treatment that ultimately saved his life. However, despite his overall health improvement, the torture and abuse continued.

"They would beat the hell out of me and say I was going to see a delegation," the pilot said. "I'd respond that I'd see a delegation, but I would not say anything against my country and I would not say anything about my treatment and if asked, I'd tell them the truth about the conditions I was kept under."

The North Vietnamese never took him to see a delegation and the maltreatment continued.

"I was down to 105, 110 pounds, boils all over me, suffering dysentery," he said. "Finally came the day I'll never forget - the 18th of December, 1972. The whole place exploded when the Christmas bombing ordered by President Nixon began. They hit Hanoi right off the bat."

By late January of 1973, the pilot and his fellow POWs knew the end of the war was near. Conditions had improved dramatically, until March 15 when they boarded buses bound for Gia Lam Airport.

"When I read your name off, you get on the plane and go home," a guard said.

Until then, the pilot had not allowed himself anything more than a feeling of "cautious hope." However, the reality of the situation sank in when his name was called: John McCain.

"There is no way I can describe how I felt as I walked toward that U.S. Air Force plane," McCain said. "I think America is a better country now because we have been through a sort of purging process, a re-evaluation of ourselves. Now I see more of an appreciation of our way of life."

McCain said the personal support he received from family, friends and strangers has been overwhelming.

"I've received scores of letters from young people, and many of them sent me POW bracelets with my name on it," he said. "This outpouring on behalf of us who were prisoners of war is staggering, and a little embarrassing because basically we felt that we are just average American Navy, Marine and Air Force pilots who got shot down. Anybody else in our place would have performed just as well."

For more photos from the RAF Alconbury POW/MIA run, visit the 501st Combat Support Wing's official Flickr page.

Editor's Note: Excerpts from U.S. Senator John McCain's story of survival were taken from his personal account, published May 1973 by U.S. News.