When I was born on November 11, 1951, my father was flying an F-80 “Shooting Star,” the first jet fighter used by the US Army Air Force. He was just 23 years old, flying his 88th of 100 missions, when he was shot out of the sky over North Korea, just a month after he had been cited for his “magnificent courage and superior flying ability” and awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross..
Strapped into his cockpit, he crash-landed and skidded to a stop a mere 100 feet from a Communist bunker, and when he crawled out of the wreckage he was immediately taken prisoner.
From an article by Adele Ferguson of the Bremerton Sun published upon his death:
“I remember the day in 1953 when he came home from Korea to a hero’s welcome, a tired, thin, handsome young jet pilot, his arms mottled with scars from the scabies he suffered during 16 months in a Communist prison camp.My Dad as a Young Man
That was the infamous Prison Camp No. 2 Annex, stigamatized because so many of its prisoners, mostly pilots with a few enlisted infantrymen, had “confessed” to germ warfare charges and even printed a camp newspaper called Towards Truth and Peace, telling of the good treatment they were receiving from the enemy.
Not Ward Tuttle.
A Chinese officer held a pistol to the head of the Bremerton man’s head and said he would give him 3 minutes to confess that he had participated in germ warfare.
Tuttle said nothing, and 15 minutes later, was sent back to his bunker.
It was later that he learned that others, after mental and physical torture, had “confessed,” though many had endured worse treatment and didn’t knuckle under, he said.”
At the end of the war, my Dad was treated like so many returning Veterans from that time – no PTSD counseling, just an official “de-briefing” and a return to duty a mere 30 days after his ordeal. He served in the Air Force for another 20 years, flying fighters and serving as a communications officer for NATO’s Airborne Command Post.
He never talked about his experience as a POW – not to my mother, and never with us kids.
Until 1973 – exactly 20 years later.
Dad picked me up from work, and on our way home, told me about a sales presentation he had done that day for a group of Chinese businessmen. He said he turned his back to write something on the board, and when he returned to face his audience, he hallucinated them all in Chinese Communist uniforms. He laughed when he told me – but his laugh was chilling.
And one night that same year – 1973 – a docudrama called “Pueblo” aired on television. Dad and I were alone that night, he in his La-Z-Boy and I on the couch, riveted by the story of the U.S.S. Pueblo and its capture by the North Koreans. For those of you that don’t know, the ship, its captain, and its crew were held hostage for over 6 months, and the docudrama, starring Hal Holbrook, was gripping in black and white.
As the story unfolded, I kept glancing over at Dad. His fingers dug deeper and deeper into the naugahyde, and beads of sweat broke out on his face.
When the program was over, he exhaled deeply – then started talking.
For the first time, he free-associated everything he remembered about his mission, crashing the airplaine, watching his squadron circling overhead and finally disappearing when they ran out of fuel, up to and including his capture. He downloaded everything. His surrender. His march to the prison camp. His torture, both psychological and physical, and his refusal to succumb. His experience of near-starvation which culminated in the lower half of his body so swollen that the sores of malnutrition would not heal. About just laying down in the snow and waiting to die. About the buddies who insulted him into getting angry enough to live.
As far as I know, I’m the only person who ever “held” the whole story for him. All I could do was listen. That story was capital “I” important, and it transformed me. Up until hearing it, he was just my Dad and I was just his callow daughter.
After hearing and being transformed by his story, it seems like every man I met, knew, or dated chose me to download their stories to. I watched Apocalypse Now with Vietnam Vets, one of whom was an air traffic controller and the other a helicopter pilot. I watched Born on the Fourth of July with friends who had been tear gassed while protesting. I was witness to their pain.
Dad died in October, 1986, of esophageal cancer. The doctors said that the ordeal of his POW experience and years around jet fuel probably contributed to it. But I often wonder about the mental cause – having to suppress his experience those many years. In his decline, he asked me to rent a copy of Das Boot, and we watched it together. There’s a scene of absolute debauchery – the submariners having a party – that had my dad, sick as he was, howling with laughter and saying “looks like so many fighter pilot parties I participated in…”
A few days before he died, I asked him if he was frightened. He said, “Not afraid – more like curious. When I was flying I faced death all the time – this isn’t nearly as frightening, and I’m looking forward to discovering whatever’s next.” As far as I’m concerned, he died complete – at peace with himself and his life.
My dad was never a “warm” guy – he was kind of a stiff-backed Methodist. But I cherish the contribution his amazing, self-taught intelligence, creativity and problem-solving genius, and his trust in me to do the right thing as I grew to womanhood. I think he did a great job.
So it’s Veteran’s Day. I’m 61 years old today, outliving my Dad by 2 years so far. I can’t let the day pass without thinking of him and all of the other Dads, Brothers, Husbands, Sons, and (now) Wives, Sisters, Mothers, and Daughters who undergo the unimaginable horror of war.
I found a quote here on DK today from Nobel Laureate Albert Schweitzer that sums it up:
"The soldiers' graves are the greatest preachers of Peace."Miss you, Dad.