In a recent TSD article, I introduced readers to Jon Reynolds, but did not discuss in any detail his experience as a POW in North Vietnam. As Jon had said to me once, the POW story had been told by many others and he had decided soon after he was repatriated that he was not going to look back, but would always focus on the future. Considering Jon’s very successful career since repatriation, it is clear that this philosophy has served him well. But for me it is difficult to read books like “Defiant” or even titles of POW books like Jeremiah Denton’s “When Hell Was in Session” and not wonder what Jon endured or how he managed to survive those seven difficult years as a POW. In one of our conversations Jon mentioned to me that he did write a tribute to one of his fellow POWs, Col. Robert Purcell when he had died and that I might be able to learn more about his experience and the others by reading it. Jon titled his reflections on Purcell “The Cookie Caper,” and it ran on the Air Force Association website a year ago. It is published again below and provides a glimpse into the Jon’s trials, as well as the heroics of Col. Purcell.
THE COOKIE CAPER: IN HONOR OF COLONEL ROBERT B “PERCY” PURCELL
PRISONER OF WAR: NORTH VIETNAM, JULY 1965–FEBRUARY 1973
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 provided an opportunity for me to meet then Captain Bob “Percy” Purcell. At the time, almost every tactical fighter in the US was deployed to Florida. The Crisis reached its crescendo in mid-October, after which pilots and aircraft would return to their respective home bases. The pressure and excitement of possibly attacking Cuba was tapering off.
As I walked into the Seymour Officers Club that evening, I noted the tempo in the bar area was high, to the point things were beginning to unravel. The leader of the festivities, at the center of the action was wearing a raincoat. I inquired as to who he was. The immediate response, “Man, that’s the one and only Bob Purcell.” Little did I know that in the years to follow, I would come to know that my first impression of the hard-drinking, loud, boisterous, happy-go-lucky fighter pilot was only part of the story – there was another side to Percy. The Bob Purcell I came to know in North Vietnam was indeed a “one and only,” whose courage, dedication and example for his cellmates was a much more accurate measure of the man he was.
Three years after Cuba, Bob and I were both flying missions in South East Asia consisting of nearly daily air strikes against targets in North Vietnam and Laos. The F-105, which we were both flying, albeit in separate squadrons, was the primary US long range strike fighter at the time. The enemy air defenses we faced were formidable. When Bob was shot down on the first attack against a North Vietnamese surface to air missile (SAM) site 27 July 1965, members of his squadron said there was no parachute. In all likelihood he was killed in action, and according to his flight leader Bill Hosmer, his squadron held a memorial service that evening at Korat Air Base in Thailand. Percy wasn’t alone, six F-105’s were lost on the initial SAM strike. Percy’s fate remained unknown.
In late November of 1965 I too was shot down on a mission over North Vietnam, captured, and taken to the “Hanoi Hilton” for a rough series of interrogation sessions. We were all living in solitary confinement during that period, and while we saw none of our fellow Americans, we communicated by tapping on the wall. It was a slow way to communicate, but there was really little else to do, and communication was absolutely mandatory for a successful resistance effort over the next several years. Imagine my surprise then when I learned that Bob Purcell was indeed alive. Although suffering multiple injuries, he was living alone in a cell not far from mine. I thought I would see him within weeks. Little did I realize we would not be face to face for more than seven years.
Our Vietnamese captors were committed not only to force military information from us by any method possible, but also to put us under prolonged periods of extended physical hardship, which could include beatings on a near daily basis, to force us into submission. Clearly they were looking for individuals who they could turn against the war and provide anti-American and anti-war statements. Because of strong leaders and a very active communication system, we were able to resist. We came to understand that it was essential that every man resist as best he could. And we learned that each man’s mental and physical well-being depended largely on personal morale and spirit. For the leadership exhibited by POW senior officers such as Jim Stockdale and Robbie Risner to succeed, communication was critical to our resistance effort. Especially crucial, and increasingly dangerous, was to ensure that the communication net include every prisoner in the camp, especially those sick, injured, or in solitary confinement at remote locations.
In an effort to force me to write an anti-war letter during early 1966, our captors withheld all food, restricting me to two cups of water per day. Bob had gone through a similar drill some months earlier (as had several others of the early prisoners) and understood what it was all about. How did I know about Percy’s experience? The small cell they put me in was dark during the day (no light, no windows) but the light was on at night. The first night I was laying on the floor, my eyes apparently focused on the wall some two feet away. I saw a small arrow, one inch long etched in the wall. My eyes followed the direction of the arrow and encountered another arrow, and then another, and then the name, also etched inconspicuously in the wall, “Purcell’! Clever I thought. Here was proof for the next guy that Percy had indeed survived his low-level ejection.
