POWs that Returned with Honor
Editor’s Note: All wars are different and require their own strategy and tactics. The Weasels who became prisoners of war had to fight an enemy steeped in torture and on a minute by minute basis. They did that and were able to Return with Honor intact. This is our tribute to their courage, resilience and fortitude!
Colonel John J. Pitchford
Capt John J. Pitchford was the longest serving Wild Weasel POW from Vietnam. Colonel Pitchford was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965 and taken to Hoa Lo prison. He became the first Weasel pilot taken prisoner after bailing out of his F-100 Super Sabre on Dec. 20, 1965.
During his capture, Colonel Pitchford was shot in the arm three times, and the man flying with him, Bob Trier, was killed in a gun battle on the ground. In a 2005 interview with the Natchez Democrat newspaper, the pilot recalled his time at war and the torture some of the Americans endured, including being hung from the ceiling by their feet.
“War is hell,” he said at the time. “It truly is hell. There are no winners and no losers.”
John A. Dramesi, who wrote the book “Code of Honor” in the 1970s about his experiences in the camp, said Colonel Pitchford gave him what little food he had as Dramesi prepared for what would be anunsuccessful escape attempt.
Colonel Pitchford never fully recovered from his injuries, but never regretted his service to his country, his brother said. “His achievement in life was really sustaining himself through the ordeal in prison camp, and he considered himself a very fierce resistor,” Jim Pitchford said.
“The one thing I would like to convey to the American people is that no matter what happens in one’s lifetime, one must never lose faith in the United States of America. Ours is a great country indeed. We must continue to rededicate ourselves to the principles that have made it great. I, as a POW, was sustained by my faith in God, country and by the hardships (much worse than my own) that were endured by many of my fellow POWs.”
Captain Robert J Sandvick
Captain Sandvick was the pilot in the lead F-105 of a two-ship hunter-killer team assigned to patrol the heavily defended Kep Airfield in search of hostile surface-to-air missile sites. On “Black Sunday” (7 August, 1966), of six U.S. aircraft shot down over North Vietnam, five were F-105s from the 355 TFW, two of which were F-105F Wild Weasels from the 354 TFS. “Twenty-nine SAMs were fired by the enemy, and although only three airplanes were hit by SAMs, the great number launched caused the pilots to take evasive action which placed them in vulnerable positions to flak.” (355 TFW History)
“About 15 miles from Kep, North Vietnam, Capt Sandvick (Duke Lead) called that he had contact with both SAMs and AAA. Approximately 5 miles from Kep, Duke Lead called a missile launch and started a right climbing turn. At approximately 3,000 feet, he made a left turn back toward the missile site to launch a SHRIKE missile. At this point Duke Flight encountered heavy barrage and tracking AAA. Duke 2 observed many 85-mm and 100-mm shells exploding around Duke Lead’s aircraft. Duke Lead and Duke2 then began a left climbing turn to get above the broken cloud layers and at this point Duke 2 lost visual contact with Duke Lead. Shortly after entering the cloud layers, Duke Lead called that his aircraft had been hit and would be ejecting soon.”
The Wild Weasel crew of Capt Robert James Sandvick and his EWO Capt Thomas Shaw Pyle II shot down on 7 August 1966 were released pm 4 March 1973. After his release Sandvick wrote, “The years spent in North Vietnam prisons seem, in some respects, a nightmare, the length of which is sometimes hard to realize. What most realistically brings back the length of time spent there are the changes seen when I returned: our four-year-old son, now almost eleven; the changes in dress, prices, sports, and so many other things; the many things that others have done or seen and, for the most part forgotten, that have to be explained to me. “In many ways I believe our families had it more difficult than we did. I think that one of the most inhumane things the Vietnamese did was not to inform our families, through the United States government, of our being captured. We knew we were there and in what condition we were; but, in most cases, our families didn’t. We knew our families would be provided for and given whatever help was possible, but our families had no such assurance about us, even if they knew we were alive.
