The cost of freedom — paid by both the living and the dead — was the focus at a Memorial Day gathering in Temple on Monday morning.
Veterans and their families gathered at the Temple Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 1820 to honor fallen veterans for Memorial Day, and listen to the story of a local prisoner of war.
The speaker for the event was Col. Thomas “Jerry” Curtis, who served in the Air Force before and during the Vietnam War.
Curtis, 88, was captured as a prisoner of war in 1965.
It happened when Curtis was in Thailand for a 120-day temporary duty during the war, doing search and rescue missions for downed airmen. He said he was rescuing a pilot who had been shot down when his own helicopter lost power — with the laminated wood blades destroyed as he tried to land it.
Unable to be rescued due to ground fire, Curtis said he and the other people in the helicopter tried to wait before dark but eventually were found by the Vietnamese.
“I had a .38 (caliber) Airman pistol and I had decided before that I was not going to try and fight a war with (it),” Curtis said. “So I was captured and secured with my hands behind my back, and started that long trek to Hanoi.”
Curtis said that when he was captured he had thought prisoners of war would be in the camp for more than a year, but never imagined it would be seven and a half years — 2,703 days — before he was free.
During his talk, Curtis said that on each Memorial Day he remembers Chief Warrant Officer John Frederick, who he knew from his time in captivity.
Frederick initially got a low-grade fever before being separated from the group and later moved with the North Vietnamese. He told the prisoners he was going to a hospital.
“The sad part of it was that John died, just probably a little less than a year before we were released,” Curtis said. “And I think about him.”
Curtis also talked to attendees of the event about some of the places he was kept during his imprisonment and the method of tapping prisoners used to communicate.
Prisoners at the prison camps had a five by five grid of letters that they would tap against the walls to communicate, first tapping for the number of rows down then next for the number of columns across. Curtis said at first he was very slow to communicate, with it only later becoming like second nature to him.
During his years in prison, Curtis said he and his fellow prisoners kept military order and followed the orders of the most senior officer available through the tap code.
This unity and military order stayed together even as Curtis and other prisoners were transferred many times to different prison camps around the city of Hanoi and North Vietnam. Curtis said prisoners gradually were placed in larger groups over time, eventually having a group of 40 in a large cell where they were able to contact their higher ranking officers who were held separately.
Curtis also talked some about the conditions in the prison — with so little food, he whittled down to 125 pounds at one point.
Curtis said he was also tortured to write a biography for his captors, which he originally refused but later did after not being able to endure the pain any longer. He said he filled the biography with lies but was later forced to write it again and couldn’t remember the details in the first one.
When he and some of his fellow prisoners were released, Curtis said the group stayed silent trough the whole process until the plane that they were on lifted off the ground and then it was “pure bedlam.”
“We had trust in each other and had confidence that we were going to get through this thing together,” Curtis said.
District 14 VFW Commander Carlos Davis, who oversees all local posts including Post 1820, said it was important to both remember and honor the sacrifice of all those who have served.
He said it was not just enough to have memorials and put flags at half staff on Memorial Day, but to instead live for that freedom that veterans fought for. He said today’s youth needed to be taught the holiday’s true meaning so it’s not just as another reason to barbecue.
“That is what this very special day is about, being thankful that such brave men and women have lived. And to pay tribute to those heroic patriots who rose up and fought for something greater than themselves, protecting a home which they never returned to.”
Temple Mayor Tim Davis, who was at the event to read a proclamation by the city, thanked all those veterans gathered for all they had given up.
“The Davis family, we are strictly the beneficiaries of the sacrifices that have been made by our service men and women,” the mayor said. “And for that I am both humbled and deeply appreciative, because there are families who have given so much.”