Forty-five years ago, a peace agreement among nations freed nearly 600 U.S. servicemembers from prisons in North Vietnam. The three-phase repatriation effort was dubbed Operation Homecoming. These four POWs say strong faith was the key to freedom and coming home.
Capt. Eugene “Red” McDaniel
Capt. Red McDaniel, USN (Ret), had made it.
The eldest of eight children born to tenant farmers in the throes of the Great Depression, McDaniel had gone to college on an athletic scholarship, joined the Navy, and learned to fly. McDaniel's chosen path would eventually take him into battle - which was to be expected in 1955, two years out from Korea and a decade removed from World War II.
In 1966, McDaniel, a husband and father of three, began flying combat missions aboard his A-6A Intruder over south Vietnam. On May 19, 1967, during an Alpha strike during Operation Rolling Thunder, his plane exploded near Hanoi.
“I was on top of the world,” McDaniel says, and in an instant, he was plummeting from his place in it, ejecting into a communist jungle and falling 30 feet from a banyan tree. The impact left him with two crushed vertebrae. For 26 hours, he crawled around the jungle floor, partially paralyzed.
On the second day, the Vietnamese captured him and transported him to the Hanoi Hilton. McDaniel would not come out for six years.
Mike McDaniel was 12 when his father's plane disappeared over Vietnam. He can recall every moment of that day. The beauty of the late spring afternoon. The excitement of an impending weekend. A dozen cars in the driveway as he neared home, which didn't strike him as too unusual. The two dozen people inside, which did.
His mother told Mike he would be spending the night with Mrs. Miles, a family friend. When Mrs. Miles took him to High's Ice Cream and told him he could get anything he wanted, he knew for certain something was wrong.
Back at home the next day, Mike greeted his mother with a giant wad of bubble gum in his cheek. “Let me hold your bubble gum,” Dorothy McDaniel told her son. “What I am going to tell you is going to make you cry.”
The next three years passed in a blur of meetings with naval intelligence, watching hours of film footage from Vietnam, in which they searched for any sign of Capt. Eugene McDaniel. There had been no word of him since that fateful mission in May 1967.
During McDaniel's first two weeks in Hanoi, prison guards tortured him for military information he didn't have. The treatment was not uncommon for POWs.
The worst of the torture came two years into his captivity, in June 1969, after an organized escape attempt by fellow prisoners. McDaniel was not directly involved, but he refused to name those who were. He spent more than two weeks in isolation. Guards beat him, bound him with ropes, deprived him of sleep, and punished him with electrical shocks.
Yet that was not the worst of it. (Neither was the starvation.) It was existing in a vacuum, day after day, week after week. Month after month. Year after year. It was as if he'd entered a time warp. McDaniel's memory became keen. He learned Spanish, French, and German in what the prisoners dubbed Hanoi University. He committed 65 poems to memory, led a weekly Sunday religious service, and learned a communication system developed by American POWs in which a message could travel through 69 walls and back again in 24 hours.
“The greatest threat was whiling away the time,” he says.
So he learned to take it hour by hour, to cling to the only thing his captors could not take - “your will to believe. Your faith. We had very few atheists in those prison cells.”
In 1970, three years after McDaniel's capture, the Hanoi government released his name as a POW - the first confirmation to his family back home that he'd survived the 1967 crash.
During his final three years in Hanoi, he says, “I existed and languished and waited for rescue.”
On March 4, 1973, Dorothy McDaniel snapped a Polaroid picture of her three sleeping children before waking them to watch their father's plane land on live TV. Mike McDaniel recognized his father by the way he walked - tall, lanky, adjusting his belt buckle.
For the former POW, it was like someone hit the play button on his life, and then hit fast forward. “We received the homecoming and the recognition and all the glory that [the other servicemembers] should have gotten,” McDaniel says.
McDaniel was awarded the Navy's second highest award for bravery, the Navy Cross, as well as two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars with Combat Valor, and two Purple Hearts for wounds he received in captivity. He went on to command a Navy ship and an aircraft carrier and retired in 1982, the same year he released a book, Scars and Stripes: The True Story of One Man's Courage in Facing Death as a Vietnam POW (WND Books).
For Mike McDaniel, the father who came home was little changed from the man he knew before the war. McDaniel had done more than reconcile the six years he'd lost; he'd found purpose in it.
“People ask why would a great God who is all-powerful allow that to happen,” he says. “God is more concerned with our character than our comfort. We are more sympathetic and more empathetic for experiencing hardship. God doesn't cause this to happen but allows it to happen. He has used it in powerful ways. It prepared me for adversity and tragedy. I have very few bad days.”
Col. Robert Certain
Every year, the strain began around Thanksgiving and lingered until Holy Week. That was not unusual for a clergyman. These were, after all, demanding times of year.
Before he attended seminary and received a master of divinity degree, before he was ordained as a priest in 1976, and before he served as a military chaplain, retired Air Force Col. Robert Certain was a combat aviator in Vietnam. He'd flown 100 missions in Southeast Asia when his B-52 was shot down over Hanoi Dec. 19, 1972, during the massive Christmas Bombing campaign.
Certain avoided parachuting directly into the exploding bombs, but he couldn't avoid capture. He spent 101 days as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. The experience, he told himself year after year, hadn't affected him.
“I didn't feel like I qualified as a Vietnam veteran or POW because I was not there that long, and I was never really tortured,” Certain says.