After being starved for eight days, I was moved to a new cellblock in which Bob was living alone at the far end of the building. Several days later I received a message via the tap code to stand by for a piece of bread during the early afternoon when the guards were taking their siesta break. I didn’t quite know what to expect. As the afternoon grew quiet, I heard scratching on the ceiling and dust and dirt were soon falling from around the single light bulb in the ceiling of my room. Soon the bulb and wire dropped down a couple of feet, which was then followed by a series of long slender pieces of stale bread. My first food in eight days! Through the hole where the light bulb had been, I saw the smiling face of Percy. He whispered a few words of encouragement, waved, and then he was gone, off to get back to his cell before his absence was discovered. It was only a couple stale pieces of bread, but in our world they were elevated to the status of “cookies” which was how we referred to them in the future.
The risk for Purcell in getting caught would have been an immediate and severe beating of substantial proportions, a move to a small and remote unlighted confinement cell, too small in which to stand (which we called the “tank”), most likely additional beatings, and an extended period, likely several months in the tank. There was also the matter of sharing food from one’s already meager portion. But far more important from my perspective was the huge boost to my morale. Keeping one’s spirits up over extended incarceration was the name of the game. Percy knew this and set the standard for others to follow. I have never forgotten his role in this and have always used it as an example in explaining to others what survival in North Vietnam was all about.
I only saw Percy one other time. In mid-1966 we were handcuffed together for the infamous “parade” of American POW’s through downtown Hanoi. It was a memorable event marked by screaming masses of Vietnamese lining both sides of Main Street in Hanoi. Before we took our first steps, he turned to me and said “…a parade, I love a parade.” We survived, but I never saw Percy up close again until we were released some six and a half years later. His messages however, often disseminated throughout the Hanoi Prisoner of War communication net, always reflected an indomitable spirit and the ideas, “We are all in this together, resist the best you can, communicate, keep your spirits up, and help those around you to do the same.”
Whether in small cells or large ones, responsibility for leadership in North Vietnam rested with the senior ranking officer present. When senior, Percy led his cellmates the only way he knew how, by example. Always upbeat, he saw the bright side in everything–even a mob scene at a parade. After seventeen months in solitary confinement, he noted, “One good point about being solo, no one ever saw me cry.”
A product of the 1950s, he reflected the era, wild in a way pilots frown on today. But in Hanoi, his reputation as a professional was solid. Sometimes described as a bit stubborn, witty, and a tough resister, he was always recognized as a team player and loyal to the central theme, “Unity over self.” His credentials were that he could be counted on to lead at any level. As such, he was keenly aware of his responsibility, and he focused on the well-being and morale of those junior to him. In later years, when asked how he overcame the torture, humiliation, degradation, and loneliness, his simple response was “by taking it one minute, one day at a time.” As a cellmate described him, “…he knew the system. Captured in mid 1965 he had been through the worst of the worst, he gave the Vietnamese fits. Everybody respected him.”
Percy is gone now, buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. His life after release on February 12, 1973 began with checking out in the T-38 Freedom Flyers program at Randolph AFB. As a combination of his age and a near eight year gap in experience he joined other former POWs in this special program, but he was not to fly fighters again. As a distant second choice, he attended Air War College. As a best decision, he married Suzanne in 1978 – they have five children.
Percy retired from the Air Force in 1980 and restored VW bugs briefly before accepting employment with American Airlines as a Simulator Instructor, a position he enjoyed for fifteen years. His health began to decline and he suffered a serious stroke in 2004 followed by a crippling fall the next year. According to his wife Suzanne, during this difficult period there was never a complaint, never a “why me?” thing. A partial paralysis followed, and then his final flight on December 6, 2009.
His memory lives on not only with those who remember and loved him, but also at “Percy’s House,” a foster home designed to re-settle children orphaned in Southeast Asia. The home was financed and built by a successful Fort Worth builder who knew and wanted to honor Percy. He contacted Catholic Charities who studied the issue and worked out a program from its International Foster Care Program with State Department. A unique feature of the program is that selected children may stay at Percy’s House until they are twenty-two years old and ready to make their own way.
Percy’s final departure wasn’t easy. Scheduled to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Feb 12, 2010, a record snow storm moved into Washington DC some days before, and his official interment was delayed until April 29th, a clear and cool blue sky, one of a kind spring day. The Air Force he loved remembered this one of a kind warrior and honored him with an F-15 Missing Man Formation. The formation was special, and the precision of such exactness as to make many of the old heads in attendance smile, not only in approval of F-15’s at very low level and the site and the ceremony and circle of old friends and family, but also in the fond memory of the courageous fighter pilot Robert Baldwin Purcell, his record as a combatant and Prisoner of War, and his assorted pranks of a lifetime–to include one of his favorites, the “cookie caper.”
Brig Gen, US Air Force (Ret)
5 April 2013