“Faith and hope are essential ingredients of life, and the more difficult the times, the greater they must be. My family, as well as the American people, justified my faith in them. So, to the American people I give my humble thanks for making it possible to return to my country in the manner that I did.”
Lt Col Thomas S. Pyle
Lt Col Pyle was shot down on 7 August 1966. On that date, Captain Pyle was the Electronic Warfare Officer in the lead F-105 of a two ship hunter killer team assigned to patrol the heavily defended Kep Airfield area in search of hostile surface-to-air missile sites. “Twenty-nine SAMs were fired by the enemy, and although only three airplanes were hit by SAMs, the great number launched caused the pilots to take evasive action which placed them in vulnerable positions to flak.” (355 TFW History) “Air Force F-105 strike pilots reported seeing 24 Soviet-built SAMs in flight during a single afternoon of August air strikes. Hit by 85-mm AAA while attacking a SAM site.
“On the morning of the 7th, Captains Bob Sandvick and Tom Pyle, flying an … Iron Hand mission, were hit by 85-mm fire almost directly over Kep airfield just north of Hanoi. They were forced to eject almost immediately.After spending 2,401 days in captivity, he was released during Operation Homecoming on March 4, 1973. Col Pyle retired from the Air Force on November 1, 1976.
At his funeral this year (2020) the family asked for in lieu of flowers, perform a good deal in his memory!
Capt Jose Luna
Capt Luna served as an F-105F Wild Weasel EWO with the 354th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing at Takhli Royal Thai AFB, Thailand, from November 1966 until he was forced to eject over North Vietnam and was taken as a Prisoner of War on March 10, 1967. The F-10F was hit in the right wing by 85-mm AAA while attacking SAM site VN-126 near the Thai Nguyen steel mill. The aircraft had just fired a missile at an SA-2 site then two seconds later the aircrews heard a crack on the left side of the Thunderchief F-105. The shell didn’t explode, but it ripped into the main structural spur of the left wing, nearly flaying it from the fuselage. The airplane crashed in Route Pak 6, North Vietnam with his pilot Maj David Everson who became a POW. Capt Jose David Luna 354 TFS EWO became a POW. They were both released on 4 March 193 after spending 2,187 days in captivity.
Colonel Dave Everson
Major Dave Everson was flying as Lincoln lead for a 4 ship of two EF-105Fs armed with Shrikes and CBUs, plus two F-105Ds armed with bombs. “The target was important. Thai Nguyen produced about forty percent of the steel in North Vietnam. But they defended it with what seemed like a hundred percent of the guns and SAMs”, from Dethlefsen Medal of Honor story. Major Everson had just fired a missile at his target then two seconds later heard a crack on the left side of his Thunderchief F-105. The shell didn’t explode, but it ripped into the main structural spur of his left wing, nearly flaying it from the fuselage. The airplane crashed in Route Pak 6, North Vietnam with his pilot Maj David Everson who became a POW. Capt Jose David Luna 354 TFS EWO became a POW. They were both released on 4 March 193 after spending 2,187 days in captivity.
Major Everson on his return home, “The tremendous welcome that I had and the other returned POWs have received makes me feel very proud and at the same time very humble. I know many men have been killed or crippled in this war. Very few of the men who returned earlier received half the welcome accorded the POWs. I hope we will all remember the families of these men and try to insure that their children will have the same opportunities that your children and mine will have. I was very happy and proud on the day of mv release because we were able to return home with pride. Thank you for all your kindness and God bless you all.”
Major Thomas Madison
Major Madison was flying a Wild Weasel mission in North Vietnam on 19 April 1967 when his F-105F was hit by MiG gunfire over Xuan Mai barracks, North Vietnam. The aircraft crashed in RP-6A 30 nautical miles southwest of Hanoi, North Vietnam. Maj Thomas Mack Madison and Maj Thomas James Sterling, EWO ejected. They were released 4 Mar 73, after spending 2,147 days in captivity.
