Former Vietnam War POW recalls time in captivity

Retired Air Force Col. Norman McDaniel addresses those assembled at Front Royal's Unity Masonic Lodge on Wednesday. McDaniel was captured by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and held for more than six years. Nathan Budryk/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – The Unity Masonic Lodge honored veterans this week with a dinner, a presentation on the history of America’s flag and a speech from retired Air Force Col. Norman McDaniel, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than six years.

The flag presentation, “building the flag,” was given by members of the National Sojourners, an organization affiliated with the Freemasons. Chapter President Richard Radi, Commander Charlie Davis and camp follower Irene Mertens presented a Velcro flag and built it stripe by stripe, star by star, explaining their origin and significance as they went.

McDaniel served as the event’s keynote speaker, delivering a lively, animated address to an audience of freemasons and guests on the horrors of war and the importance of faith and perseverance in the face of danger and adversity.

McDaniel, originally of Fayetteville, North Carolina, was a member of a technical reconnaissance crew flying his 51st combat mission on board an EB66C bomber plane when the plane was shot down. The plane had had its bomb bay closed off and was reconfigured for electronic warfare support, McDaniel said. The mission involved orbiting at roughly 30,000 feet in the target area for about a half hour and monitoring the enemy’s surface to air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery and relaying that information to other aircraft.

“We would warn fighters and bombers who were coming in to hit their targets where those threats were so that they could dodge them and leave,” McDaniel said. “After they left, we could leave, but while they were hitting their targets and we’re up there orbiting at 30,000 feet, we were sitting ducks. We were hit by a surface to air missile. It wasn’t a direct hit… The plane went out of control immediately and began to pull heavy gravity force that just pinned us to the seats for what seemed like forever… We lost oxygen, pressurization, communication, and the compartment was filling with smoke and fumes.”

Charlie Davis, commander of the local chapter of the National Sojourners, recites a poem to conclude the organization's presentation about the history, evolution and significance of the American flag on Wednesday at Front Royal's Unity Masonic Lodge. Nathan Budryk/Daily

McDaniel explained that with that particular aircraft, ejections had to occur in a specific sequence. The retired colonel happened to be in the position that was required to eject first before others on board could.

“I had to make a decision when that plane started veering off,” he said. “I thought, ‘I better get out of here.’ I went through my ejection procedures, jettisoned the hatch and fired the seat. The seat went down and I went through flames and smoke that were billowing up from the hatch… I got burns left side from head to toe, I got a neck flesh wound and I got a sprained left ankle.”

The injuries McDaniel suffered during his ejection would pale in comparison to the fate awaiting him several thousand feet below.

“As I descended in my chute, I heard something go, ‘Zing! Zing!’ I looked up – holes were being torn in the canopy of the parachute where the Vietnamese were shooting at me from the ground. Fortunately, I wasn’t hit but as soon as I hit the ground, I landed on an overgrown hill with grass about knee-high and they were converging on me from all directions.”

McDaniel said he briefly thought about pulling his handgun and shooting it out, but after weighing his options decided that sacrificing his life at that moment wouldn’t do much good. He was captured and transported to a prisoner of war camp.

“They tied me, blindfolded me tight, threw me in the back of a Jeep and away they drove for about a half hour,” he said. “They stopped after about a half hour, dragged me out of the Jeep and threw me into a hut and two or three guards hovered over me all that day. They did their torture at night because it kept the prisoners disoriented and it kept the Vietnamese who were not involved with the prisoners from knowing what was going on.”

He then said he heard the voice of one of his crew members nearby asking for water and at that point he said he knew he had made the right decision to eject from the doomed airplane. Of the others who ejected, their injuries were increasingly worse the later they ejected. One of McDaniel’s crewmen died from the injuries he sustained during the ejection.

As his ordeal dragged on, McDaniel said there were three things that wouldn’t allow him to give up, something he said he was close to doing during some of the worst of the North Vietnamese’s torture.

“You can be tortured so severely and for so long to the extent that if it’s just left to you, you just throw your hands up and give up,” he said. “You have to have some force, some strength, something greater than yourself; outside of yourself, and the things that kept me going were faith in God … my family … faith in my country and in my fellow prisoners.”

Those three things, McDaniel said, were just as important to his survival during his captivity as they were upon his liberation. He went on to describe how some people he was imprisoned with experienced survivor’s guilt, but McDaniel reintegrated using his faith in God, family and country.

“Too many of us today, and you probably know somebody, they’re always complaining about that glass that’s half empty instead of being thankful for, appreciating and using the best use of that half glass they do have,” McDaniel said.

“Live the best we can each day,” McDaniel said.

“Even if the optimists are wrong,” he said. “At least they’re happy and having fun.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com