COL Benjamin Purcell (1928-2013): Former POW, Vietnam
Colonel Benjamin Purcell was executive commander of the 80th General Support Group in Vietnam when his helicopter was shot down on February 8, 1968. He and five other passengers were captured by the Viet Cong. Colonel Purcell was the highest ranking Army officer captured during the Vietnam War. He spent more than five years in captivity, mostly in solitary confinement.
After returning from Vietnam after the end of the war, Colonel Purcell was assigned to the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. While there, he delivered an address at Carlisle High School on Veterans Day in 1973. Through this address, he related his story of courage in captivity. The following excerpts are from that address:
“On the 8th of Feb 1968, I was a passenger aboard a helicopter when it was hit by machine gun fire, caught fire, and crash landed in a cemetery about 5 miles southeast of Quang Tri City… after the crash we were surrounded, taken prisoner, tied up (thumbs and arms behind our backs) and searched.”
Within hours, Purcell’s captivity was marked by tragedy:
“After dark we were marched off toward the mountains to the SW [south-west]. On the way to the first camp the passenger who had been burned in the crash was permitted to stop for a short rest and the others ordered to continue on up the trail. Within minutes I heard the sound of a pistol shot and had the terrifying thought, “The VC killed him!” The young soldier has not returned and has been officially declared Killed in Action.”
A few days later, Purcell marked his 40th birthday:
“I remembered it was my 40th birthday and had to smile when I thought of the old adage, “life begins at 40.” Frankly, at that particular moment, I’d just as soon stayed 39.”
His captors, however, had a surprise for him, and Purcell experienced one of the strange moments of humanity that occur during wartime. He was let out of the underground bunker where he was being held and allowed to lay near the fire to get warm when it happened:
“The Vietnamese interrogator then handed me a small plate and said, “It is the custom of the Vietnamese people to remember special days in the lives of their guests, and though you’re not a guest in this man’s home, he wants to give you the only thing he has to offer you on your birthday—this egg.” Needless to say, I shall long cherish the memory of this man’s act of kindness for I believe it was prompted by a genuine concern for a fellow human being.”
Purcell’s captors kept him on the move, shifting him from camp to camp. In March, they began moving him north along the Ho Chi Mihn trail. The North Vietnamese had two uses for POWs: sources of information and propaganda.
“In turn, all the prisoners were subjected to harsh interrogation for military information. Some prisoners were tortured and we all were deprived of food and medicine to varying degrees. I found it difficult at first to lie convincingly but soon became quite experienced… The interrogations for military information ended after about 6 months and these were followed by sessions with cadres who attempted to reeducate (brain wash) me. These efforts failed for I had learned to counter their propaganda with what I knew to be the truth.”
Purcell escaped twice through clever plots yet was recaptured both times.
“On 7 December 1969, I succeeded in escaping from K77 after several months of preparation…preparations which included the training and use of a chicken to stand guard in front of my cell as I drilled tiny holes in the door. This particular chicken would come to my cell after each meal and I’d toss bread crumbs to it. If the guard came near, the chick would run away and I’d immediately stop drilling and begin a more acceptable passtime [sic]. During the 10 hours I was out of my cell, I succeeded in getting a ride on a bicycle into Hanoi but my luck ran out and I was returned to K77 where I was punished by two weeks in stocks.”
On March, 18, 1972, Purcell escaped again:
“I “conditioned” the guards to expect to find me using the toilet at the time they came to pick up the supper plate and lock the cell door. I fashioned a dummy from an extra uniform and suspended it over the toilet… [A]pparently it fooled the guards because for 12 hours they were not aware I had escaped.”
The dummy, which Purcell called Charlie, was an example of how ingenious POWs can be. Made of sticks, a uniform, and with a rubber bucket for a head, the dummy included dripping water to provide convincing sound effects.
President Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords with North Vietnam on January 27, 1973. Purcell was transferred to a prison in Hanoi, in a cell with other American prisoners after 58 months of solitary confinement.
“Living conditions improved even more in the “Hanoi Hilton” as the Vietnamese tried to prepare us for our release. Medical care and the first emergency type dental care was made available. We received double rations and even cans of meat for two weeks in a futile effort to fatten us up.”
“On 27 March, I was released as one of the 32 who came out last. Our welcome at Clark AFB was simply fantastic that day and the American people have been wonderful ever since as they warmly welcomed us back home.”
Speaking about what sustained him in captivity, Purcell wrote:
I had every confidence that America would never forsake her prisoners… [and] I had every reason to expect that our Army was “looking out for its own” and I was not disappointed… [T]he Department of the Army provided advice and assistance to my family…
He shared several lessons from his captivity:
“I also had a considerable amount of time to reflect upon certain lessons to be drawn from my experiences. For example, I became aware of how very little I really understood and appreciated our “free society” and “American Way of Life.” Though I never saw any of the American Anti-war personalities in North Vietnam, all prisoners heard about them and much morale damaging propaganda resulted from their visits…..I also know of instances where the news media released information to the public which damaged our cause—and most of the time there was simply no valid reason for them to do so. I suggest that a “free press” is a must but at the same time, the news media must act in a responsible fashion.”
“We need to develop an understanding between all peoples of the world based on true freedom and equality and we need to base our actions not upon force but upon an unselfish concern for each other.”
Purcell retired from the Army in 1980 and passed away in 2013 at the age of 85.
Benjamin H. Purcell papers, USAHEC
Gress, Ted. “Notes from a Newsman” Lebanon Daily News, December 22, 1973 – January 3, 1974
Purcell, Ben and Anne. Love and Duty. St. Martins Press, 1992
 Ted Gress, “Notes from A Newsman,” Lebanon Daily News, 12/29/73)