As a young fighter pilot in Vietnam in 1963, Lt. Jon Reynolds and some of his fellow pilots were invited to participate in a round table discussion with a delegation that had just arrived from the states to assess the war effort. Jon missed the session and later realized he had missed an opportunity to share his thoughts with Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and General Maxwell Taylor, three key architects of the Vietnam War that David Halberstram would write about in his famous work, “The Best and The Brightest.” Over coffee recently at Purebread, Jon told me he thought about that missed opportunity a few times during the years he was held captive in a series of Vietnamese prison camps including the famous “Hanoi Hilton.”
I met Jon Reynolds nearly twenty years ago after he retired from the Air Force and bought a home in Centerville. We discovered we had a mutual interest in military history and Philadelphia sports. My interest in history was a hobby consisting of reading, history trips and occasional writing. Jon’s interest was both professional and deeply personal. Not only did he hold a PhD in history from Duke University, he was a retired Air Force Brigadier General who had spent seven years as a prisoner of war (POW) in Vietnam. As I grew to know Jon better over the years, I realized that his connection to history was perhaps even deeper and more interesting than I originally thought.
As we exchanged military history books (he would give me three or four to read at a time) I suggested more than once that he should consider writing his own story. That was typically met with some skepticism that people wouldn’t be that interested or that the POW story had been told by several others – perhaps most notably by his colleague in North Vietnam, John McCain. Recently I offered a compromise – how about allowing me to interview you for Town Square Delaware? Jon reluctantly agreed to the idea.
Today’s column is intended to provide some general background about Jon in order to provide context for our future discussions. With Jon’s broad portfolio I hope we will touch on several periods in his life and perhaps gain an understanding of how he survived the challenge of those difficult years in captivity and how he managed to not only successfully adjust after his release, but how he went from fighter pilot, to a PhD from Duke, Air Force Academy professor, US military attaché to the People’s Republic of China and ultimately retiring as a successful businessman.
Born and raised in Philadelphia Jon graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He was commissioned in the Air Force through ROTC in 1959. His first brush with history occurred in October 1962 as the nation stood on the brink of nuclear war and his squadron and all our military forces went to Defense Condition 2 for the first and only time during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A short time later he was among the early forces deployed to Vietnam in support of Vietnamese ground forces. It was on a strike in North Vietnam during Jon’s second tour in Southeast Asia that his F-105 was hit, leading to his long tenure as a POW.
Soon after the repatriation of our POW’s in 1973, Jon joined the faculty of the Air Force Academy where he directed the military history and air power studies program while completing his doctorate. He was awarded his PhD in history from Duke University in 1980. Subsequent assignments included the Pentagon and faculty of the National War College.
In 1982 Jon was assigned as air and defense attaché to the US Embassy in Beijing, China, and served as the senior US military representative in China. He was the first westerner in the modern era to fly a Chinese fighter aircraft. Upon retirement in 1990 General Reynolds joined the Raytheon Company and in 1993 he was named President of Raytheon China based in Beijing.
While Jon’s experience as a POW all those years does not fully define his life, it does punctuate it in many ways. Just this January, Jon traveled to Arlington National Cemetery to attend the funeral of one of the POW leaders he and many others greatly admired, General Robbie Risner. As a celebrated pilot and Korean War Ace who once appeared on the cover of Time, Risner was targeted for brutal treatment by his North Vietnamese captors.
In May 2013 Jon traveled to California to join some 200 former POWs at the Nixon Library on the 40th anniversary of their release and to commemorate the White House homecoming party held in their honor in 1973. He has even traveled back to Vietnam to visit some of the places where he was held. One of those prison camps, Son Tay was the target of one of the most elaborate special ops rescue missions ever attempted. The raid was executed successfully, but unfortunately Jon and his fellow POWs had been moved before our forces got there.
I have read books on POWs, Dien Bien Phu, German war aces and even American generals that I would have been unlikely to have picked up if not for Jon’s encouragement and extensive library. One POW Jon wanted me to learn about was his friend Bud Day – at the time of Day’s death he was our most highly decorated America serviceman and a true hero to his POW comrades and many others. At his funeral last year, thousands lined Florida Highway 98 near Pensacola to pay their last respects to Medal of Honor recipient Colonel Day.
I soon realized that when Jon recommended a book to me the subject was often connected to a personal encounter. And for a contrast in perspective it would be hard to compete with Warren Kozak’s biography of General Curtis LeMay and Bernard Fall’s “Hell in a Very Small Place; the Siege of Dien Bien Phu.” We will learn more about Jon’s contacts with them later, as well as his experience with German fighter ace Johannes Steinhoff.
One book that I had an opportunity to share with Jon was written by my late Wilmington neighbor, Dick Lewis. A waist gunner on a B-17 in the 8th Air Force, Lewis was shot down in 1943 and like Jon Reynolds became a POW. Jon was so taken by “Hell Above and Hell Below” that when a B-17 came to the New Castle County airport offering rides for a fee we decided to go up to experience a small part of what it was like back then. Later Jon would autograph our photo together in front of the “Flying Fortress” with “One down and 24 to go” – a reference to the quota most airman of the “Mighty Eighth” were never able to reach.
So the Air Force Academy history professor actually lived the history and met the history makers. Through interviews in the weeks ahead we will discuss some of his encounters and experiences in greater detail. Among my first questions will be how he happened to have his photo taken with the legendary Jimmy Doolittle and how he became the first American to fly one of the latest Chinese fighter aircraft.