KILLEEN — On Sept. 20, 1965, U.S. Air Force Capt. Thomas “Jerry” Curtis was piloting a combat search and rescue mission over North Vietnam jungles to save a downed F-105 pilot.
Then his helicopter was downed by enemy fire. Curtis and his three crew members evaded capture for one day until taken by the North Vietnamese.
“We traveled only at night and it took seven days to get to the prison,” said Curtis.
That prison was the infamous camp, dubbed the Hanoi Hilton. For the next 7½ years, Curtis was a prisoner of war confined in a 5’x7’ cell with a cement bed.
“We were called the blackest of criminals, not prisoners,” he recalled.
More than 100 people heard retired Col. Jerry Curtis, 85, tell his harrowing story at the Killeen-Heights Rotary Club meeting Feb. 2 at 1st Methodist Church.
“Col. Curtis is a national treasure and we are so honored to have him here today,” said Bob Crouch.
Curtis is the last POW survivor who was held in captivity the longest.
Soon after his capture, Curtis had to find a reason to smile again.
“My first smile came when I took a shower,” he said. The North Vietnamese concept was to divide and rule. “They didn’t want us to communicate with another American or even see another American.”
But on his cell walls, like in other cells, was a 25-letter code of the letters of the alphabet they used to tap their messages. “It was our lifeline because to communicate meant we weren’t in solitary.”
The hours of boredom were only interrupted by moments of terror. Locked in solitary confinement for months, he endured suffocating heat, freezing cold, grueling physical and psychological torture and constant hunger. The North Vietnamese moved the prisoners to different camps, such as one nicknamed The Zoo where they were held in a section they called The Pig Sty. After Army Special Forces raided one camp, the prisoners returned to Hanoi.
Faith was vital.
“You had to keep faith in yourself that you were up to the task,” he said. “You had to have faith in your country. All of these were based on my faith in God. He was in charge. I was enough of an optimist to know I would go home.”
Curtis was finally released during Operation Homecoming in 1973, reuniting with wife Terry and a 15-year old son who was seven when he was captured.
Additionally, Curtis and his crew members received the Air Force Cross. He retired from the Air Force in 1977. Afterwards, he taught Spanish and World Geography in Texas public schools for 12 years.
Many people in the crowd wiped away tears during his speech, and were too emotional after to discuss it.
“Just amazing,” said a teary-eye Terry Tuggle.
A 30-year veteran, Charlie Brown served two tours in Vietnam, saying he understood where Curtis was coming from but couldn’t imagine what he endured. That is why Curtis’s story is so important Brown said.
“Col. Curtis must continue to talk to groups, especially young people, so they understand what he did for themand for everyone. God bless him,” said Brown.