Georgia native Benjamin Purcell received his commission upon completing ROTC at the University of North Georgia and embarked upon a long and eventful military career.
A veteran of Korea, Purcell was serving as the executive officer of the 80th General Support Group in Vietnam in 1968 when his helicopter was shot down. The highest ranking Army officer taken prisoner during the Vietnam War, Purcell was captured on Feb. 8, 1968, and held until March 27, 1973.
He was a prisoner for five years, one month, nineteen days, and a wake-up.
After returning home, Purcell was assigned to the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. On Nov. 12, 1973, less than eight months after his release, Purcell gave a presentation at Carlisle High School where he shared his story with the students.
A transcript of that speech can be found in the collection at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. The following narrative is drawn from that speech.
“I was taken prisoner by the communists while serving in South Vietnam and that I remained a prisoner for 62 months – 58 of them spent in solitary confinement, totally out of touch with my loved ones and the real word.
“On the 8th of February, 1968, I was a passenger aboard a helicopter when it was hit by machine gun fire, caught fire, and crash landed in a cemetery about 5 miles southeast of Quang Tri City. One of the pilots was hit by a bullet and the other passenger was severely burned.”
Before long, the enemy showed up. “After the crash we were surrounded, taken prisoner, tied up (thumbs and arms behind our backs) and searched. After dark we were marched off towards the mountains to the southwest. The passenger who had been burned was permitted to stop for a short rest and the others ordered to continue on up the trail. Within minutes I hear the sound of a pistol shot and had the terrifying thought ‘The VC killed him!’ The young soldier has not returned and has been officially declared Killed in Action.
“On Feb. 14, ’68, I was forced into a small underground bunker for refusing to answer questions. Cold, despondent and sick, I remembered it was my 40th birthday and had to smile when I thought of the old adage ‘life begins at 40.’ Frankly, at that particular moment, I’d just have soon stayed 39.
“After dark that day, I was permitted to come up out of the bunker and lay down on the ground by the fire to get warm. I soon fell asleep and was awakened sometime later by the other American who said, ‘Supper is ready.’
“The Vietnamese interrogator then handed me a small plate and said, ‘It is the custom of the Vietnamese people to remember special days in the lives of their guests, and though you’re not a guest in this man’s home, he wants to give you the only thing he has to offer you on your birthday – this egg.’ I shall long cherish the memory of this man’s act of kindness for I believe it was prompted by a genuine concern for a fellow human being.
“While in South Vietnam we received very little food or medicine. I lost weight rapidly and became very ill. On 31 March 1968, we started our journey north, traveling through Laos via the Ho Chi Minh trail.”
But upon arriving in the north, Purcell’s situation hardly improved.
“I was issued two pajama-type uniforms, separated from other prisoners, and placed in a solitary cell, 3 feet by 7 feet. All prisoners were subjected to harsh interrogations for military information. Some were tortured, and all were deprived of food and medicine. I found it difficult at first to lie convincingly but soon became quite experienced. Our food at Bao Cao consisted of boiled rice and a thin soup twice each day. With a poor diet and no medical care, I became even more sick and weak from malnutrition – losing about 50 pounds in three months.
“The interrogations ended after about six months, and these were followed by attempts to re-educate (brainwash) me. Their efforts failed for I had learned to counter their propaganda and distortions with what I knew to be the truth. You see, the communist’s politic cadres were unable to comprehend how a person could possibly disagree, for in their ‘closed society’ no one is permitted to question any statement of the communist party.
“On Dec. 7, 1969, I escaped from K77 after several months’ preparation, which included the training and use of a chicken to stand guard in front of my cell as I drilled tiny holes in the door. This particular chicken would come to my cell after each meal and I’d toss bread crumbs to it. If the guard came near, the chick would run away and I’d immediately stop drilling and begin a more acceptable pastime. During the 10 hours I was out of my cell, I succeeded in getting a ride on a bicycle into Hanoi, but my luck ran out and I was returned to K77 and punished by two weeks in stocks.
“In mid-December 1971, I was transferred to a newly constructed prison. Living conditions were better for the cell was larger and had a straw mattress on the wooden bed. There was also a toilet at the rear of each cell and a small exercise area (I called it a cage) out front where I could get a couple of hours of fresh air each morning. My health improved a little as a result of a self-imposed exercise program.
“In March 1972, I succeeded in escaping again and remained free for about 30 hours. To assist my escape this time, I ‘conditioned’ the guards to expect to find me using the toilet at the time they came to pick up the supper plate and lock the cell door. I fashioned a dummy from an extra uniform and suspended it over the toilet, and apparently it fooled the guards because for 12 hours they were not aware I had escaped. As punishment, I was given only half my normal food ration and kept locked in my cell for 30 days.
“On Jan. 27, 1973, President Nixon, backed by the American people and supported by millions of servicemen, concluded a ‘Peace with Honor.’ That same day all the prisoners from outlying camps were assembled into Hanoi where I was placed in a cell with other Americans for the first time in 58 months.
“Living conditions improved even more in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ as the Vietnamese tried to prepare us for our release. Medical care and the first emergency type dental care was made available. We received double rations and even cans of meat for two weeks in a futile effort to fatten us up. I was permitted to write a letter on the 6th of February but it has never arrived and no letter from home ever reached me. The one and only parcel was one from the American Red Cross, which I received on March 12, 1973, just two weeks before my release.
“On March 27, 1973 I was released as one of the 32 who came out last. Our welcome at Clark Air Force Base was simply fantastic that day, and the American people have been wonderful ever since as they warmly welcomed us back home.
“What sustained me during these months? I wish I could accurately describe the many sources of strength which did help me in order that others might seek and find the same sources if the heed ever should arise. Certainly high on my list was my faith in our nation and our leaders, for I had every confidence that America would never forsake her prisoners. I recall telling the Vietnamese interrogators numerous times that his country would never have peace until their leaders were willing to resolve the POW issue correctly. Such confidence in our government’s policy was a constant source of strength.
“Secondly, I had every reason to believe that the Army was ‘looking out for its own,’ and I was not disappointed. Throughout the years of my imprisonment, the Department of the Army provided advice and assistance to my family and all the families of all prisoners of war.
“Further, I experienced and ever deepening love and appreciation for my wife and children. I knew how much my wife loved our children and was absolutely certain that she was caring for their every need and guiding their young lives with unbounded love and near superhuman effort.
“I also had a considerable amount of time to reflect upon my experience. I became aware of how very little I really understood and appreciated our free society and American way of life. Though I never saw any of the anti-war personalities in North Vietnam, all prisoners heard about them and much morale damaging propaganda resulted from their visits. I realized that as American citizens, these personalities enjoyed the freedom to go and speak as they pleased, but they should have been responsible enough in their actions so as not to use their freedom to the detriment of other Americans.
“I appreciate the free press of America and see it as a necessary precondition to our continued freedom as a nation. However I also know of instances where the media released information to the public which damaged our cause – and most of the time there was simply no reason to do so. I suggest that a free press is a must, but at the same time the media must act responsibly.
“In any case, these lessons have made me acutely aware of the value of human life, for it is man’s most precious possession, and of individual freedom, for it allows a person to contribute his utmost effort to the cause of human progress and happiness.
“In closing, I wish I could say to you that peace is guaranteed, that peace is permanent, but that would be unrealistic as history shows a different pattern. Will Durant has written that ‘in the last 3,400 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war.’”
Purcell retired from the Army with the rank of colonel in 1980. He went on to serve as a representative in the Georgia legislature, and died in 2013 at the age of 85.