Retired Navy Captain Jack Fellowes passed away May 3 in Annapolis, MD. Man among men. Humor and humility above all.
Flying combat missions from the aircraft carrier USS Constellation in August 1966, his A-6 Intruder was shot down over North Vietnam. Seriously injured, he and the jet’s navigator were captured by North Vietnamese militia forces. So began a grueling, more than six-year ordeal as a prisoner of war – much of that captivity endured in the infamous prison ironically dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton.”
Operation Homecoming by Captain Jack H. Fellowes, USN (Ret.), Proceedings Magazine, December 1976
The emotional airport welcome for Commander Fellowes in March 1973 marked the end of six years of longing and waiting, both for him and for the members of his family. While he was in North Vietnamese prisons, he had changed, and so had they. Returning him to American soil was only the first step in a process that would attempt to strip away the effects of those six years and restore him to his roles as husband, father and naval officer.
On the morning of 7 March 1973, I was suddenly awakened by the quietness in my room. Everything seemed so still. I opened my eyes, stared at the ceilingand blinked again. No mosquito net? Not here, you lucky dog. Light filtered in the window from the sunjust rising over the Chesapeake Bay. The room wasglowing warmly. My wife was asleep beside me.
It seemed so long ago that I had been flying my A-6 Intruder from the deck of the USS Comtellation (CVA-64). We’d been located in the Gulf of Tonkin for two months when I flew off on that fateful mission to dive-bomb a pontoon bridge in the Vinh area. Approaching the target, the airplane suddenly rocked with two explosions. My right wing was torn from the airplane, and I had to eject. I landed in a small hamlet in the middle of a workday. Surrounding me, almost immediately, were scores of Vietnamese-soldiers, peasants,and women with hatchets.
For the next six and one-half years I lived in five different prisoner of war camps in North Vietnam. I was luckier than some. I had to endure only 15 months solo compared to as much as four years for others. My lowest point during those years was 10 September 1966. After a 12-hour torture session in which I resisted my captors’ attempts to force a statement condemning my country, I lost the use of both arms for the next four months.
Now I was in the Naval Hospital at PortSmouth, Virginia. Eight of us had arrived the day before to spend six weeks in a concentrated period of rehabilitation. Several more weeks of post-hospital care would follow. This was my first morning. Getting to the head to shave was my most pressing concern. Although I ‘d shaved and showered and scrubbed at least once an hour since my release on 4 March, it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough to wash away the years of dirt.
The eight of us at Portsmouth were fortunate. This was the only naval hospital where returning POWs could have their wives as roommates. Each couple was assigned a separate “suite” on the 12th floor: two hospital rooms adjoined by a private bath. In one room the beds had been replaced by comfortable chairs, a desk, and a small dining table to form a kind of sitting room. The other served as the bedroom. While Pat slept, I luxuriated in the hot water. When I was washed and dressed, I took a look at the digital clock by the bed. It wasn’t even 0630 yet. How could I sleep when today would begin a more traumatic and emotional period in my life than even my prison term? I’d been prepared for the eventuality of being a POW, but no one had prepared me for returning home. A favorite maxim crossed my mind: today was the first day of the rest of my life.
Not wanting to wake Pat from the first restful sleep she’d had in those long, hard years, I stepped out into the hall. There was no movement there either. The only two people in sight were Marine guards, one posted at either end of the hallway. I’d seen them the night before, but in the reunion with my family after an eternity of longing, I hadn’t really noticed them. They weren’t there to keep us in, but to keep others out. We were being protected from the rest of the world until the Navy made sure we were all right.
In prison we had considered ourselves losers. Here we were, sitting out the war while our shipmates had to take over our duties. We were fighting our own kind of war in which defeating the enemy meant communicating over walls and remaining silent during interrogations. We never labeled this “heroism.” To us the heroes were those actively engaged in the war effort.
In 1972, a group of recently-shot-down pilots first brought the term ” heroism” into camp. They told us what was going on at home to prepare for our return. C-141S were standing by to fly us out. Each of us was being assigned an officer to help him through the transition, and our names were etched on bracelets’ America was actively concerned about us. We were told that our biggest problem would be handling this image. To the American people, we were heroes.
Kings never had better treatment than we POWs experienced. The officer assigned to help me was Commander John Holtzclaw, a fighter pilot who had volunteered to assist in Operation Homecoming. As I stood there talking with John in the hallway that first morning, a man in a white smock walked up to us and asked, “Everything okay? They treating you all right?”
“Outstanding!” was all I could reply.
“Well, if you need anything don’t hesitate to let us know,” he smiled.
I wondered how I could possibly need anything when suddenly I had everything ‘ But I thought quickly, then blurted out, “Well, there is one thing I could use. Maybe just some cigarettes or where to find some?”
“Fine,” he said, and then he was gone. The next thing I knew the refrigerator down the hall was stacked with four boxes of cigars and 13 cartons of cigarettes. The following day, when the man appeared again in our hallway, I caught up to thank him and reached for my wallet.