First of a two-part series
It was an unusual treasure the Stevenson Creek dredging contractor found – a Vietnam-era prisoner of war (POW) wristband. Employees of Gator Dredging of Clearwater, Florida discovered the bracelet when their hydraulic barge’s hose sucked it from the creek during dredging operations.
“It traveled through approximately 500 yards of pipe to our processing plant and into a machine that separates waste solids, sand and water,” said William Coughlin, III, chief operating officer for the company. Coughlin did some research and found the family of Maj. Glenn H. Wilson, an Air Force fighter pilot who went missing in North Vietnam in 1966 and was repatriated in 1973.
Coughlin returned the bracelet to Wilson’s family, writing: “It is somehow fitting that the endurance he showed during his time in captivity is echoed by the survival of the wristband which bears his name. We are sending the wristband to you and (in) honor of the service and sacrifice Major Wilson made during his time overseas.”
Born in North Hornell, NewYork, Wilson was commissioned a second lieutenant through the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program in 1955 and immediately went on active duty. He completed pilot training in March 1957, followed by F-84F Thunderstreak advanced training and F-100 Super Sabre combat crew training. Wilson married his wife, Adlyn, in 1957 and they eventually had three children.
Wilson was flying the F-4 Phantom with the 559th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, South Vietnam from November 1966 until nine months later, when he was forced to eject and was taken as a prisoner of war. He spent most of the next six years in captivity at the Hoa Lo Camp, Hanoi, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
Wilson and 39 other prisoners were released from prison during Operation Homecoming March 14, 1973. By that time, his daughter Leslie was 14, daughter Linda was 12 and his son Tom was 10. Following his release, Wilson said his plans for the future were “to go back into the Tactical Air Command and be part of the 1st Team again.” He was later promoted to lieutenant colonel and went on to serve in the Air Force for a total of 27 years before retiring in 1982. He died Jan. 30, 1988. Adlyn – who never remarried – passed away 25 years later, in August 2013.
Old news clips of Wilson’s arrival back in the United States reveal the tears of deep emotion and smiles of freedom as the former prisoners arrived back on American soil. Navy Capt. James Stockdale, who went on to become a vice admiral and vice presidential candidate, was the senior-ranking prisoner and officer in charge at the Hanoi Hilton – and the first prisoner repatriated.
“The men who follow me down that ramp know what loyalty means because they have been living with loyalty, living on loyalty, the past several years -- loyalty to each other, loyalty to the military, loyalty to our commander-in-chief,” he told the welcoming party.
The prisoners under Stockdale’s command at the Hanoi Hilton were an unusual and remarkable group, according to the U.S. Naval Institutes’ Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton written in 2009. “Instead of returning home unraveled from years of abuse, isolation, and deprivation, about 80 percent of the 591 men Operation Homecoming returned continued their military service. Many later became leaders in government, business, law or academia. Twenty-four attained the rank of admiral or general; 18 have served (or are serving) in elected or appointed political positions at both the federal and state levels. Eight received the Medal of Honor.”
These men were the longest-held prisoners in U.S. history, and yet studies show that the great majority returned from prison free of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More than half of the 262 World War II and Korean War POW had symptoms of lifetime PTSD, according to an American Psychiatric Association report published in 1997. The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (2009) estimated the lifetime prevalence of PTSD among all Vietnam veterans was 30.9 percent for men and 26.9 percent for women.
So what was so unusual about these POWs?
Read the September issue of JaxStrong for the rest of the story.