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Former POW, Israeli general close out Gathering of Eagles

By REBECCA BURYLO | Montgomery Advertiser, Ala. | Published: June 3, 2016

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — Gen. Charles Boyd spent nearly seven years as a prisoner during the Vietnam War, and when he was freed, he swore his life would not be defined by his time as a POW. 

Boyd, 78, shared how he overcame torture and continues to fly today with student officers of Air Command and Staff College on Thursday, the third and final day of the 35th annual Gathering of Eagles at Maxwell Air Force Base.

Other Eagles who spoke were Brig. Gen. Amir Nachumi, who served in the Israeli Air Force and conducted the 1981 Israeli Strike, and Master Sgt. Timothy Wilkinson, a pararescueman in the Battle of Mogadishu. Col. Ed Shames, a surviving member of the Easy Company’s “Band of Brothers” in World War II, was unable to attend this week’s events but was honored.

On Wednesday, students heard from Lt. Col. Leo Gray, a Tuskegee Airman; Dawn Seymour, one of America’s first female military pilots during WWII; Lt. Gen. LeRoy Manor, who helped free prisoners of war from the Son Tay camp in Vietnam; and Col. Leo Thorsness, who spent six years as a POW during the Vietnam War.

The Eagles celebrated the final day of the program with a cookout that featured vintage aircraft from their time in the service. The Eagles will depart Friday.

Prisoner of Hanoi Hilton

Boyd was held in the Hanoi Hilton, the famous North Vietnamese prisoner camp, for 2,488 days. Hope and strength of character he learned from his mother helped him become more than a survivor; he had renewed life.

“I put that whole thing behind me when I left Vietnam and arrived at Clark Air Force Base,” Boyd said. “At the time, I told a young reporter from the Des Moines Register —and I meant it — that I was not going to spend the rest of my life as a returned POW and nothing else.

“I still have more life in me.”

Before his capture, Boyd piloted the F-105D Thunderchief and on his 105th combat mission, on April 22, 1966, he flew through a surface-to-air missile (SAM) site.

He evaded multiple enemy missiles but eventually received a direct hit that forced him to eject over North Vietnam. Boyd was captured and was one of 52 American forced to walk in the Hanoi March in 1966 when they walked through the streets of the city and were beaten by North Vietnamese civilians. He was finally freed on Feb. 12, 1973, through Operation Homecoming.

He is the only Vietnam War prisoner of war to reach the rank of four-star general. He continued to serve in the Air Force until 1995 and was president and commander of Air University at Maxwell from 1990 to 1992.

This week spent with his fellow Eagles was “remarkable,” and he impressed on ACSC students to cultivate those same values, build character and endure.

'Life or death' mission

In 1981, Nachumi and his country of Israel were faced with possible annihilation. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein boasted he was about to have the only nuclear weapon in the Middle East.

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at that time feared Hussein’s weapon — charged by the Iraq Osirak nuclear reactor — would be used against Israel. He ordered Nachumi and seven others on a secret strike to destroy the reactor before the weapon became operational.

Nachumi led four F-16 fighters of a team of eight into enemy territory and executed the attack, named Operation Opera. It was the longest mission he flew over enemy territory.

Before the initial briefing, Nachumi thought it would be like any other mission. However, when he left the meeting, he felt a deep sense of responsibility to save his country. He was also running out of time.

“There was a deadline for the mission,” Nachumi said. “If the reactor became hot, and we attacked it, that would be disastrous. We wanted to stop the program without making collateral damage.

“This was a heavy mission. We were just eight pilots, and we were going to do something that if we fail, it will not stop a possible disaster from our people.”

Nachumi feared that if the weapon became operational, even if it was not used, the threat it levied against Israel was enough to force the entire nation to move from their homes.

“We could not fail,” Nachumi said.

Using 16 unguided bombs weighing 2,000 pounds each, Nachumi and his team destroyed the reactor and returned home unharmed and with a feeling of exhilaration that was “indescribable.”

Band of Brothers

Shames, who was unable to attend this week’s Gathering of Eagles, was still honored, and his actions as the last surviving officer of Easy Company’s “Band of Brothers” in WWII was shared with ACSC students.

Made famous by the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” and the book by historian Stephen Ambrose, Shames and his unit served in several critical moments of the Allied Invasion as a part of the 3rd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

The unit was an experimental airborne regiment created in 1942 to parachute from C-47 transport airplanes over enemy territory. Shames and his team parachuted into Normandy on D-Day to prepare the way and clear obstacles for Allied forces to land on the beach a few hours later.

They also fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, liberated Nazi concentration camps and assisted in the capture of Adolf Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. Shames received a battlefield commission in June 1944 for his actions of valor.

Black Hawk Down

Wilkinson, who declined to speak with media during the GOE week, was a pararescueman in the Battle of Mogadishu, popularly known as Black Hawk Down after being interpreted into film. The battle was a part of Operation Gothic Serpent, which was fought for two days in October 1993 between Somalia militia and the United States.

The operation was supposed to last an hour, but it turned into a standoff and rescue mission that lasted overnight and into the next morning.

Elite Special Forces from Army, Air Force and Navy, including Delta Force, were sent on a mission to capture the leaders of an enemy Somalian clan. Assault began and two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades. The mission quickly turned into a secure and recovery mission of the downed Army Ranger crews.

Wilkinson conducted a fast-rope insertion into the crash site and exposed himself to enemy fire. He provided emergency medical treatment to survivors and extracted crew members from the wreckage.

The battle, the longest sustained firefight of a US combat force in 20 years, resulted in 18 deaths, 73 wounded, and one helicopter pilot captured among the U.S. forces. Somali casualties were estimated at nearly 3,000.

Wilkinson was awarded the Air Force Cross for his actions.

©2016 the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Ala.)
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