May 24, 2012

Luke hosts POW symposium

by Senior Airman Melanie Holochwost
56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Hundreds gathered at the base theater to hear the stories of seven prisoners of war May 18 at Luke Air Force Base.

During the Vietnam War, these pilots spent anywhere from 55 to 2,734 days as a POW between September 1965 and March 1973.

Air Force Col. Phillip Smith was held the longest. He flew 80 combat missions in the F-104 out of Da Nang Air Base, South Vietnam. Then, he was hit by a Chinese MiG and was forced to eject near Hainan Island. He was captured by the Chinese on Sept. 20, 1965 and held until March 15, 1973.

“Initially, the Chinese didn’t know what to do with me, so I was treated pretty well,” Smith said. “But that didn’t last long. They sent me to a prison in Beijing where I was declared an international criminal, not a POW.”

Assigned to the 308th Fighter Squadron twice in his career, Lt. Col. Melvin Pollock was on his 78th combat mission in the F-4 when he was forced to eject over North Vietnam on July 6, 1967. He was released five years, seven months and 26 days later.

Pollock said even years after he was taken captive, the North Vietnamese would still ask him operational questions.

“No matter what, the North Vietnamese couldn’t get past the fact that we didn’t know anything beyond that day’s mission,” he said. “That really made things difficult for us.”

Navy Capt. John McGrath also spent more than 2,000 days in captivity. After being shot down by anti-aircraft fire on June 20, 1967, he was taken as a POW. Like Pollock, he was also held until March 4, 1973.

“We all went through brutal treatment,” he said. “Although most of us made up stories and got away with it, we still had to break the code of conduct. If you didn’t, you could die.”

McGrath said the meal of choice was usually rice and rocks.

“They tortured us in every way they could,” he said. “I lost 50 pounds. We didn’t receive any medical treatment. No vitamins or minerals. No chopsticks. Not even a Bible. And those rocks in our rice chipped our teeth away.”

Although the treatment was unimaginable, these POWs said they made it through because they had to.

“You get through by just hanging in there,” McGrath said. “None of us volunteered for it. None of us would do it again.”

Air Force Maj. Richard Bates put it all in perspective.

“What choice did we have,” he asked the crowd. “The only difference between me and any one of you is just opportunity.”

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