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Vietnam Hero and Ex-POW Col. Robert Purcell Dies At 78 Years Old|
Posted on December 11, 2009
Danny "Greasy" Belcher, Executive Director
Task Force Omega of KY Inc.
Vietnam Infantry Sgt. 68-69
"D" Troop 7th Sqdn. 1st Air Cav
Movie actors play heroes in movies. Col. Purcell was not a movie star. He was the real thing. People with his values sure are scarce. If you ever met Percy, you met a true American hero.
----- Original Message -----
Sent: Wednesday, December 09, 2009 11:07 PM
Subject: Vietnam veteran spent nearly eight years as a POW, keeping his honor and sense of humor
Vietnam veteran spent nearly eight years as a POW, keeping his honor and sense of humor
Posted Wednesday, Dec. 09, 2009
By CHRIS VAUGHN
FORT WORTH — Sometimes the measure of a man comes from the stories people tell about him.
And there are a lot of stories circulating now about Robert Purcell, an Air Force pilot who spent an almost incomprehensible time — July 27, 1965, to Feb. 12, 1973 — in a North Vietnamese prison.
Col. Purcell — Percy to those who knew him — died in his home in Fort Worth on Sunday.
Here’s one of those stories.
A prison guard came into Col. Purcell and retired Air Force Col. Bernard Talley’s cell one day. He wanted them to bow.
Col. Purcell wouldn’t. Following his lead, Talley refused, too.
The guard slapped Purcell. Then he slapped him again harder. Then again.
"Why don’t you hit me harder?" Col. Purcell said.
The guard closed his fist and struck. Punch after punch followed.
Col. Purcell repeated his request. The guard kept complying, until he quit because his hands hurt.
When the guard left their cell, Col. Purcell asked Talley to tap out a message to the other prisoners using the code they developed to communicate with one another through walls.
"Tell them Magoo understands English," Col. Purcell said, using the nickname for that guard.
That was Col. Purcell to all who knew him — stubborn, tough as nails, loyal and witty in the darkest hours.
He’d had more than his fair share of dark hours.
After a fall he took at home the last day of 2005, Col. Purcell was paralyzed and considerably weakened physically. A bout of pneumonia finally took its toll last weekend. He was 78.
No one ever heard him complain.
"There was never a 'Why me?’ thing," said his wife, Suzanne Purcell, who quit her teaching job at Fort Worth Country Day School to care for him. "I said that a lot — why him? Hasn’t he paid his dues enough? But he didn’t say it."
Col. Purcell, born on Valentine’s Day in 1931 in Louisville, Ky., will be memorialized at a service this weekend at St. Louis Bertrand Catholic Church in his hometown. In a few weeks, he will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Here’s another story.
The Vietnamese guards wanted Air Force pilot and POW Jon Reynolds to write an antiwar letter in 1966. He refused. So they refused to give him food. He had gone eight days without food when they moved him to a cell next to Col. Purcell.
Col. Purcell knew what was happening. He had been through that drill. He tapped to Reynolds to expect something during the guard’s "siesta time."
Early that afternoon, Reynolds heard scratching above his head. The single light bulb from the ceiling came loose. Debris fell onto the floor.
Through the hole, Col. Purcell passed bread — part of his own ration — to Reynolds. He smiled, waved and pulled the light bulb fixture back up. He never figured out how Col. Purcell got up into the ceiling.
Col. Purcell received his pilot wings in 1954 and was a captain when he began flying combat missions over North Vietnam in 1965.
He was, according to a former commander, the "loudest, friendliest, smallest, most nervous" pilot he’d ever been around. Col. Purcell used to joke with pilots that for every outstanding officer evaluation he had, he had an accompanying Article 15 disciplinary mark.
Wild, in a way that pilots today can’t get away with.
"I first met Percy in 1962 after the Cuban missile crisis," said Reynolds, a retired brigadier general who lives in Wilmington, Del. "I walked into the O Club, and it was chaos. I saw one guy in a raincoat, and he seemed to be leading the charge. I asked someone who that was. He said, 'Man, that is the one and only Bob Purcell.’ "
On July 27, his 25th combat mission in the F-105 Thunderchief, Col. Purcell’s low-flying aircraft was hit by ground fire. He lost a wing. He ejected, and the plane exploded.
Everyone thought he died. His family in Louisville had a funeral.
In reality, he was the 17th man taken prisoner of war.
He spent 17 months in solitary confinement until the Vietnamese moved him into Talley’s cell at a place called "the Zoo," an annex of the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
"He was the old head," said Talley, who lives in Frisco. "He knew the system. He had been through the worst of the worst. If you were to write a job description for a POW, he would fit it. He gave the Vietnamese fits. Everybody respected him."
At the end of his military career, completed in 1980 at Carswell Air Force Base, he had received the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars for valor, two Purple Hearts, two Legions of Merit and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Here’s another story.
In 1966, after a U.S. raid in Hanoi, the guards pulled many of the prisoners out of the camp, shackled them together and forced them to march through an angry mob in town. People were throwing rocks, screaming, wanting the blood of the only aviators they could get their hands on.
Reynolds didn’t think they would survive the crowd.
Col. Purcell turned to him.
"Look, it’s a parade," he said. "I love a parade."
Reynolds and Talley said Col. Purcell was a positive influence on the other men, no matter the circumstances.
"Percy taught me so much by what he did for the country and for me in particular," Talley said. "He made me realize that you have to take the bitter with the better."
Col. Purcell met his second wife, Suzanne, in a Chicago airport in 1976 as both of them headed to the Kentucky Derby. They married on March 4, 1977.
"I was fascinated," she said. "He was so normal and upbeat, I thought, after having been a POW for so long."
Although the Air Force never cleared Col. Purcell to return to flight, he became a simulator pilot instructor for American Airlines for 15 years after his military retirement.
He loved to play tennis, root for Louisville Cardinal basketball and speak to students about history.
Years later, interviewed by the Star-Telegram on the 30th anniversary of his release from captivity, he said he stood up under the torture, humiliation, degradation and loneliness by taking it "one minute at a time or one day at a time, sometimes a second at a time."
"It marked me forever," he said then. "But in a good way. It gives me a sense of maturity and perspective that I never would have had."
Other survivors include five children, Rebecca Arts of Charlotte, N.C., Cheryl Snow of Colorado Springs, Colo., Danny Purcell of Columbus, Ohio, Kelly Purcell of Louisville and Matthew Purcell of Fort Worth; nine grandchildren; and a sister, Jeanne Marie Purcell of Louisville.
He made me
realize that you have to take the bitter with the better."
retired Air Force colonel
CHRIS VAUGHN, 817-390-7547
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