Read Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War Online

Authors: Bruce Henderson

Tags: #Prisoners of war, #Vietnam War, #Prisoners and prisons, #Vietnam War; 1961-1975, #Southeast Asia, #20th Century, #Modern, #Dengler; Dieter, #Asia, #General, #United States, #Prisoners of war - United States, #Laos, #Biography & Autobiography, #Military, #Vietnam War; 1961-1975 - Prisoners and prisons; Laotian, #Biography, #History

Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War

BOOK: Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War
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Hero Found

The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War

Bruce Henderson

 

 

For Conrad “Connie” Liberty,
Ranger
shipmate and friend for life

Contents

1
“Born a Gypsy”

2
America

3
Training for Flight

4
The Swordsmen

5
Gray Eagle Goes to War

6
Shootdown

7
Will to Survive

8
“We’ll Run Out of Pilots”

9
Prisoners of War

10
South China Sea

11
Escape

12
To the Rescue

13
Returning Hero

14
Alive and Free

 

I grew up believing in heroes.
For me, they were always pilots.

It began with U.S. Army Air Corps pilot, 2nd Lt. Robert G. Silva, my maternal grandmother’s youngest offspring. Bob went missing on March 4, 1944, when his P-51-B Mustang—named
Hi-Yo Silva
, mimicking the Lone Ranger’s command to his steed Silver on the popular radio show—dropped out of formation at 22,000 feet in a heavy overcast above the North Sea. His squadron—the 353rd Fighter Squadron of the 354th Fighter Group, which finished the war as the highest-scoring fighter squadron in the European theater, with 295 air victories—was returning to Boxted airfield in eastern England after escorting B-17 Flying Fortresses on the first daylight bombing raid over Berlin. The daring mission, involving hundreds of Allied bombers and fighters, marked a “turning point of the war,” according to the mission’s bomber wing commander, Col. H. Griffin Mumford. Thereafter, bombing runs flew day and night over the heartland of Germany until that country’s unconditional surrender seventeen months later. The March 4 mission, the subject of a six-column front-page headline in the
New York Times
(“800 U.S. Bombers Smash at Berlin by Day”), proved historic for another reason: with the loss of twenty-three fighters, “most due to the [bad] weather rather than the enemy,” it was to be the costliest day of the war for U.S. fighter squadrons in the skies over Europe.

Born the year after the war ended, I spent the fondest days of my youth at my grandmother Daisy’s rambling and always welcoming Victorian home at 1522 Lincoln Avenue in tree-lined Alameda, California, a small island community in the San Francisco Bay next to Oakland. I was no more than eight or nine years old when I first opened a brown-striped suitcase
kept in a closet in the middle bedroom, formerly my grandfather’s room but after his death a place to keep trunks, boxes, and a treadle sewing machine at which my grandmother mended, shortened, and cuffed. The suitcase had been Bob’s—used in his travels from home while he attended the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California, where he finished a civilian pilot training course before joining the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet in the summer of 1942 at age twenty-two.

The old suitcase was a boy’s treasure trove. Initially, what interested me the most was the pilot paraphernalia: leather-rimmed goggles, a helmet of soft leather with padded chamois lining, leather gloves, a silk scarf, silver aviator wings, and two padded boxes each containing a tiny, folded U.S. flag atop a shiny military decoration. One was the Purple Heart, given to any member of the military wounded or killed in action. The other was an Air Medal, awarded “for heroic or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.” I was particularly taken with the design of the latter: the bronze medallion had a swooping eagle clutching a lightning bolt in each talon. Also in the suitcase was my uncle’s pocket-size address book. Tucked inside the back flap was a stick of Dentyne gum, hard and no doubt unchewable. My grandmother always had a new pack of gum waiting for me whenever I arrived, and despite the many brands of gum in the world it was always Dentyne. I never knew why until that moment.

Throughout the years I would regularly slip into the middle bedroom and open the suitcase. In time, I read all the letters my grandmother kept inside—more than 100 of Bob’s letters home from his earliest days in army flight training until his last letter written three days before his final mission. On the front of that envelope my grandmother wrote that she had received it on March 13, 1944, and added, “My last letter from my darling.”

March 1, 1944

Dear Mom—

Received two letters from you today—I’m happy again! I’m glad you’re all so proud—but like I told you once before Mom—everything I am, or hope to be, I owe to you and Pop. Think Abe Lincoln said that once, regardless—I mean it too!