From his Silver Star Citation, “Major Thomas M. Madison distinguished himself by gallantry in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force as an F-105F Pilot near Hanoi, North Vietnam on 19 April 1967. On that date, with complete disregard for his personal safety, Major Madison aggressively engaged surface-to-air missile sites threatening the fighter-bomber force in the target area, and successfully placed his ordnance directly on a surface-to-air missile installation.”
Major Thomas J. Sterling
On April 19, 1967, Kingfish flight (three F-105F Weasel aircraft and an F-105D single-seater) were flying a Wild Weasel SAM suppression mission near Hanoi. The strike force target was JCS target 22.00, the Xuan Mai army training compound. Kingfish Flight led by Leo Thorness and EWO Capt Harold Johnson directed Kingfish 03 and 04, the second element of F-105s, to troll north while he and Kingfish 02 maneuvered south, forcing defending gunners to divide their attention. Thorsness located two SAM sites and fired a Shrike missile to attack one, whose radar went off the air. He destroyed the second with cluster bombs, scoring a direct hit.
Kingfish 02, crewed by Majors Thomas M. Madison and Thomas J. Sterling was hit by anti-aircraft fire and both crewmen had to eject. Major Sterling’s citation reads “Major Sterling calmly and aggressively manipulated his electronic detection gear to assist in engaging surface-to-air missile sites threatening the fighter-bomber force in the target area, and directly contributed to the successful placement of ordnance on a surface-to-air missile installation.” Kingfish 03 and 04 had been attacked by MiG-17s flying a low-altitude wagon wheel defensive formation and with engine problems had to disengage and return to base. Rescue aircraft in the area were engaged by Mig 17s and Kingfish 01 engaged two different Migs during rescue attempts. The rescues were unsuccessful.
Because of the proximity to Hanoi, Majors Madison and Sterling were captured and imprisoned right away. After spending 2,147 days in captivity, LtCol Sterling was released during Operation Homecoming on March 4, 1973.
Captain Alton Meyer
Hit by a SAM on 26 April 1967 on an Iron Hand mission against the Hanoi transformer station (JCS 82.24). Crashed in RP-6A, North Vietnam. Maj John Francis Dudash 333 TFS pilot was KIA in the crash. Capt Alton Benno Meyer 333 TFS EWO became a POW. Released 4 Mar 73
From Capt Meyer, “As we flew above the clouds, a missile came out of the clouds below us and detonated just above us. That put a lot of holes in my canopy and our plane. There was so much fire and smoke that I couldn’t see the instrument panel. I guess I pulled the ejection lever but I don’t remember doing it. The fire and smoke is the last thing I remember.”
From his Silver Star Citation, Captain Meyer was assigned the task of suppressing surface-to-air missile sites. In spite of heavy defenses and constant threat to his aircraft and in complete disregard for his own personal safety, Captain Meyer gave directional information and missile warnings to his pilot while they attacked a threatening missile site. His gallant efforts succeeded in enabling the strike force to destroy the target without suffering any losses.
Lieutenant Joseph Milligan
Lt Milligan deployed to Southeast Asia with the 433rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Ubon Royal Thai AFB, Thailand, in November 1966, and was forced to eject over North Vietnam while flying his 113th combat mission on May 20, 1967. He was immediately captured and after spending 2,101 days in captivity he was released during Operation Homecoming on February 18, 1973.
Silver Star Citation while a POW, “This officer distinguished himself by gallantry and intrepidity in action in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force during the above period while a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam. Ignoring international agreements on treatment of prisoners of war, the enemy resorted to mental and physical cruelties to obtain information, confessions, and propaganda materials. This individual resisted their demands by calling upon his deepest inner strengths in a manner which reflected his devotion to duty and great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.”
On his experience, ““If I had it all to do over again, I’d still volunteer to go,” he said. “I have no regrets and I’m not bitter about anything. I would truly consider myself privileged to have had the opportunity to serve my country. It’s been a big impact on the rest of my life; I lived through an experience that few people have and hope they would never have to, but it shaped me as an individual.”
