by Max Marbut
The memories are more than four decades old, but a pair of former prisoners of war who served in Southeast Asia brought their history to life Tuesday for the Rotary Club of South Jacksonville.
Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Byron Fuller, who is a member of the club, and retired Air Force Col. Carl Crumpler shared stories of how their friendship began and what it was like to be inmates at the notorious Hanoi Hilton POW camp in North Vietnam.
Fuller said at 4:40 p.m. on July 14, 1967, his life changed forever. He was on his 110th mission and leading an attack group of 35 aircraft that were in the sky over North Vietnam with intentions to bomb a bridge near Hanoi.
“The SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) were up and ready for us that day,” said Fuller.
His aircraft was hit and as soon as Fuller ejected, gunners on the ground began firing tracer rounds at him and through his parachute. Fuller said by the time he hit the ground “like a ton of bricks” the parachute was not only badly perforated but also smoldering.
He was taken prisoner immediately and by midnight, Fuller was being tortured in what he called the “meat hook room” at the prison.
“They knew the Navy was dropping the first ‘smart bombs’ in the world,” said Fuller. “That’s all they wanted to know about, but I couldn’t give them any information because I didn’t know anything. They worked on me pretty good for 10 days.”
After his interrogators gave up on learning anything from him, they carried Fuller on a stretcher to a cell where he laid on the floor for two days, he said. Then another prisoner was also put in the cell and nursed Fuller back to health, including setting his broken arm and knee.
“I’ll never forget him – Wayne Waddell,” said Fuller. “After 100 days they took Wayne out of the cell and then I was in solitary confinement for 25 months.”
Crumpler recalled how in October 1968, President Lyndon Johnson had become “disenchanted” with the air war and called it off.
“But that didn’t help me because on 5 July, I had become a guest at the Hanoi Hilton,” he said.
The two were put in the same cell on Nov. 27, 1969, said Fuller.
“It took about a nanosecond to find out we were both from Jacksonville,” he added. “Carl went to Lee High School and I attended Landon. We decided to have a reunion but no other class members would join us in Hanoi.”
Both men recalled what happened after U.S. Special Forces attempted an ill-fated rescue mission to free the aviators in the Hanoi prison. It caused their captors to evacuate all the men to another location where hundreds of POWs were divided into groups and placed in seven large cells.
“We had 47 guys in our room and we were there for 87 days until we had a riot and they moved us back into separate cells,” said Fuller, who added one of the Navy pilots he and Crumpler met during that experience eventually became a U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate, John McCain. He wasn’t the only POW to achieve notable accomplishments after he returned home however.
“Five of the guys made admiral, one became a general and 40 made colonel or captain,” said Fuller.
Crumpler also spoke of what was going on back home while he and Fuller were incarcerated.
“By October 1968, 400 air crewmen were being held prisoner around Hanoi. Stop and think about their families scattered all across the country,” he said. “(President Richard) Nixon tried to suppress their questions about their family members who were POWs or missing in action, so the wives and families started forming local organizations.”
The grass roots efforts in cities all over the country eventually led to the founding of the national League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Crumpler said in January, 1970, a pilot based at Cecil Field was shot down and his wife became active in the organization.
Crumpler described the pilot’s wife, Mary Hoff, as “Jacksonville’s Betsy Ross” because she was instrumental in the creation of the iconic POW-MIA flag that has become a part of American culture.
“You see it everywhere,” said Crumpler. “It has flown over the White House and over our embassies all over the world. You see it on the back of motorcycle jackets. It’s the only flag that’s been displayed in the rotunda at the U.S Capitol and it has become a symbol of every war, not just Vietnam.”
Both men agreed the best time they spent as POWs was the 11-day period around Christmas in 1972 when they and their fellow prisoners could hear ordnance dropped on Hanoi by American bombers exploding.
“We cheered and we cried,” said Crumpler. “When we heard the B-52s we knew the war was over because America was committed. It was the greatest day of our lives because we knew it was just a matter of time before we’d be going home.”