Another medal today to my credit—I now can wear the “Oak Leaf Cluster.” It’s a little bronzed leaf you wear on your Air Medal, signifying you’ve earned the Air Medal a second time. Two more Oak Leaf Clusters to go, and then the D.F.C. (Distinguished Flying Cross), the highest aviation award there is. But that’s wishful thinking—better not cross my bridges ’till I get to them.

Well, angel—late again—and expect another date in the clouds with Jerry tomorrow—so I’d better get some sleep.

All my love,
Bob

 

Three days after opening Bob’s last letter my grandmother received the dreaded Western Union wire from Washington, D.C., expressing the secretary of war’s “deep regret that your son has been reported missing in action.” That telegram, yellowed and wrinkled, was also in the suitcase. So was a typed letter from Bob’s commanding officer, Col. Jack T. Bradley, dated April 12, 1944, in answer to a letter my grandmother wrote seeking further information about her missing son. “Bob was missing after a Berlin raid and was last seen as the squadron was climbing through the clouds near the French coast,” wrote Bradley, who would finish the war as one of the top P-51 aces, with fifteen confirmed aerial kills. “We ran into some terrible weather that day and feel sure that Bob lost control of his ship in the clouds, as did several others. We broke into the clear to find that he was no longer with us. We were at a very high altitude and Bob had a good chance of getting out safely, even under the worst circumstances. Therefore we are all hoping to hear that he is a prisoner of war. Several men who did not seem to have as good a chance of surviving as Bob did have been reported captured by the enemy. Bob’s loss is greatly felt by the squadron. He has completed many successful missions against the enemy and has been awarded the Air Medal and Oak Leaf Cluster. His promotion to First Lieutenant came through only a few days after his last flight. The loss of a pilot with Bob’s experience and ability is in itself telling, but more than that we
miss Bob himself, as he was everyone’s friend and never seemed to lose his cheerfulness. If we receive any information at all about Bob, we will forward it to you without delay.”

The hope given to the family by the commanding officer’s letter dissipated when Bob was declared killed in action, although neither his body nor the wreckage of his aircraft was ever found. When the war ended, Bob’s wingman, David B. O’Hara, visited my grandparents in Alameda and filled in some details about Bob’s last flight. Bob had problems with his plane’s oxygen system, which had sent him back to the airfield shortly after takeoff for a quick repair. Taking off a second time, he rejoined the aerial armada bound for Berlin. O’Hara thought Bob’s oxygen problem might have recurred on the flight back to England as they crossed the North Sea at high altitude, causing him to lose consciousness. O’Hara saw Bob’s plane “oscillating more-or-less in a pendulum motion from one side of the formation to the other,” then shoot upward “at least 100 feet and stall out.” Trying to stay with his wingman, O’Hara hit full throttle and yanked on the stick, resulting in a snap roll and spin. When O’Hara regained control of his plane, Bob was gone.

My spirited and indomitable grandmother, who chased fire engines in her bright red 1952 Chevy coupe and at Christmas gave the best gifts under the tree, lived another forty years, to the venerable age of 101, but not once did I see her speak about her lost son without her eyes brimming with tears. In truth, it was not something I fully comprehended until I had my own children. Although my grandmother had three other children, including my mother, it was no secret that her youngest, Bob, to whom she gave birth in the front bedroom twenty-four years before his death, was special. Relatives and family friends shared similar feelings about Bob, who in a short span went from winning swimming and boxing medals in high school to flying combat missions over Europe. His was, of course, a generation of young men who died before their time in faraway places. My grandmother belonged to the Gold Star Mothers Club, a support group begun in the waning days of World War I by the mother of an airman killed in France. She hung in the front window a rectangular banner with a single gold star signifying her loss. I remember us visiting the nearby home of her friend
Violet Newhouse, who in her window had a banner with three gold stars. For my family, whose other menfolk returned from war unscathed, it began and ended with Bob. By all accounts he was our best, most likable, and most promising. Everyone could only speculate: what
would
Bob have done with his life? He was irreplaceable, and his loss unfathomable.

