Former POW tells how he survived

Retired Lt. Col. Ben Purcell still has some of the items with him when he was released from 62 months of captivity in Viet Cong prison camps from 1968 to 1972. On display were his prison uniform and some models of tools he fashioned to escape twice. Purcell spoke to about two dozen soldiers from the 1st Signal Brigade Monday at Memorial Chapel.


By JEREMY KIRK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 27, 2004

YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — Retired Lt. Col. Ben Purcell said he never gave up hope as he passed years in the steamy jungles of Vietnam, a barely-fed prisoner of war who endured despite harsh conditions.

Purcell, who went to Vietnam in 1967, spoke to about two dozen soldiers from the 1st Signal Brigade Monday at Memorial Chapel about what kept him going through 62 months of captivity.

“My sources of strength are quite simple: faith in God and country,” Purcell said. “Every morning I’d wake up and say ‘Ben, maybe this is the day you are going home.’ The sun would go down and I’d say ‘Tomorrow is another day.’”

In early 1968, enemy fire hit the helicopter in which Purcell was riding. It crashed and soon burst into a blazing wreck. Purcell and several others found themselves surrounded by Viet Cong troops armed with automatic weapons.

“So our choice of whether to surrender or not was made for us,” said Purcell, who at the time had five young children and a wife, Anne, in Boonville, Mo. “That was the toughest decision I made in the 30-some years in the military.”

The men were stripped of wedding bands, military identification cards, watches, wallets and combat boots, and started a march through the jungle to a Viet Cong-run prisoner-of-war camp.

When interrogated and asked to write down information, the men would give only their name, rank and serial number. “We recalled the training we had back in infantry school,” Purcell said. “That was all we could give them anyway, and when we refused to give them answers to more questions, they became irate.”

It was just one of many interrogations Purcell would go through over the next few years. They became a matching of wits, he said, a diversion in which he would never reveal important information but would use the sessions as a forum to frustrate the enemy.

One time he was asked the tonnage capacity of Da Nang, a major U.S. port. When asked to revise the false figure he gave the first time, Purcell said he told his interrogator he did want to change it. He lowered the figure to one that was even more inaccurate to the first figure he gave.

The interrogator “just slammed it (the paper) and gave me an ugly look,” Purcell said.

He escaped twice. During one attempt, Purcell fashioned a drill from a scrap of metal and used it to make holes in a wooden door. He had a chicken that would squawk whenever a guard would come by, allowing Purcell to hide his efforts.

He went into Hanoi, a few miles away, and planned to go to the French consulate. Purcell got a ride on a bicycle, and the rider promptly took him to a police station. He was returned to the prison and put in solitary confinement.

But the attempt bolstered his spirit, he said. “My self-image and self-respect went sky high. I had done the best I could. It aggravated the dickens out of them. I don’t want to boast about it. I just want to tell you that it was necessary for my survival.”

Purcell retired from the military in 1980. After his service, he said, he wanted to be his own boss, and now runs a Christmas tree farm in Clarksville, Ga. He and his wife, Anne, co-authored a book about their experiences while Purcell was in captivity, entitled “Love & Duty.” Purcell said he believes his struggle was for the liberation of mankind. “You men and women are here for just such a struggle,” he told the troops, “and I commend you.”

Retired Lt. Col. Ben Purcell speaks to about two dozen soldiers from the 1st Signal Brigade Monday at Memorial Chapel. Purcell spent 62 months in captivity in Viet Cong prison camps from 1968 to 1972.

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