The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)
‘We don’t give up’
Downed Marine aviator recalls POW ordeal 50 years later
WINSTED — Fifty years ago, in early March 1973, Capt. James Patrick Walsh Jr. received a hero’s welcome here.
Walsh, an aviator with Attack Squadron 211, Marine Air Group 12, logged an entry on Sept. 26, 1972, that stated it was his 100th takeoff for a bombing run over North Vietnam.
There was no entry for the landing. “We were bombing some bad guys that were up on an airfield fairly close to the Cambodian border,” Walsh, a native of Winsted now living in Farmington, said more than 50 years after his A-4 Skyhawk was shot out of the sky.
“I was pulling off target, and all of a sudden, bam!” he said. “Kaboom! Big shudder, flames come out of the front of the airplane, plane started to pitch over. I started to pull it up.”
He tried to radio his wingman in the plane behind him. “Everything was knocked out, dead as a doornail,” he said. He got the nose up and tried to get to where the “friendlies” were and away from enemy fire.
“I got it going a little bit and then the thing just pitched straight down,” he said. “So I looked out, trees were getting bigger. I was going almost 500 miles an hour. And so, like about 3,000 feet I pulled the ejection curtain and out I went.”
Dense air tore at his helmet, turned it around, and he couldn’t see. He managed to turn it back around, then noticed there were rips in his parachute. Again, he tried calling his wingman. Nothing. He barely missed the tops of rubber trees, landed with a jolt that caused a compression fracture to several vertebrae, got out of his chute, looked around and saw some men that he hoped were friendly and could order a rescue helicopter.
They were not friendly.
“This guy looked up,” he said. “They’re
having some rice. It was about 4:30, 5 o’clock, and they were having some rice. And he looks up. Prettiest double-take I’ve ever seen in my life. He threw the rice bowl up and I can still, to this day, see the chopsticks turning in the air, see the rice over here and the bowl over here.”
The North Vietnamese soldiers started shooting, and Walsh started running. He took out his pistol and his first shot hit the shoulder of one of his pursuers. “He’s screaming, so now I’m running, they’re shooting, he’s screaming. I go, ‘it can’t get worse.’ It got worse.”
One of his pursuers yelled, “Throw out your gun,” in English. They captured and beat him, then put him in a hole while they shot at a helicopter that was trying to rescue him. A heavy downpour came, and the Huey gave up.
Hours later, a man with a bandaged shoulder held a pistol to Walsh’s nose and said, “You did this to me.” It was the man Walsh had shot. The man cocked the gun and pulled the trigger, but the gun was empty. “He was just messing with me,” Walsh said.
His seven or eight captors forced him to march about 250 miles over the next three weeks, finally reaching a secluded area in Cambodia where they displayed knives and scalpels, he said.
“I thought, I’m done. They’re going to cut me long, wide and continuously.”
Six other American POWs were at the compound, all imprisoned in small cages with bamboo leaves for cover, he said. His captors “gave me a hammock and a toothbrush, a dish to catch rainwater and get food and some Stripe toothpaste.” An emaciated Army Ranger told Walsh, “You’re gonna look like me in two months.” It only took a month, Walsh said.
Walsh weighed 205 pounds the day he was captured, he said. Months later, he weighed 124.
During nearly six months in captivity, Walsh and the other POWs contracted malaria, and many endured other ailments and injuries, he said. They were constantly on the alert against rats and snakes.
They began to hear rumors of their impending release, and on Feb. 12, 1973, Walsh was among the first of about 600 American POWs to be released as part of Operation Homecoming, a massive prisoner swap under the Paris Peace Accords that eventually ended U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
It was a long trip home, punctuated by a two-day truck ride to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), an Air Force plane to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, a C-141 plane to Hawaii, a fuel stop in San Francisco, a hospital stay at St. Alban’s Naval Hospital in Queens, N.Y., and finally a homecoming to Winsted in March, riding in a car with his parents.
He didn’t expect to see what he saw.
“We traversed the whole Main Street, and every single window and every single storefront had a big poster that said, ‘Welcome Home Jim.’ That was real touching, and it still is to this day,” he said.
Walsh stayed in the Marines another five years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He was a commercial airline pilot for 34 years after that and has been retired for almost 12 years. “Just working on my golf game,” he said.
Walsh was awarded a Bronze Star Medal with Valor citation, which states in part that he “maintained his high degree of tenacity by resisting his captors’ efforts to secure any information from him . ... His courage, resourcefulness, and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”
Asked what kept him going during his 140 days of captivity, Walsh said his Irish Catholic upbringing taught him never to quit.
“If you started, for instance, a sport, you couldn’t quit in the middle of it, because your other teammates are depending on you,” he said. “And so, you take that in a multiple of 10, because you’re never going to quit as a Marine. We don’t give up. The people that did give up didn’t make it.”