One day when I was in the fifth grade I created a fantasy about the uncle I never knew. It was one that I would secretly hold for years, and only reluctantly outgrow. The teacher, introducing the topic of world geography, passed out several books containing colorful maps. When one reached me, I found the page that showed the North Sea. With my fingertip I traced a line from Germany to England, and saw where the North Sea narrowed between landmasses. On the map, it looked as if Bob could not have gone down very far from a coastline. If he had parachuted from his plane, could he have made it ashore? Had he managed to float or swim to England he would probably have been identified, but what if he had washed up on the coast of occupied Europe? I looked out the bank of windows lining one side of the classroom. Gazing at the sky dotted with white cotton-candy clouds, I daydreamed. What if Uncle Bob had parachuted safely and made it ashore? Suppose he was injured and unable to talk? What if he had amnesia and didn’t remember his name? Suppose he had been picked up by friendly locals? Had he, without any memory of his past, settled in a small village after the war? I looked again at the map, studying the possibilities. It soon became clear what I must do. When I grew up, I would search for my lost uncle in France and elsewhere, showing people his picture. Somewhere, somehow, I would find him, and bring him home to my grandmother. Of course, I also very much wanted to find him for myself, so I could have the uncle I had never known.

One day not long afterward, I was on the playground of Dayton Elementary School during recess when a roar in the sky caused everyone to look up. A huge plane appeared overhead, lower than I had ever seen one fly. The pilot was visible in the cockpit. It seemed as if the plane would plunge into our schoolyard. As the deafening noise intensified, the nose suddenly came up and the aircraft passed above our heads. In no time there was a tremendous explosion, and a fireball rose from a nearby empty marsh.

The crash site was cordoned off by the police and then by the military for two days, as investigators and cleanup crews did their work. The local newspaper carried details of the incident. The plane was a two-engine air force C-119 Flying Boxcar with a pilot, a copilot, and three crewmen. The pilot was credited with guiding the cargo plane, which had lost an engine and was on fire, away from the school before crashing into a wide field near the eastern edge of San Francisco Bay. The heroic pilot and his crew died instantly.

At the first opportunity, I wandered through the field where the plane had crashed. Although no large pieces of wreckage remained, I was amazed at how many small metal, rubber, and nylon fragments were strewn on the ground. I picked up several, finding some scorched and bent but others as smooth and perfect as the day they were made. A fear gnawed at me: what if I found part of a human body? I decided they must have taken all that away. I came back to the field many times after that, always taking a small piece of the crash home with me. Airmen had died, suddenly and violently, here in a field where my friends and I played army with gas masks, helmets, and backpacks from a war surplus store. I thought about the pilot who had saved lives—my own included. Did his family miss him as much as mine missed Bob? Had he survived the war only to die in a field next to a school in peacetime? Still, I held on to my fervent hope that Bob had not come to a such a tragic end, but had somehow survived.

By the seventh grade, I had found my very own pilot living right next door. In the habitual absence of my father—a salesman who worked weekends and spent most nights drinking at a neighborhood bar until past my bedtime—and any other adult male relatives in my sphere, I followed around like a lost puppy one Richard “Dick” Templeton, a husky former U.S. Navy fighter pilot. After serving in World War II, he had stayed in the reserves; he flew one weekend a month at Alameda Naval Air Station. Like many reserve pilots, Dick got his monthly flight time in a twin-engine Beechcraft utility plane. One Saturday morning as he was leaving in uniform, Dick, a gregarious, full-of-the-devil type—one Halloween he came trick-or-treating to our door holding an empty martini glass—told me to be outside at high noon. Waiting expectantly, I heard the airplane before I saw
it. Then, it buzzed over low, banking sharply. Round and round it circled overhead. Kids and adults alike on the block joined me in waving at the plane being flown by
my
pilot. I was overjoyed, and very proud. Dick had a great way of topping himself, and before long I was with him in that navy utility plane taking my first airplane ride, buzzing my house.

When I was thirteen Dick invited me to my first air show, to see a performance of the navy’s Blue Angels. A few days before the event, I purchased a model kit of a Blue Angels’ Grumman F-11 Tiger. After I had glued together all the pieces, it was time to affix the decals, which included “U.S. Navy” and white pinstripes. Because there were six Blue Angels, the kit contained decal numbers 1 through 6 to put on the tail. I chose 3.

When we arrived at the Oakland Airport on Doolittle Drive, named after another heroic pilot—General Jimmy Doolittle, born in Alameda, who won the Medal of Honor for leading the first U.S. bombing attack of Japan only four months after Pearl Harbor—Dick took me to the front of the crowd. We stopped at a rope that cordoned off an area for the parked aircraft. The six Blue Angels were lined up in a row, the sun glinting off their polished navy-blue fuselages. Behind the rope stood their pilots in matching blue flight suits.

BOOK: Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War
12.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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