09/19/10 — Vietnam POW tells his story at SJAFB

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Vietnam POW tells his story at SJAFB

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on September 19, 2010 1:50 AM

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Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Jack Van Loan watches as the honor guard folds the flag at Friday's annual POW/MIA ceremony. Van Loan spent six years a POW in North Vietnam at the "Hanoi Hilton."

His F-4 Phantom failing to recover from a blow delivered by an enemy MiG, Jack Van Loan made a quick decision that would change his life.

"I was told when I went through pilot training ... that ejection is a state of mind. You don't decide that you're going to eject. You either have the parameters for ejection or you don't, and you can't sit there and make up your parameters because you'll die in the process," he said. "So we got hit and all the lights were on, the fire lights, and I told (my back-seater), 'We're hit,' and he said, 'How bad?' I replied, 'Real bad.' Then the stick froze.

"You just can't sit there and pick your nose and wait for the thing to recover, so I just reached down and pulled and said, 'Get out.'"

Moments later, the two Air Force officers were on their way to the ground -- praying for survival; dodging, from their parachutes, enemy fire.

"There were MiGs everywhere and one of them tried to strafe us," Van Loan said. "So I whipped out my gun, you know, the last great act of defiance, and I'm blazing away with my .38 special. I look back on that and it's kind of funny. There I am firing at a MiG."

The pilot knew the chance of being rescued was slim.

"I'm hoping ... but I know I'm just too far north," he said.

And he knew the Vietnamese were triangulating his position -- that within moments of landing, the enemy would be on its way.

"We were hiding in the bushes and they came shooting up the hill after about 45 minutes," Van Loan said. "That's the only mistake I made. Our doctrine was you did not move in the daytime. You waited until it got dark. ... I should've said, 'We're going to move right now.' ... I always regretted that I didn't at least try to get to the Gulf of Tonkin. But with that said, I had about as little chance of getting there as a pig marching off to war."

What happened later that day -- the two men were taken prisoner and transported to Hanoi -- brought Van Loan to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Friday as the keynote speaker for its annual POW/MIA ceremony.

But his ordeal, he told those airmen in attendance, lasted far longer than a few hours.

The retired colonel spent six years at Hanoi.

"After the initial welcome aboard, you know, the initial session with them, they really got tough with me," Van Loan said. "They just tortured the hell out of me. Eight days of torture. I got no sleep, no nothing, and I still have the scars all over me to show for it.

"I realized, 'These damn people mean business. They are going to kill me so I have got to come up with something to tell them, even if it's only 'goodbye.'"

So he and his comrades decided to lie to their captors -- anything, he said, to increase their chances of survival.

"They had me draw out the game plan for them. It was all BS, but it was either that or die," he said. "After a while, I could see it in their eyes that they were genuinely starting to believe me. And it was a good thing because after that, they let up on me."

But after all these years, he can still feel the effects of those torture sessions.

"They beat people like it was going out of style," Van Loan said. "My left shoulder still doesn't work right."

And he can still see himself gasping for air as the rope around his neck grew ever tighter.

"You were so close to dying," he said. "They had a rope against your neck and they would cut off the air flow."

Van Loan always wanted to be a pilot.

"All I ever really wanted to do was fly airplanes -- fly fighters," he said. "That's no kidding. That's what I wanted to do."

But when his parents had a distinguished visitor over for dinner when he was a boy, his childhood dream became his cause.

"Hap Arnold, you know, the father of the modern day Air Force, came to visit and he is sitting there at dinner, and he had on all those stars and the silver hair, and he says to me, 'What do you want to be when you grow up, Jackie?'" Van Loan said. "You know, you don't tell the No. 1 airman in the world you want to be a fireman. So I said, 'Sir, I want to be a pilot.'"

Years later, he thought he had finally made it.

But then a doctor found a problem with his right eye.

"They promptly threw me out of flight training," Van Loan said. "That really did something bad to me. It really hurt."

Despite his disappointment, he remained in the Air Force and was stationed in Scotland, assigned to a unit he characterized as "a little bitty squadron nobody ever heard of."

And doing so, as it turned out, would lead him back to the skies.

"One day, my squadron commander said, 'What would it take to keep you in the Air Force?'" Van Loan said. "I told him, 'Well, I have to go to pilot training. That's No. 1. And No. 2, I have to be a regular officer.'"

And after "tricking" another eye exam, he saw his dream fulfilled.

"I basically tricked the test. That's what it amounts to," Van Loan said. "And off I went."

