No good options: Vietnam POW shares story of captivity

  • Published
  • By John Ingle
  • 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs

SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – “Stop. Think. Collect your wits.”

It was the hardest thing Lt. Col. John Yuill had to do after the B-52 Stratofortress he and five crewmembers were flying in over Hanoi, Vietnam, was struck by two surface-to-air missiles on Dec. 22, 1972, during their third mission in four days as part of Linebacker II. It was also a reminder from his Dash-1, the owner’s manual for the B-52, that helped him make a decision that would save his life as well as the five other Airmen aboard the bomber.

Yuill, now retired, recounted the day he became a prisoner of war with Airmen at Sheppard AFB as part of POW/MIA Day events.

The flight commander only had a few moments to make a decision on whether to stay with the aircraft and get out of the area, or have everyone bail out over enemy territory.

“I felt there were no good options,” the 84-year-old said. “I sure as hell wasn’t interested in jumping out of that airplane. I had been flying airplanes for 15 years and never stepped out of one in flight. I wasn’t interested in doing that in the first place and I really wasn’t interested in doing it over enemy territory where I had been bombing their capital for three days.”

Yuill made the decision for the crew to bail out, the beginning of his more than three months in captivity.

The colonel landed in an agriculture area not far from a barn. He recalled getting out of his parachute and taking off his helmet when he began hearing voices in the distance and was soon surrounded by about a dozen people. The North Vietnamese people, he said, helped him out of his flight gear, all the way down to his underwear.

“I was standing there in my shorts,” he said. “It was a bit nippy, even for North Vietnam.”

But, he was alive. What’s more, he was surprised by the way the group had reacted toward him. He expected to see hatred, he said, but what was in their eyes was curiosity.

After being moved to a couple locations the first two days, his group eventually came upon what appeared to be two enemy military members. One, he said, had what he had initially anticipated – a look of hatred and that he’d be tortured if they were alone.

“My sole mission in life was to not get isolated,” he said.

Yuill said he was roughed up at that location before being taken to a truck, where he saw the first of the other five crewmembers. Before being blindfolded, he saw another three. Five of the six, he said, had survived the bail out.

He said he later saw the sixth crewmember, making them the only full B-52 crew to survive being shot down and captured.

The colonel said many of the targets they had bombed up to the beginning of Linebacker II had been “meaningless.” The new bombing campaign, though, seemed as those they were hitting significant objectives that would lead to something, and it did. A cease fire agreement was reached in January 1973 and POWs, including Yuill and his crew, would soon go home.

During the first few days of Linebacker II, 10 B-52s and their crews of six were shot down. One aircraft had an additional crewman. Of the 61 Airmen shot down, 33 were released as part of Operation Homecoming in 1973.

“I was fortunate enough to be in the half that survived,” he said. “Not only was I fortunate in that respect, but of those 10 B-52s, only one entire B-52 crew survived and came home and that was my crew. So, I was very, very fortunate to have my entire crew survive.”

Knowing a large part of Sheppard AFB’s mission is to train aircraft maintainers, Yuill said it takes a team effort to fly an airplane and he wishes he could go back and thank the maintainers who ensured his aircraft was airworthy. He asked those in the training arena to impart upon their Airmen the importance they play in the mission.

“I wouldn’t be able to fly the airplane if maintainers weren’t doing their job,” he said. “If that airplane isn’t ready to fly and the systems in it aren’t working properly, I’m not going to be able to do my job effectively. So, point out to them that, yeah, you may not be the one you read about or hear about … but if you don’t do your job, I can’t do my job because I’m not going to have the equipment to do the job that I have to execute.”

In addition to sharing his story with Airmen at Sheppard, Yuill also helped kickoff a 24-hour POW/MIA vigil in observance of those lost and captured in service to the country.