Colonel Gobel James
In October 1967, Major James began flying combat missions in Southeast Asia in the F-105F Wild Weasel aircraft. After a short tour in Korea at the time of the USS Pueblo incident, he was stationed at Korat AB, Thailand. James was shot down over North Vietnam on July 15, 1968 and was immediately captured and taken as a Prisoner of War. I was on my 34th mission,” he remembers vividly, “Our job was to destroy surface-to-air missile sites.” When asked how he held it together during his POW time, James credits, “The law of survival. If you want to survive… you had no control… I never became discouraged, I always felt if I can live through it, then I’ll go home someday.”
His Legion of Merit citation states, “ His countless efforts, by a continuous showing of resistance to an enemy who ignored all international agreements on treatment of prisoners of war, in the extremely adverse conditions of the communist prisons of North Vietnam, demonstrated his professional competence, unwavering devotion, and loyalty to his country. Despite the harsh treatment through his long years of incarceration, this individual continued to perform his duties in a clearly exceptional manner.”
After spending 1,703 days in captivity, he was released during Operation Homecoming on March 14, 1973.
Captain James Cutter
Capt Cutter and Capt Fraser departed Korat RTAFB 17 Feb 72 at 1101 hours in a flight of two F-105G aircraft, call sign Junior 02, on a strike mission over North Vietnam. After supporting another flight in a strike mission, both aircraft turned southward. Approximately in the vicinity of the DMZ, Junior 02 called a contact, then contact down, and that he was approximately five miles north of Fingers Lake. One minute later, he said he was just north of Butterfly Lake. He then reported another contact and a valid launch. Approximately 30 seconds later, Junior 01 observed an explosion at 15,000 feet. It was reddish in color and did not appear as a normal SAM explosion. Junior 01 made transmissions on the working frequency and Guard. There was no response from Junior 02. Junior 01 remained in the area for seventeen more minutes. Nothing was seen or heard from Junior 02 during that time. SAR efforts began immediately and continued until 18 Feb 72. Nothing was sighted or found during the SAR effort. Crashed at sea off the coast of North Vietnam. Photographs and press releases from Hanoi on 19 Feb 72 indicated Capt Cutter and Capt Fraser had been captured.Capt James Dickerson Cutter became a POW. After spending 405 days in captivity, he was released during Operation Homecoming on March 28, 1973.
While a POW Capt Cutter earned a Bronze Star and the citation reads, “This officer distinguished himself by heroic achievement while detained as a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam. Major Cutter and three fellow officers planned and executed a sabotage operation disabling five enemy supply trucks used for anti-aircraft ammunition and other supplies, by placing sugar taken from food rations in the fuel tanks. All trucks were put out of service and one engine was destroyed. These acts of sabotage were undertaken with complete disregard for personal safety in the face of severe punishment by the Vietnamese, if caught.”
Captain Kenneth Fraser
Capt Cutter and Capt Fraser departed Korat RTAFB 17 Feb 72 at 1101 hours in a flight of two F-105G aircraft, call sign Junior 02, on a strike mission over North Vietnam. After supporting another flight in a strike mission, both aircraft turned southward. Approximately in the vicinity of the DMZ, Junior 02 called a contact, then contact down, and that he was approximately five miles north of Fingers Lake. One minute later, he said he was just north of Butterfly Lake. He then reported another contact and a valid launch. Approximately 30 seconds later, Junior 01 observed an explosion at 15,000 feet. It was reddish in color and did not appear as a normal SAM explosion. Junior 01 made transmissions on the working frequency and Guard. There was no response from Junior 02. Junior 01 remained in the area for seventeen more minutes. Nothing was seen or heard from Junior 02 during that time. SAR efforts began immediately and continued until 18 Feb 72. Nothing was sighted or found during the SAR effort. Crashed at sea off the coast of North Vietnam. Photographs and press releases from Hanoi on 19 Feb 72 indicated Capt Cutter and Capt Fraser had been captured.Capt Kenneth Fraser became a POW. After spending 405 days in captivity, he was released during Operation Homecoming on March 28, 1973.
