A former POW’s tale of hell and heroism
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Lt. Col. James Lamar looked around. He couldn’t remember the parachute ride to the ground.
When he punched out of his F-105D, it was on fire and hurtling through the sky close to the speed of sound. When he hit the air stream, the force of it punched him in the face, ripped off his helmet and knocked him unconscious. He woke up in a wooded clearing with a broken left arm and an angry mob of Vietnamese peasants surrounding him. After stripping off his clothes, they handed him over to North Vietnamese soldiers, who took him to a hut and tortured him overnight and into the next day.
Lamar would spend the next six years and nine months of his life as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. He spent most of the time in the “Hanoi Hilton,” the notorious prison known both for the sadism of its captors and the courage and sheer willpower of its captives.
“I spent almost seven years in the company of some of the finest men I have ever had the pleasure to know,” said Lamar, who visited Kadena Air Base last week. The retired colonel gave several speeches as a guest of the Air Force Sergeant’s Association and the 18th Wing.
‘A milk run’
The railroad marshaling yard near the village of Yen Bai was supposed to be a routine target. Guarded by the usual assortment of anti-aircraft cannons, there was nothing indicating what was in store for Lamar on May 6, 1966. It was his 201st combat mission, 101 of them in Vietnam.
“This was considered a milk run,” he said.
Leading a group of fighter-bombers from 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron on an afternoon raid, Lamar slipped over a mountain range. As he approached the rail yard, he could see tell-tale puffs of anti-aircraft shells exploding underneath his plane at 6,000 feet, right above the target.
Swallowing his fear, he nosed his jet down toward his target to descend to bomb-release altitude. Right after he entered the flak layer, Lamer pickled his bombs.
That’s when he felt his plane shudder. And that’s when things turned ugly. Fire began bellowing from behind his instrument panel. Lines severed by the shell spewed hydraulic liquid, fueling the fire.
“It was like an acetylene torch,” he said. Lamar pulled out of his dive, opened up the throttle, and kicked in the afterburner. The speed threw him back into his seat and he gained altitude. As the fire grew, Lamar did his best to avoid the exploding shells. His goal was to get as close as he could to a bail-out point before he had to eject. As Lamar kept the F-105D airborne, an excited junior pilot in his squadron broke orders to maintain radio silence.
“I heard him say, ‘Get out lead, you got a big fire going.’ If he could see me on fire several miles away it was bad. So I ejected.”
‘They broke me’
The first night on the ground was hell.
As Lamar nursed a broken arm, the Vietnamese used ropes to tie and twist his body into knots. Still, Lamar held on. He told his interrogators nothing but what the Code of Conduct requires – name, rank service number and date of birth.
But eventually, the interrogators hit their mark. He was broken. He said he gave out worthless information.
“The pain was excruciating. You get to a point where you think you could stand it, and then they tightened it up. I’m not proud to tell you that they broke me, but they did.”
The next day Lamar was dragged in front of reporters for a press conference.
When they asked him a question, he pointed to his interrogators and spoke about them.
“They tortured me all night to get that information, and you’re gonna have to torture me, too.”
The reporters swarmed the North Vietnamese officers, whose government had previously denied that they tortured prisoners of war.
“I spoiled the press conference,” he said.
Lamar was eventually taken to the Hao Lo Prison, the “Hanoi Hilton.” He was there with now-Senator John McCain, and was a cell mate of then-Capt. James Stockdale, both of whom were Navy attack pilots.
The battle the POWs fought to maintain their dignity and keep resisting the enemy has become the stuff of legend.
Prisoners routinely chose to be tortured and disfigured rather than betray each other or give their captors even superficial victories. Stockdale on at least one occasion beat himself with a stool, rather than allow the Vietnamese to use his image for propaganda.
And like McCain, Lamar carries the scars of his confinement. His broken arm never healed properly and still has a limited range of movement. Lamar later found out that all the prisoners had been tortured, and all of them broke.
“All were tortured, no one held out,” he said.
Lamar’s captivity ended in 1973 during Operation Homecoming, a series of transport flights that brought POWs back to the United States. He received numerous awards for his actions as a POW, including one incident where his captors dug a grave for him and threatened to kill him if he didn’t radio a rescue crew into a trap where they would have been shot down.
Lamar retired from the Air Force in 1976.
Flight is highlight of pilot’s Kadena trip
Not long after Col. James Lamar returned from almost seven years as a POW in North Vietnam and just before he retired with 28 years of service in the Air Force, someone asked him what he would do when he left the military.
“I told him that from now on, I’m going to be in the business of selling America to Americans,” he said Friday at a breakfast commemorating the sacrifices of POWs and MIAs.
Last week, Lamar, 80, found his target audience while he and his wife, Judy, visited Kadena Air Base as guests of the 18th Wing and the Air Force Sergeants’ Association.
In speeches around the base, he talked about his POW experiences, but his themes were deeper; no matter what happens, have faith in God, your family and your country.
Master Sgt. David Wade, 37, of Roanoke, Va., said Friday’s speech was moving.
“I’ve been to many events in my time as a senior NCO and his words were very powerful,” Wade said.
As part of Lamar’s tour of Kadena, he was given a familiarization flight of a two-seater F-15 by Lt. Col. Rick “Chase” Boutwell, commander of the 44th Fighter Squadron, of which Lamar was once a member.
Lamar said it was the highlight of his trip. His wife said it was the first time he had been in a military jet since immediately after his release from captivity in 1973.
The veteran pilot flew 100 combat missions in Korea and 101 in Vietnam. Lamar, who has flown some of the icons of military aviation including the F-51 Mustang, the F-86 Sabre and the F-105 Thunderchief, was able to compare notes with pilots who weren’t even born when he was captured in North Vietnam after a bombing raid in 1966.
“He has more combat experience than my guys have pulling the handle (to fly),” Boutwell said.
Boutwell did his best to give Lamar a ride to remember. He took off, kicked in the F-15’s afterburners, pulled the nose up and within seconds was at 15,000 feet.
After the flight, Boutwell, a former member of the Thunderbirds acrobatic flying team, said Lamar was all smiles after the ascent.
“He said, ‘I’ve never been in an airplane that had the ability to do that,’ ” said Boutwell.
Boutwell took Lamar though different combinations of medium and high G-force turns, which, according to Boutwell, the retired colonel did without passing out.
“Most people my age couldn’t do that,” he said.
After Boutwell taxied the plane into its shelter after the flight, the canopy opened and Lamar was all smiles.
“Fabulous,” he said. “I enjoyed it immensely. We went around and danced through the clouds some.”