'The first thing I'm going to do ...'
CLARK AB, R.P. — The last time Maj. Jay R. Jensen saw his little girl she was a moppet of 10. She has yet to turn 17, but is already married — and Jensen is a grandfather.
That happened last December, Jensen told a newsman Monday — one of the many unseen landmarks of the life he passed in the darkness of a North Vietnamese prison. Shot down when his F105 jet aircraft was hit by a surface to air missile on Feb. 18, 1967, he was liberated six years to the day later — walked aboard a C141 StarLifter Sunday at Gia Lam Airfield, outside Hanoi and was flown with 19 other former prisoners of war to this base 50 miles north of Manila.
His daughter's marriage and motherhood got only short shrift in his conversation — as did the doleful fact that his wife divorced him three years ago.
"I was repatriated the day I was shot down," Jensen related, "exactly six years later ... I feel that I have spent six years in hell and that I have been resurrected and I'm going to start a new life."
One of the 20 returnees who arrived at Clark AB Sunday, Navy Lt. James W. Bailey, flew home Monday to be with his critically ill father.
Homecoming officials said the other returnees were spirited and healthy, and said their processing at the base hospital would be completed in time to move late Wednesday to hospitals near their Stateside homes. Some officials believed all or most might fly out Tuesday.
Jensen and five other returnees from North Vietnamese captivity met a like number of newsmen who were allowed brief, carefully monitored interviews and agreed to share what they heard and wrote with their colleagues.
Capt. Michael C. Lane, whose parents five in Atlanta, was told the miniskirt was out and mourned its passing.
"I only saw one in London — before I was shot down," Lane said.
Capt. Kevin J. McManus, whose wife lives in Falls Church, Va., told of marrying her only three months before he was shot down in June of 1967. They had only four days together before that.
"She's never even cooked me a cup of coffee," McManus said. But a long distance phone call from the Clark Air Base hospital to Washington, where Mary J. McManus works for the Republican National Committee, told him that, "she hasn't really changed and that's what really counts."
"My wife and I had one goal — to have 16 kids. After that, it doesn't matter."
Air Force Capt. Herbert B. Ringsdorf, Elba, Ala., told of having an "understanding" with a girl before he was shot down and captured on Nov. 11, 1966. While he sat out a time capsule existence, she married someone else.
Navy Cmdr. James G. Pirie, Birmingham, Ala., had been away since June 22, 1967. He told of a small feast set before him and his fellow returnees at the base hospital — "things we had literally dreamed of" — and how he used a knife and fork for the first time in six years.
"I didn't have any trouble," Pirie said.
Five years was a long time for Capt. Edward Mechenbier, Dayton, Ohio, and for McManus — the "backseater" of the F4C Phantom Mechenbier piloted when the two Air Force Academy classmates went down together on June 14, 1967. One thing sustained him, Mechenbier said-his strong belief in God and his assurance that his wife, Claudia, was praying for him.
All of the men talked of binding up the loose ends of lost years — particularly Jensen.
"I've put six years of time and study on planning an extensive wardrobe," he said. "And I plan on taking a little bit of time and expert advice on picking it. I will have to do that immediately if I'm going to do anything else.
"One of the first things I want to do is go on vacation with my children. Plan an extended vacation as soon as they're out of school. I hope to get as much leave as I can possibly get. I hope to take them around the world. I'm going to take every day I can get."
Besides marking it as the most significant anniversary of his life, Jensen will remember that Sunday outside Hanoi for something else — being taken to the airport in a bus and viewing "the most beautiful airplane in the world," along with another sight that six years before would have been routine and mundane.
"It was pretty good to see American uniforms," he recalled, "and awfully nice to see smiling faces ..."
"When they started those engines, we cheered, and when they lifted off, I believe it was our voices that lifted off."
Rules governing the interviews banned discussion of wounds or injuries suffered by prisoners or any revelations of prison life that might bring reprisals on those still interned.
Mechenbier said the prisoners drew strength from one another — each understood and confided in the other man. There were three conversational don'ts — women, religion and politics — but they were little observed,
Mechenbier recalled. There was little of the light banter fighter pilots might exchange at a bar — discussions were often deep but at the same time "amazingly controlled and rational."
There was also black humor — jokes about the dolorous routine of prison life.
Asked to express his thoughts about the meaning of prison life, Mechenbier pondered and then harkened back to Ernest Hemingway's definition of sex.
"If you've never done it, then words can't express it. If you have, you don't have to have it described."
Asked what kept them going?
"Like so many men, belief in God and religion was something I could turn to. But the strongest tiling was my wife. It means a lot to know that someone back there is praying for you . . . you get a lot of strength."
"My release was always just six months away. We. always used that sight. We counted things also one day at a time. At no time did we despair."
"The thing that kept me going was faith. Most of all, faith in my God, faith in my country, a faith in my fellow prisoners and faith in myself. I think the faith we had in each other, we kept each other going."
While a bond of closeness between him and his fellow returnees will last a long time, Jensen said, all have decided "to get as far away from each other as possible."
"We know each other better than our wives did."
All six men have lost the better part of a decade. What to do now?
"I've sort of adopted a wait and see attitude on everything," Ringsdorf shrugged. "I've decided there is no way I can catch up on six years in just a few months, so I won't even try to make a concentrated effort on that. I'll just let it come back along to me."
McManus wants to go on flying. So does Pirie.
Lane said he had "972 alternative plans," but is now focusing on a degree in international relations and a position as an air attache.
A reserve officer, Jensen is only a year and a half away from 20 years' service. He doesn't particularly want to fly again — a hoped for ROTC assignment to Brigham Young University would suit him fine.
Mechenbier did not say he would stay in the Air Force nor exclude the possibility of his getting out. He has been told there is a whole cornucopia of opportunities on the outside and wants to look them over.