Former POW tells of service and sacrifice
Stars and Stripes
AMERICUS — “If we didn’t do something, we wouldn’t get these guys home.”
That’s what Bill Acuri told himself back in 1972, when he thought the U.S. should get out of Southeast Asia, because he felt for the servicemen who were prisoners of war in Vietnam, some of whom he knew. Little did he know that one day soon, he would join their ranks.
Acuri addressed a filled auditorium Wednesday on the campus of Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) during the 2012 National POW/MIA Convocation, in honor of Sept. 21, which is National Prisoner of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) Recognition Day. The annual event is made possible by the National Park Service, the Friends of Andersonville, and GSW.
The convocation was moderated by Glenn Robins, history professor at GSW. Brad Bennett, superintendent of the Andersonville National Historic Site, home to the National POW Museum, welcomed everyone to the 7th annual convocation. The audience was composed of GSW students, faculty and staff, members of Rolling Thunder, staff of the National Park Service, community members and four airman from Andrews Air Force Base. Bennett, in a brief overview of Acuri’s military service, said that Acuri has recently joined the board of trustees of the Friends of Andersonville.
Acuri came from a family history rich in military service. His grandparents came to the United States from Italy and settled in Pennsylvania. His father left that state because he didn’t want to work in the coal mines, choosing a military career instead. While stationed in Tallahassee, Fla., he met the woman who would become his wife. Bill Acuri was born in Tallahassee. His father retired after a 28-year career in the military. Acuri also had a brother and a sister who also served.
He recalled his life growing up in a military family and living around the country. He was given his Eagle Scout award by a Gemini astronaut. He knew many people in the space program, he said, and many pilots in his neighborhood, and that helped to shape his destiny.
So how did a future pilot end up as a West Point graduate?
Acuri explained that he ”goofed off in school” and didn’t make it into the Air Force Academy but was offered a spot in the Academy’s “prep school” in 1965-66. He said that not everyone in the prep school got into the Academy. He was told to wait because many who started out would drop out and there would be a spot for him. But Acuri also had a Congressional appointment to West Point and decided to accept it.
He also knew from growing up in a military background, that West Point allowed transfers.
“Most of the early Air Force officers were Annapolis and West Point graduates until they had the Air Force Academy in 1958,” he said.
He was at West Point from 1966 until 1970.
He had initially intended to remain in the Army but he didn’t want to pilot helicopters.
Robins asked what it was like being in a military academy during the height of the Vietnam War.
“In some respects it was a little depressing,” Acuri said, recalling that every evening at dinner public announcements were made of graduates who were returning from Vietnam to be buried in the West Point Cemetery.
“At first there wasn’t that much connection because they were the class of ‘62, ‘63, ‘64, but by 1969, we were having guys graduate in 1968,” and the next year they were being buried. “It got depressing because we knew them,” he said.
It was during his time at West Point that Acuri met a girl on a blind date, Andie, to whom he’s been married for 42 years.
After graduation and marriage, Acuri was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force and assigned to Moody Air Force Base, Valdosta, where he was a member of an experimental class, all Air Force Academy graduates except for a couple of from West Point.
After completing the 11-month program, he was assigned to the Strategic Air Command (SAC) on the B-52 and went through further training. He checked out in the B-52 at his home base of Dill in Colorado in 1972.
Robins asked about how it was in the states while he was preparing for deployment to Southeast Asia.
Acuri said his wife got a teaching job in Adel while he was in flight training at Moody. It was during this time that the U.S. made an unsuccessful night-time raid into Son Tay to free POWs.
The mood during that time, for Acuri, was that he felt it was time for the U.S. get out, that Vietnam was as democratic as it was ever going to be.
“But as an Air Force officer and knowing that there were American men and women over there as POWS, I felt it was my duty to go and fight and if what I did over there would save the life of one person, I would.”
He described the B-52 as a “big plane” with a 200-ft. wing span and a fully loaded weight of about 500,000 lbs. at takeoff.
“A really heavy bomber,” he said.
The plane had eight engines, in four pods.
“Each of those pods was the equivalent to the power of a steaming locomotive,” he said. “There’s enough wiring in that plane that you can stretch it across the country. And there’s enough metal on that plane to make 10,000 garbage cans. They asked us how it flew and we said, ‘It flies like four locomotives wired together with 10,000 garbage cans.’ But actually it was a very forgiving plane to fly.”
The B-52 G Model carried 27 bombs, each 750 lbs., he said.
Acuri was asked to describe some of his missions. He said he flew about 40 missions during his first tour in Vietnam, those being 15-hour missions.
In support of Operation Bullet Shot, also known as LineBacker I, Acuri was assigned with the 64th Bomb Squadron at Andersen AFB, Guam.
