WASHINGTON — “Anyone can carry his burden, however hard until nightfall; anyone can do his work however hard for one day.”
These words were penned by Robert Louis Stevenson about one hundred years before retired Air Force fighter pilot Col. Jim Kasler used them to describe the challenge of daily life as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
For nearly seven years Kasler carried that burden every day with honor, pride and dignity. He was a remarkable man, an incredible officer and a true American hero. On April 24, 2014, Kasler left the burdens of this world behind. While his legacy is an enduring gift to our Air Force, all Airmen should feel the loss.
I never had the privilege of meeting Kasler, but his military career spans more than three decades of service. It’s hard to believe, but when he reported for duty in Vietnam, then-Maj. Kasler was beginning his third war as an Airman. He is one of a treasured generation who fought three wars and built our Air Force.
As a 19-year-old B-29 Superfortress tail gunner, he flew combat missions over Japan in World War II. Following the war and college, he moved into the cockpit of an F-86 Sabre and served in Korea where he flew 100 combat missions and shot down six MiGs, earning the elite rank of Air Force jet ace.
But it was his final conflict that would prove to be the most challenging.
Soon after arriving in Southeast Asia, Kasler established that his success in Korea would continue in Vietnam by leading a successful strike on a heavily-defended petroleum storage facility. So successful, his fellow pilots lauded him as “The Destroyer” for his effectiveness in the F-105 Thunderchief. This strike earned him the Air Force Cross, the first of three.
Not long afterward in 1966, on his 91st mission in Vietnam, Kasler’s wingman was hit by ground fire and he ejected. He kept watch over the downed pilot until he was almost out of fuel. On his way back to coordinate the rescue of his wingman after refueling, Kasler’s aircraft was hit and he ejected, earning him a second Air Force Cross and the beginning of an incredibly horrible tenure as a prisoner of war when he was captured soon after hitting the ground.
Kasler’s third Air Force Cross was awarded for his inconceivable resistance to abuse by the North Vietnamese. He shared the infamous Room 7 of the “Hanoi Hilton” with other great heroes like retired Brig. Gen. Robbie Risner, retired Navy Vice Adm. James Stockdale, retired Col. Bud Day, retired Navy Capt. and current Arizona Sen. John McCain, retired Col. Larry Guarino and retired Navy Rear Adm. Jeremiah Denton.
Beatings, starvation, sleep deprivation and brainwashing became regular occurrences. The worst of the torture came in the summer of 1968 when his captors attempted to force him to make statements in support of an anti-American propaganda event. He was tortured for six weeks. He was denied sleep for five days straight, beaten every hour on the hour for three days and all the while was fed barely enough food to stay alive.
Eventually he, and his fellow POWs, learned to face their captors one day at a time, to endure all they could until nightfall, when they could get a few hours of relief. This became the pattern of their lives.
He later said “Our treatment in Hanoi only strengthened our resistance and our faith in our country and its cause in Southeast Asia … we could have easily compromised our beliefs and made our lives much easier by cooperating with the Vietnamese. But our goal was to return home with our honor.”
He never cooperated with the North Vietnamese and survived to return home in March of 1973 after 6 1/2 years in captivity.
Kasler’s service spanned 31 years and three wars. He earned 76 awards for valor and service. In addition to being the only man awarded the Air Force Cross three times, Kasler was decorated twice with the Silver Star, a Legion of Merit, nine awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Bronze Star Medals, two Purple Hearts and 11 Air Medal awards.
But what was most important to him was his honor, and return with honor he did. Those who knew him, say he was a humble man, who never expected to be honored. He believed in family, God and our nation, and he showed us all what courage, sacrifice and honor really look like.
Today’s Airmen have a lot to learn from Colonel Kasler. His story is an inspiration to persevere, no matter the circumstances they face. Night has fallen for Jim Kasler; he carried his burden exceedingly well, and his Air Force will miss him.