National Day of Recognition of Prisoners of War / MIA | Sponsored
On March 12, 1967, United States Air Force Captain John Clark piloted an RF-4C Phantom II on a tactical reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam. In an attempt to stay under the enemy’s radar and give the anti-aircraft gun crews less time to capture, it flew at an extremely low altitude – just 30 meters above the ground.
The RF-4C was an unarmed supersonic jet aircraft that carried a variety of film-based cameras as well as infrared and radar sensors for the purpose of information gathering. The two-seat tandem aircraft was manned by pilots whose motto was “Alone, unarmed and without fear”.
Although Clark and the other pilot on his plane viewed this particular mission as a low risk “milk run”, their circumstances quickly changed after their jet was hit by 37mm groundfire.
“We were flying at about 600 mph when the plane hit and started to tumble,” said Clark. âWe were heading to the side of a mountain and the plane was out of control. At that point, we were only on the ride, so we had to get out. “
Clark was unable to reach the primary ejector handles above his head as the extreme G-forces were created when the plane spun out of control. Instead, he grabbed the fuse ejector handle between his legs and pulled on it.
“There was no time to consider other important factors like the position of the canopy relative to the ground,” said Clark. âThe plane went down end over end and if we had ejected with the canopy down we would both have been shot into the ground and killed instantly. However, we had to get out, so I pulled the handle and nothing happened. “
Clark’s thoughts immediately returned to his training. He remembered that there would be a slight delay before the explosive charge detonated that would throw him and his seat off the plane. Although it felt like forever, it was only a quarter of a second.
“My head is tossed from side to side and I remember my arm wagging uncontrollably,” said Clark. âI couldn’t see anything but a gray spot, interrupted by flashes of light. When my parachute opened, I saw our plane crash into the mountain. To understand how quickly this all happened, it took less than five seconds for my plane to explode.
As if by a miracle, both pilots succeeded in ejecting and landing reasonably safely. Clark was captured almost immediately. The other pilot of his jet attacked the enemy with his weapon and was killed.
The next day, Clark stood in front of the gatehouse of Hanoi’s infamous Hoa Lo prison. It was better known as the “Hanoi Hilton” to nearly 600 Americans held there during the Vietnam War. For Clark, that day marked the beginning of his 2,170 days as a prisoner of war.
Clark was born and raised in Columbia, Missouri. As an alumnus of Hickman High School, he graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) in 1962 and was appointed to the MU’s Air Force ROTC program. Until 1966 he flew combat missions over Southeast Asia as part of the 11th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. After more than 80 combat missions, he was shot down and captured.
Those held at the Hanoi Hilton were mistreated on a daily basis. The sentences included longer solitary confinement – sometimes up to three years at a time – and torture. The purpose was to force the prisoners of war to join the propaganda efforts of North Vietnam to move US public opinion against the war.
“Prisoners captured before me had created a special tap code that allowed us to communicate with one another,” said Clark. “Even if they isolated us, we could still connect.”
During their years of captivity, the prisoners of war remained devoted to each other. When given the opportunity to be released – as part of the enemy’s plan to encourage participation in their propaganda efforts – the prisoners of war refused, which meant more sentences.
“We would not accept early discharge,” said Clark. âNone of us would go home unless we all went home. Regardless of what the enemy did to us or what they called us, we were still members of the US armed forces and acted accordingly. “
After extensive B-52 air strikes on Hanoi in late 1972, a ceasefire was negotiated between the United States and North Vietnam, which included the release of the prisoners of war in early 1973. Clark had spent almost six years in captivity – three of which his family thought he was dead.
After his release, Clark continued to serve in the Air Force and retired as a colonel in 1992. His medals and awards include the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Purple Hearts, the Meritorious Service Medal, six air medals, the Air Force Commendation Medal and two gallantry crosses of the Republic of Vietnam.
Today, September 17, 2021, is National Prisoner of War Recognition Day / MIA. The staff at Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital would like to convey our gratitude to Col. Clark for his service to our nation and for sharing his incredible story of dedication and perseverance. We also thank all of the other US veterans held as prisoners of war. In addition, we would like to recognize those families whose relatives are still in action and would like to support them.
Truman VA is committed to excellent patient care, education and research. Located in Columbia, Missouri, Truman VA offers veterans from 43 counties in Missouri and Pike County, Illinois a comprehensive continuum of inpatient and outpatient health services. In addition to the flagship 130 bed facility, Truman VA also has eight outpatient outpatient clinics in Jefferson City, Kirksville, Marshfield, Mexico, Osage Beach, St. James, Sedalia, and Waynesville. Truman VA provides approximately 40,000 veterans each year with comprehensive services that include primary care, medical and surgical specialties, behavioral health, physical and occupational therapy, pharmacy services, and more. For more information on VA health care, call (573) 814-6535.