Going into service, Acuri knew there were risks. He had known someone from Patrick AFB who had been shot down, later listed as MIA. He also knew the family background of another POW to whom he would send information about his family back home while in the compound. That POW had flown in World War II and Korea before being shot down in Vietnam. Later, while in the Hanoi Hilton, Acuri would encounter two of his former classmates from the Air Force Academy’s prep school.
“I’m glad I went over there because I knew if we didn’t do something, we wouldn’t get these guys home,” he said.
While he was home on a 28-day leave between his first and second tours of duty, peace negotiations were underway in Paris, and it was generally thought that an end to the conflict in Vietnam was imminent.
In early December when he returned for his second tour and after a couple of missions, they were ordered to stand down.
Just prior to the stand down order, Acuri said that three B-52s were taking off from Guam every 40 minutes, 24 hours a day, so a stand down order was encouraging.
Then fighters started coming into the base. They learned that the North Vietnamese had walked away from the peace negotiations. They were informed they would be instituting a three-day bombing raid on North Vietnam, hitting any military and industrial target.
On Dec. 18, 1972, Acuri said they were picked to go the third night. There were three waves each night, of about 125 bombers each. They were told there would be no evasive action, to fly over the target, drop their bombs and then evade. They were told they would not evade until they were on their way out.
“After flying six missions the previous two nights,” he said, ... the enemy didn’t even need to use their radar because they knew where the B-52s would be.
On Dec. 20, Acuri said they were number three in the cell, the worst position because the enemy tracked the first two planes and fired at the third.
His aircraft was struck by three surface-to-air missiles while bombing the railroad marshaling yards in Yin Vien, just north of Hanoi, North Vietnam.
Acuri said one missile struck the cockpit, one struck the bomb bay and the other, the tail.
Forced to bailout at 500 mph, he was injured and immediately captured by villagers after landing on some bamboo. He said he removed his helmet “for comfort” and took out his .38 revolver and removed the bullets, throwing them away, and smashing his radio. A old Vietcong woman came at him with a hoe, smashing him in his head; then a man ran up, snatched the .38, pointed it at him and started firing an empty weapon. He said the Vietnamese started stripping off his clothing and equipment and began beating him until being were stopped by four Vietcong soldiers, one of whom “relocated” his dislocated knee, saving his leg. Upon being loaded into the back of jeep, he landed on one of his crew members who had also been captured.
He was interrogated his first night in captivity. The enemy wanted to know what was going on. For all Acuri knew, they would be ordered to stand down after that three-day bombing mission, but bombers kept coming over the next days, which, he said, was not a good sign for him. They persisted. Acuri said he finally told them to go ask the pilot because he was only the co-pilot.
Acuri was held captive in the Hanoi Hilton prison complex for the next 55 days. He described the harsh conditions of his captivity such as not being allowed to dump their waste buckets. It would be 35 days before he was able to walk and get outside his cell to try to find water for a bath.
As a result of his injuries he was in the first group of returning POWs as part of Operation Homecoming, flown from Hanoi and to Clark AFB on Feb. 12, 1973.
Acuri resigned his commission in the Air Force in July 1976, and began a civilian career. He is now retired and he and his wife live in Jupiter, Fla.
Acuri was asked his feelings about the Vietnam Traveling Wall.
He said there were two crew members that they never knew what happened to them. They were told the two went down with the plane and their bodies were recovered in 1977. Their names are on the wall.
“The wall has meaning for me for that. Four of my classmates at the Air Force Academy are on the wall and my flight instructor at Moody. It’s very meaningful and with Rolling Thunder here remembering the MIAs and POWs. The wall is a memorial to all the Americans lost, about 59,000 of them, and its shape: it ends where it begins.”
As a final question, Acuri was asked why he speaks about his military service and time as a POW.
“As someone else said, ‘in order to never forget, we must always remember.’ Service before self ... We want them to know that we appreciate their service. After Vietnam, the Vietnam veterans never got the recognition they deserved for what they did ... It’s not so much about the war but about the soldiers ... ”
The annual Convocation begins four days of area events in recognition of National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Rolling Thunder’s annual “The Ride Home” event brings the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall to the GSW campus from today through Saturday. The wall can be visited 24/7 during this period. The wall is a three-fifths replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and is nearly 300 feet in length. Rolling Thunder ceremonies to remember military service members still listed as Missing in Action and to honor former POWs will also occur on the campus of GSW. More information on the “The Ride Home” event may be found at http://theridehome.com/ and at www.americustimesrecorder.com
The weekend of National POW/MIA Recognition Day is also a final opportunity for the public to visit the “We Can Forgive But Never Forget” temporary exhibit at the National Prisoner of War Museum. Developed to honor the 70th anniversary of the fall of the Philippines, this exhibit features photographs, and personal belongings from prisoners held by the Japanese during World War II who fought on Bataan and Corregidor.
Distributed by MCT Information Services