Colonel William H. Talley
Major William H. Talley (WW# 554) and EWO Major James P. Padgett (WW# 557) flew as Icebag 04 in a flight of four F-105’s on Iron Hand mission #7474 supporting strikes against targets in North Vietnam on 11 May 1972 in support of Operation Linebacker. Talley and James Padgett the Electronics Warfare Officer were shot down by a MIG near Hanoi. The flight had just dodged 6 SA-2 SAM missiles in a barrage fire mode when the Migs attacked.
A MiG-21 fired three ATOLL missiles and shot down Icebag 04, an F-105G Wild Weasel. Two MiGs flew overhead and then two more attacked the F-105s from below. There were no warnings from RED CROWN or DISCO of the two MiG-21s that attacked from below.
From Col (retired) Talley, “We were only 25 miles (from Hanoi) … when we bailed out. I had stayed with the plane as long as possible before ejection so that we would be far enough away for a rescue. When I saw the mountains ahead of us, I did not think we had enough altitude to clear them. I asked Jim if he was ready to go, and he said we are over a village. I rolled the plane over and saw a small village, looked ahead at the mountain, and lifted up my feet so that we could clear it. We cleared the mountain and flew into a valley with no more room to maneuver, then ejected about 1500′ above the ground.”
The pair evaded North Vietnamese Army search parties for about eighteen hours but were subsequently captured and taken as Prisoners of War to the “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp. Talley spent 322 days in harsh captivity and was released during Operation Homecoming on 28 March 1973.
From Col Talley, “My most difficult time in prison was the first few months after capture. The fear of the unknown was nearly overwhelming. Not knowing what would happen next, and considering how long I might be in prison were very depressing thoughts. My faith in God and prayer gave me strength to adjust to the conditions. Although my life as a prisoner was miserable, I can’t say that the time was entirely wasted. A person develops a new perspective towards life and his fellow man when he can personally witness people caring for and administering to sick or wounded under the most severe conditions. I have seen hungry men give up what little food they had to help a companion, and I have seen cold men share the few clothes they had with sick or injured prisoners.Perhaps the most impressive sight was to see men fashion a simple cross from two sticks and in their own way offer God thanks for the blessings they had.”
Col James W. O'Neil
Lt.Col. James W. O’Neil was the pilot and Capt. Michael J.
Bosiljevac the EWO (Electronic Warfare Officer) of an F105G jet fighter which was shot down by a Soviet SAM (Surface to Air Missile) on September 29, 1972 while attacking a Fan Song Radar. Both Bosiljevac and O’Neil ejected successfully, and landed 23 miles southwest of Hanoi. A rescue attempt was unsuccessful. Radio Hanoi/Moscow/Cuba reported the capture of both “pilots” alive on 29 September 1972. O’Neil was subsequently transferred to Hoa Lo(the “Hanoi Hilton”) and repatriated March 29, 1973. Released 29 Mar 73.
Col O’Neil’s citation reads, “Lieutenant Colonel James W. O’Neil distinguished himself by gallantry in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force as an F-105G Pilot near Phuc Yen Airfield, North Vietnam, on 29 September 1972. On that date, while supporting air strikes against enemy storage areas, Colonel O’Neil repeatedly exposed himself to enemy antiaircraft defenses in order to draw fire away from nearby American forces. With complete disregard for his own safety, Colonel O’Neil continued to engage a surface-to-air missile site despite indications of a missile accurately tracking his aircraft. This courageous and aggressive attack enabled the strike forces to penetrate the target area defenses, successfully complete their mission, and safely withdraw.”
Both Bosiljevac and O’Neil ejected successfully, and landed 23 miles southwest of Hanoi. Radio Hanoi/Moscow/Cuba reported the capture of both “pilots” alive (FIBIS) on 29 September 1972. O’Neil was subsequently transferred to Hoa Lo (the “Hanoi Hilton”) and repatriated March 29, 1973.