He ended up at a Texas flight school and, before long, was commanding an


"That was really some aircraft. I mean, you really had to hang onto your ass to keep from falling off the world," he said. "It was a huge, huge thrill, but you approach something like that with a certain amount of temerity. You know, the F-100 was very, very difficult ... to correctly take off and land. ... We lost a hell of a lot of airplanes and people because they just flew the thing into the ground."

And after 1,700 flight hours and a stint as an instructor pilot, he would transition into the F-4 -- the world's premier fighter jet.

"The F-4 had two engines and you had a lot more room for error," Van Loan said. "And it had a hell of a lot more power."

But the power of the aircraft was no match for the MiG that sent him into


"The airspace over North Vietnam was the most heavily defended airspace in the history of warfare. That's plain and simple," he said. "You could read about it, but when you were up there and took one look, it was, 'By God, they weren't kidding.'

"So we got into a real shoot-out with a bunch of MiGs. When I finally came home, they told me they thought there were 24 MiGs that jumped us that day. (The enemy) was really looking to make an impact."

Being shot down happened "in split seconds," Van Loan said.

But life as a captive dragged on as months at Hanoi turned to years.

"I got very, very interested in making sure that I kept myself in as good a physical condition as I could ... and I worked as hard as I could to be positive," Van Loan said. "Being positive ended up being the long pole in my survival tent.

"You couldn't just sit around and feel sorry for yourself. That won't get you anywhere in that kind of situation. But with that said, it was difficult not to. There were an awful lot of long days and a hell of a lot of long nights, too."

And it was particularly difficult knowing that back in the U.S., his wife and three children were left to wonder whether he was dead or alive.

"They found out about two-and-a-half years after I was shot down that I was alive. Until then, they had no idea," he said. "That had to be tough for the family to go through, but when you sign up, nobody ever says it's going to be easy."

And it wasn't easy for those at Hanoi to understand why their nation's military wasn't bringing more to the enemy.

"We weren't hurting them, and if you really want to hurt somebody, you have got to tell them the price they are going to pay. It's not pleasant. It's not pleasant to be a part of, either. But by God, if we're going to fight, let's fight," Van Loan said. "I lost six damn years of my life and a lot of my friends and none of us understood what we were doing. ... We aren't allowed to win. We had a president, Lyndon Johnson, who I will never forgive, and we had a defense secretary, Robert McNamara, who I will never forgive, because they wouldn't let us go after (the enemy). The North Vietnamese couldn't believe it."

"I'm sitting there one day and the interrogator is asking me ... what I thought about the bombing. I said, 'We're going to bomb you people back into the Stone Age.' He said, ... 'The bombing doesn't bother us. The lights burn ... and the trains run.' I said, 'The trains run and the lights burn courtesy of Lyndon B. Johnson. Don't ever, ever forget it.'"

But despite his anger over the president's strategy and leadership, Van Loan never believed he would die in Vietnam.

"It never occurred to me that I wasn't going home. I knew the American people were never going to forget me," he said. "I never thought for a second I was going to be forgotten. They were not going to leave me out there."

And when a new president took over the fight, things started looking up, Van Loan said, as Richard Nixon ordered a fleet of B-52s to drop as many bombs as it could just outside the prison.

"One of the officers came over to me and said, 'You think the B-52s come back if you not released soon.' I said, 'No, no, no. I do not think B-52s come back soon, I know B-52s come back soon," he said. "He said, 'I think Nixon crazy.' I said, 'No. President Nixon is not crazy. He's insane and he hates your guts.' I told the boss that and he said, 'Thanks. That's exactly what I want them to think.'

"You know, Richard Milhous Nixon was not very popular with a lot of people, but he was popular with us. When he said, 'I'm coming after you,' he meant it. The guy who runs the country, he has to be credible with our adversaries. He doesn't have to be a machine gun artist but his word has to count. Credibility is everything."

It has been nearly 40 years since Van Loan and his comrades were released from Hanoi.

But for the retired Air Force colonel, returning to a sense of normalcy in the decades since has been


He remembers a day shortly after his return -- when he was telling a few young officers about all he had been through -- and gets emotional.

"At one point, I stopped and said, 'I'm sorry guys. I'm so sorry,' ... and I ran down the hall," he said. "I went into (a World War II POW's) office and I said, 'Chief, I have got to forget about this.' He was sitting there sucking on his pipe, took it out his mouth and told me to sit down. He said, 'Son, let me tell you something. You're never going to forget about it. You're going to think about it every single day for the rest of your life.' He was dead right. I have thought about it every single day."