09/19/09 — Man of steel: Vietnam POW recognized at Seymour Johnson AFB

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Man of steel: Vietnam POW recognized at Seymour Johnson AFB

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 19, 2009 11:43 PM

Moments before Norman Gaddis detailed the living conditions he endured as a prisoner of war during Vietnam, the retired brigadier general broke down.

He wasn't reliving the day his fighter jet was hit by enemy fire or the six years of torture that followed.

He was talking about the death of his wife -- the woman he retired from the Air Force for; the one who kept the family strong while he was in the jungle surviving on boiled cabbage and hot water.

Gaddis revealed a different man Friday than the stoned-face lieutenant colonel who spent 1,000 days of his stint at Hanoi in solitary confinement.

For a few moments, just before his keynote address to those gathered at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's POW/MIA ceremony, he was simply a man with perspective -- one who understands that life is not defined by a window of time, but rather, those who you choose to spend your years with.

Maybe that is why he showed little emotion when he relived the day a missile brought his F-4 Phantom to the ground and when he talked about the "torture sessions," rats and mosquitos that came with a stay in a war prison.

He loved his wife more than the label of hero, more than the rank he would gain when he finally returned to her side.

She was, after all, one of the reasons he stayed strong at Hanoi.


Gaddis joined the military in 1942, months after his brother was drafted as an infantryman.

"We were very, very close, but not only that, in our community (of Knoxville, Tenn.), every family had one or two members in the service," he said.

So against the wishes of his parents, the 19-year-old enlisted in the Army Air Corps.

He was trained as a mechanic and thought he would remain one until a sergeant posted a flyer on one of the doors in his shop.

"Anyone who is interested in going to flying school sign here," it read.

"And I signed my name," Gaddis said.

Weeks later, after a series of physical and psychological evaluations, Gaddis found out he was going to be a pilot.

"Everybody said the navigators were the smartest, and they were probably right," he said, laughing. "Nevertheless, they said, 'You look like fighter pilot material.'"

World War II was still in progress, so the young man was to train in the P-40 and join the fight in Europe.

"But they had such a backlog of people that we could not complete the training," he said.

So he was reassigned to learn the P-51, and after logging 150 flying hours, Gaddis was to fly in the Pacific war theater.

But by the time he had sufficient training, the war was over.

"When the war ended, I had my 150 hours and was qualified to go to the Pacific," he said. "But ... I never went."

With the war over, the Army Air Corps gave him a choice: Leave the service or continue to fly.

At the time, he was a newlywed and his wife was pregnant with their first child, so he chose to "get out."

His plan: To go back to his home state and attend the pre-med program at the University of Tennessee.

And in 1948, he did just that.

But despite the choice he had made years earlier, the military called him in for several interviews and assessments that would potentially lead to a regular commission.

And before he got his feet wet in that pre-med program, a letter showed up at the house.

His country was calling.

"The Berlin Airlift was going on and we were short on pilots, just critically short on pilots," Gaddis said. "Many of the pilots in the Army Air Corps had decided to stay in the Army (when the Air Force was formed), so there was a huge shortage."

So shortly after he received that letter, he began a three-year tour of duty at a base just outside Munich.

"(My family), we had a chance not only to work, but to travel and see Europe," he said. "It was a great experience for all of us."

Even then, he saw his career as a way of life for his beloved wife and children -- not as a way to earn acclaim and personal satisfaction.

After his tour ended, he was assigned to Turner Air Force Base, Ga., where he would eventually join members of the 31st Tactical Fighter Wing on a "secret mission."

Their objective: To relocate the wing -- and its fleet of F-84s -- to Japan.

"None had ever done that before," he said of flying a group of fighter aircraft across the Pacific.

It took those aviators 12 days to accomplish their mission and as a result of their work, Gaddis and his comrades became the first-ever recipients of the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award.

From their new base in northern Japan, members of the wing flew dozens of classified missions that Gaddis, to this day, won't detail.

And when he returned to Georgia, it was clear he was on a fast track.

He was assigned to the Pentagon and sent to the highly acclaimed National War College.

But something happened in the late 1960s that changed his life.

He was told to learn the F-4 Phantom, that he would soon be leaving for Cam Rahn Bay.

Sixteen weeks later, Gaddis left for Vietnam.

He flew 72 combat missions before his assignment changed from being a deputy commander to a man bound by a code of conduct trying to stay alive.

It was May 12, 1967, and Gaddis was on a special mission to Hanoi.

"In the process of everything that went on there that day, a missile exploded ... and part of the missile was ingested into the left engine of the airplane. It blew up, and after it blew up, I bailed out," he said. "I went out upside down about 2,000 feet above the ground. But everything worked as it was supposed to, and I reached the ground and took out my radio and called and said, 'This is Dagger 4. I'm OK.'"

But the young man in the back seat of the aircraft had bailed out, too, so when he made that radio call and didn't identify himself, no one knew which member of the crew had survived.

"Some people in the flight said, 'We saw one parachute.' Others said, 'No. There were two parachutes.' So that was a question," Gaddis said. "If it was only one parachute, logically, it would have been the person in the back seat because he goes first. ... So if there is only one 'chute, they make the assumption that, 'OK. Only one.'"

That night, "a message came out of China ... saying I had been killed," he said.

And the Soviets released a statement that he had been captured.

"So there my wife was with three different reports. ... All the Air Force could say was, "He's missing, missing in action.'"

He thought about his family often as his stint as a prisoner at Hanoi began -- his family and his new duty to withhold U.S. intelligence from his captors.

"I went through all of the torture sessions over there and then I was put into a seven foot square room and I spent 1,000 consecutive days in solitary confinement. I couldn't see anyone else and I could not contact anyone by coughing or scratching or yelling," Gaddis said. "But I didn't give them anything ... of any value and I guess that's why I stayed 1,000 days in solitary confinement. But it was a game. ... I frustrated them as much as possible and they would take their gun butts and hit me in the kidneys and then knee me in the rear end."

He was tortured three times in the nearly six years he spent there -- once, so severely that he lost consciousness.

But he remained committed to make it home to the wife and family he had left behind.

"This was a personal fight -- them versus me. ... They told me many times, 'You never go home,'" Gaddis said. "But I never, ever, ever felt sorry for myself. I mean, I prayed, but I never said to the Lord, 'Why did you put me in a mess like this?'"

He weighed 157 pounds the day he was captured. Within six weeks, he had dropped to 122.

He slept -- without protection from mosquitos, rats and harsh weather conditions -- on a concrete bed "about six feet long and 22 inches wide."

And the food -- boiled cabbage, hot water, and "sewer greens" -- was nearly intolerable.

"It was not comfortable at all," Gaddis said.

But that only made the sound of B-52s bombing Hanoi years after he was taken prisoner all the sweeter.

And when he finally returned to the U.S., he had gained the perspective that saw him retire just short of earning his second star to build a house in North Carolina with his wife.

"I said, 'I appreciate it, but I owe (my wife)," Gaddis said, tears running down his face.

Gaddis' wife died two years ago, just short of their 63rd wedding anniversary.

So when he told his life story -- one most expected him to define by those six years of torture and near starvation at the hands of the Viet Cong -- you could sense that in his heart, he sees his accomplishments in terms of the family he made and loved so well.

It was a more human side of a man labeled hero -- a powerful, but different, perspective than those shared by others who have taken the POW/MIA stage at Seymour Johnson.

So you could sense that there were no regrets when Gaddis spoke of his decision to retire from the service, to leave the life of former prisoner of war behind.

"I was glad I retired," he said. "(My wife) meant more to me than a second star."