Capt Harold Johnson
Capt Johnson began flying combat missions in Southeast Asia as an F-105 Wild Weasel Electronic Warfare Officer with the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Takhli Royal Thai AFB, Thailand, in October 1966, and he was forced to eject over North Vietnam while flying his 93rd combat mission on April 30, 1967, and was immediately captured and taken as a Prisoner of War. 11 days before his final mission, Capt Johnson and his pilot, Maj Leo Thorsness, were credited with the destruction of a MIG-17 in aerial combat. After spending 2,135 days in captivity, Maj Johnson was released during Operation Homecoming on March 4, 1973.
His Air Force Cross Citation reads:
“Captain Harold E. Johnson distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism as Electronics Warfare Officer of an F-105 aircraft engaged in a prestrike, missile suppression mission over North Vietnam on 19 April 1967. On that date, Captain Johnson guided his pilot in attacking and destroying a surface-to-air missile installation with an air-to-ground missile. Through his technical skill, he immediately detected a second missile complex and guided the pilot into visual contact. Diving into a deadly barrage of antiaircraft fire, his aircraft bombed and successfully destroyed this site. In the attack on this second missile site, a wingman was shot down by the intense antiaircraft fire, and the crew members were forced to abandon their aircraft. Flying through hostile missile threats, Captain Johnson’s aircraft engaged and destroyed a MIG-17 while attacking a superior MIG force. He aided in the rescue efforts for the downed crew, engaged additional MIGs, and damaged one in the encounter.”
Colonel Leo Thorsness
On April 30, 1967, on their 93rd mission (seven shy of completing their tours), Thorsness and Johnson were shot down by a MiG-21 over North Vietnam while flying aircraft F-105F, AF Ser. No. 62-4447. While still inbound over northwest North Vietnam, communications were disrupted when an ejection seat emergency beeper went off aboard one of the F-105s. Despite being observed by early warning radar locations, two MiG-21s approached Carbine flight from behind and unseen. Just as Thorsness got an instrument indication that the flight was being painted by airborne radar, he saw an F-105 going down in flames that eventually was identified as his own wingman, Carbine 04 shot down by an Atoll missile. Within a minute, his own aircraft was also hit with a heat-seeking missile fired by the MiGs. Thorsness and Johnson ejected. Separated from each other by a ridge, they were the object of a three-hour rescue effort involving the entire strike force as a covering force which ultimately was unsuccessful. Thorness uncooperativeness towards his captors earned him a year in solitary confinement and severe back injuries due to torture. The Medal of Honor was awarded to Thorsness during his captivity, but not announced until his release in 1973 to prevent the Vietnamese from using it against Thorsness, as was the Air Force Cross awarded to Capt Johnson for the same mission. Thorsness was released on March 4, 1973, during Operation Homecoming.
Col Thorness link to book “Surviving Hell”:
Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey by Leo Thorsness
Major James P. Padgett
Maj Padgett served as an F-105 EWO with the 561st Tactical Fighter Squadron at McConnell AFB, Kansas, from July 1970 to April 1972, and then deployed as an F-105G Wild Weasel EWO with the 17th Wild Weasel Squadron to Korat Royal Thai AFB from April 1972 until he was forced to eject over North Vietnam and was taken as a Prisoner of War on May 11, 1972. After spending 322 days in captivity, he was released during Operation Homecoming on March 28, 1973.
His 2nd Silver Star Citation reads:
“Captain James P. Padgett distinguished himself by gallantry in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force over North Vietnam on 8 May 1967. On that date, Captain Padgett was Electronic Warfare Officer in the lead aircraft of a flight of F-105 Thunderchiefs providing surface-to-air missile suppression for a large strike force. Despite intense and accurate flak and an attack by surface-to-air missiles, Captain Padgett assisted in the attack on two hostile missile sites, resulting in damage to one and total destruction of the other.”