Aviation hero speaks with Soldiers
December 6, 2012
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (December 6, 2012) -- In the war on terrorism where the enemy does not wear a uniform, and women and children are used as decoys or sacrifices, the knowledge and experience of a retired Vietnam colonel who fought and survived a guerrilla war is invaluable to Soldiers.
Such a veteran visited Fort Rucker last week and spoke to Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape students and cadre, and members of the pre-command course, captains career course and the basic officer leaders course.
Retired Col. William S. Reeder Jr., Ph.D (history and anthropology), an Aviator who was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese during his second tour to Vietnam and spent almost a year as a prisoner of war, spoke to the Aviators in the Seneff Building Nov. 28 to inspire and educate Soldiers with his experiences.
"I hope what I share with you today is going to be of some value to you. I had unique experiences in Vietnam. I was one of the lucky few because so many are still missing in action," he said.
Reeder gave a short history lesson on the Vietnam War where he participated in deep reconnaissance and surveillance operations, and was involved in special operations with the Studies and Observations Group.
"On May 9, 1972, I was launched on a tactical emergency mission of a flight of two Cobras to support the besieged camp at Polei Klang. After many trips back and forth to re-fuel and re-arm we were diverted to a larger attack taking place at another camp, Ben Het," he said as he began his recounting of the day he was shot down.
It would be his third combat mission of that day. He remarked on the position, weaponry and numbers of the enemy versus how the friendly Vietnamese battalion and the few Americans that held Ben Het were faring.
"I flew into a hornet's nest. My Cobra came down spinning and burning. After escaping the wreckage, I fell in and out of consciousness. I had a broken back and I had gotten burned in my escape. I also had a piece of shell fragment sticking out of my ankle," he said, adding that he had no weapon.
He conveyed to the Soldiers how he tried to signal for help, how he was almost killed by friendly pilots and how he evaded the enemy for three days before being captured.
"I was questioned, beaten, threatened, and eventually they tied my arms behind my back … until ultimately both of my shoulders were dislocated," he said.
Reeder continued with his recount of a three day march to a jungle prison camp. He described the deplorable conditions of the camp, the other prisoners, his treatment and illnesses, and the daily life of a POW.
"Under these filthy, starvation conditions, without medical care, it seemed that someone died almost every day," he explained.
After several months at the camp he was told that he would go on an 11-day walk to a new camp that would have better conditions. The trip turned out to be a three-month journey on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the city of Hanoi, a trip that nearly claimed his life many times.
"I went into North Vietnam's prison system and ended up at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. I knew the hardest part was over once there," he said.
He spoke to the men and women about how he stayed as positive as humanly possible, how he tried to escape and gave them tips on the military Code of Conduct.
He went on to say that the Army of today is much better than the Army that fought in Vietnam because of factors such as pilots undergoing SERE training and Soldiers' education levels.
Reeder, who had only rudimentary survival classes in flight school and Officer Candidate School, said that the addition of SERE as a requirement of flight school graduation is an absolute necessity.
"We really need it. It needs to be something everyone goes through. It is extraordinary that all of the pilots have to complete the course. I know they don't particularly enjoy going through it, but it is for their survival," he said.
Soldiers are more educated in general than during the 1970s, especially pilots, and having that extended education and knowledge among Aviators makes the Army better, said Reeder.
"I don't see their education as a benefit but a necessity. They have to be educated with our command control systems -- it requires that knowledge. Our cockpits are so sophisticated now," he said.
That sophisticated technology that makes flying successful today, and that some Aviators may take for granted, Reeder said he would have appreciated back when he was flying.
"The ability to see at night is invaluable. We lost a lot of pilots and aircraft in the mountains simply because the night vision goggles and technology had not been developed yet," he said.
Reeder departed with applause and some Soldiers couldn't believe that he survived his ordeal.
"His resiliency in his situation that few people have been subjected to is simply a miracle. It will keep me motivated to get through any challenge," said Capt. Jason Turner, 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces.
"Hopefully, I provided some words for the men and women here today that might help them in their service as Aviators," said Reeder.