Yet in many ways, the war, the crash, and the captivity, had changed the course of Certain's life - or at least set him on the path he always felt he was meant to take.
He'd first considered ministry as a teenager. He also wanted to fly. He chose the Air Force, commissioning in 1969. Certain had been married six weeks when he headed to war; the final mission came on the day his crew was set to go home.
After Certain's release from Vietnam, a personnel officer told Certain he could have any job he wanted - so long as he was medically fit for it.
“I never would have been allowed to go to seminary on active duty had I not been a POW. A bishop sponsored me because I was a POW,” Certain says. “People think POWs are special people, which is not necessarily what we think.”
Vietnam, he says, “gave me insight into empathizing with people who found themselves in difficult times. It made me appreciate life a lot more. Three of my crew members died that night. In order to honor their sacrifice, I knew I needed to live my life with even greater integrity, honor, and service.”
Certain had been home from Vietnam for a decade when he realized the anxiety that began in late November and lasted until spring bookended his time as a POW.
“In 2001, when 9/11 happened, I discovered all those old emotions I normally felt between Thanksgiving and Easter began in September,” Certain says. He started writing his story - Unchained Eagle (Etc Pubns, 2003) - and received eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. Three decades after Vietnam, “I was finally able to break the cycle.”
Certain retired from the Air Force in 1999. He served parishes from Georgia to Texas to California until 2012. When former President Gerald Ford died in 2006, Certain led his memorial services and presided over his burial.
Today, he serves on MOAA's board of directors and lives in Texas with his wife of 46 years.
Col. Thomas “Jerry” Curtis
When he talks about it - the fourth and final rescue mission over Vietnam in the Huskie helicopter the Air Force taught him to fly, the ground fire, the impact, the capture, the torture, the waiting - retired Col. Jerry Curtis returns to a place it would be easier to forget. But he will tell you.
He will tell you about the horror of a year in solitary confinement, the pain he suffered when he refused to cooperate with his captors, the three years that passed without hearing a single American aircraft.
Telling you, Curtis says, is the bargain he made with God when he realized how much people still long to know about his time as a POW.
Curtis was in his second year at the University of Houston when the Air Force selected him for pilot training. He'd only ever been in a plane once. He got his commission in 1954. Eleven years later, he said goodbye to his wife and their two children, ages 7 and 4, to head to war.
His mission in Vietnam: combat search and rescue. On Sept. 20, 1965, Curtis and crew took off in search of Capt. Willis Forby, who'd been captured after his fighter was hit by ground fire. The rescue helicopters came to rest in a treetop, where Curtis and his team were discovered and delivered to the Hanoi Hilton.
Clinging to his faith in God, Curtis never gave up hope that he would go home. He refused to let his captivity define who he was inside.
“I had faith in myself that I was up to this task. I developed faith in my fellow POW that he was going to do everything he could to resist. I had faith in my country that they were going to do all that they could to get me out,” Curtis says. “Our war became trying to resist what they were trying to get us to do.”
The war ended Feb. 12, 1973. When Curtis boarded a C-141, it was alongside Forby, the downed pilot he'd tried to rescue so many years before. When he came back, his children were 14 and 11.
Today, Curtis is 85, a doting grandfather of three, and a member of MOAA. He retired from the military after 25 years and became a teacher. He shares his story whenever he is asked. But just as he had inside the prison cell, he refuses to let it define him.
Col. Leon “Lee” Ellis
When his F-4C Phantom was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, Ellis considered himself lucky. He was 24 and single - no children back home who would mark birthdays and baseball games without a father.
Ellis considered himself lucky that the torture - the beatings, his body contorted into stress positions until he collapsed - ended 2½ years into his 5½ years as a POW in the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. He had the luxury of accepting the uncertainty of the future because he still had a chance at one. He had a network of POWs who helped keep his mind active and his body fit in the bleakest conditions. And, Ellis says, he had a sharp memory, made all the more clear by the monotony of captivity.
Ellis would call on that memory when writing his book, Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton (FreedomStar, 2014), with a forward by Sen. John McCain, who'd been shot down 11 days before Ellis.
In 1967, Ellis was a young fighter pilot headed to war. Four months into his combat tour, on his 53rd mission, he was catapulted into the hands of Vietnamese militia when his fighter was shot down.
The first six months were the hardest because of hunger, beatings, cold, and “fighting off fear of what might happen,” he says.
Ellis told himself he could hold out for six months. That he would be out in time to go to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. When that came and went, he told himself he could last one more year. Then two more.
When the torture stopped, Ellis became a lead communicator among the captives. He memorized poetry and learned Spanish and did push-ups on the floor of his prison cell. In this way, the time passed.
“We had goals. It was life. We lived that way,” Ellis says.
Finally, on March 14, 1973, he was released. The man who came out was settled and serious. He was overwhelmed by the simplest of decisions and the sheer volume of choices - which toothpaste, cereal, or stereo shelving to buy.
But if the experience had taught Ellis anything, it was that he could endure.
Ellis rose to the rank of colonel and ended his military career where it began: at the University of Georgia, as commander of Air Force ROTC. He became a voracious reader, a lifelong learner, and an award-winning author, speaker, and consultant who shares the lessons he learned as a POW with organizations around the world. He is a man who still thinks about how lucky he is.