By Tracy Demetropolis
ANTHEM — In October 1967, U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Kirk was flying over Hanoi, Vietnam, strapped into the cockpit of his F-105 Thunderchief. Kirk, a squadron commander, was leading the largest bombing raid of the war up to that point. He was 38 years old with 17 years of military experience behind him. He was a man at the top of his field. The objective of this mission – his 67thin Vietnam – was to bomb a bridge in the North Vietnamese capital city. This would be his last mission of the war.
Just before dropping his bombs over the bridge, Kirk was hit by Vietnamese anti-aircraft fire. Even though his plane was on fire, he was able to drop the bombs and turn south. He knew that if he could fly 50 miles south, U.S. troops could rescue him. Going about 600 miles per hour, Kirk had made it 30 miles when his hydraulic flight controls burned up and his plane went into a nosedive. He had no choice but to eject. He landed, unconscious, in a plowed field and was immediately captured by Vietnamese civilians and handed over to North Vietnamese soldiers.
Last Saturday, Kirk, now a
91-year-old Anthem resident, accepted the 2020 Storyteller of the Year award at
this year’s Saluting Soldiers Service Gala. The gala was hosted by the
Phoenix-based non-profit Veterans Heritage Project, which offers a civics
education course where students conduct in-depth interviews with veterans about
their wartime experiences. These stories are compiled and published in an
annual book called “Since You Asked.” Kirk was paired with a student who met
with him 10 times, and his stories were published
in the 2012 edition. Veterans Heritage Project executive director Michelle DiMuro said the storytelling that happens through the program is a win for everyone.
“It’s cathartic for veterans as they share their wisdom, and educational for students as they learn first-hand lessons in history, civics and leadership. Plus, it creates an incredible history of our country through the power of individual stories.”
Kirk’s tale of survival is
quite powerful, and he shares that story whenever he can, speaking to schools,
churches and other local organizations interested in what he has to say.
He speaks not only about his survival story, but about every military veteran alive today.
When Kirk came to in October 1973, he was in agonizing pain from jamming his knees in the parachute landing. He would not be able to walk for two months and would receive no medical attention from the North Vietnamese. Kirk was now a prisoner of war (POW), and his family would not know that he was alive for three years.
Kirk spent the next five and a half years in the Hoa Lo prison camp in Hanoi – also known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” When he was captured, Kirk weighed 180 pounds. By the time he was released in 1973, he weighed just 90 pounds.
“Imagine,” Kirk said, “My
family doesn’t know if I’m alive or dead. I don’t know
how long I’ll be there or what I’ll go through. I wondered – can I survive?”
What he would go through included torture, near starvation and months of solitary confinement. Kirk said he did his best to endure the torture. During that time, he remembered something he had learned in basic training; if a soldier had to, he could give his captors a small piece of information to stop the torture.
“They took me in and tortured me – tying me up in ropes to make me give military info,” Kirk said. “I endured that for three days and three nights. On the fourth morning, I was so completely gone that I gave in. I don’t have a clue what I said to them, but I couldn’t stand it any longer. I gave them something. They put me back in the cell and left me alone for three or four days. I hadn’t seen an American yet, and I was very badly injured.”
At this point in his captivity, Kirk became very depressed, and he wondered if he would ever make it home.
“After I gave them a little bit of info, I felt I had failed. I just wanted to die,” Kirk said. “I sat in my cell for a couple of days, in the depths of despair. Then, one morning, I got up and I sort of stomped my foot on the ground and I said to myself, ‘By God, I’ve got to figure out how to do this.’ When I thought everything was lost, I was able to dig deep and find the courage and strength to go on. I’m very proud of that.”
Some of Kirk’s stories about life as a POW in Vietnam are almost unfathomable, such as how he spent two years in solitary confinement after having a minor altercation with a Vietnamese prison guard.
“I didn’t see another American for two years,” he said, adding that the only people he saw were the prison guards who brought him a piece of bread and a bowl of soup twice a day.
The only time he was let out of his cell was to listen to propaganda from the North Vietnamese, who were trying to brain wash him. When he made it back to the general population, he listened to more propaganda on the radios in each cell. But the best way to pass the time, Kirk said, was to have “conversations” with fellow American POWs. These conversations consisted of a series of wall taps some of the men had learned in survival school.
“We had a little code like Morse code, but our own code talk,” Kirk said. “The guards didn’t hear the tapping because we were tapping so lightly. By putting our ears up against the walls, we could hear a tap from all the way down the hall.”
Every POW who survived Vietnam had to do the same thing Kirk did early on in his captivity – find a way to go on. One of those soldiers was the late Arizona Senator John McCain. Kirk said he and McCain were shot down exactly two days apart. The men were together in the same prison cell for more than two months and flew home to the United States years later on the same airplane. They kept in touch over the years. Kirk even headed a committee in Vail, Colo. to raise money for McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Even though they lived in two different worlds, the men stayed in touch as much as they could until McCain’s death in 2018.
Three years into Kirk’s captivity, a fellow POW from the U.S. Navy put some vague information about Kirk in a letter he wrote to his family at home. That information helped the U.S. military find out Kirk was still alive. The government was then able to give Kirk’s family the news.
Kirk’s Vietnam experiences alone could fill an entire book, and so could the rest of his stories from 28 years of active duty as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot. Kirk served in Korea, Vietnam and in the years between the two wars. He served after he returned home from Vietnam and finally retired from active duty in 1978. During his time in the military, Kirk had earned the Air Force Cross, Silver Star (4), Distinguished Flying Cross (2), Air Medal (7) and the Purple Heart.
While awards are nice, Kirk said his focus for the last several years has been on getting the word out about his fellow veterans. He said they need the public’s support now more than ever.
“When you join the military, you sign a check up to and including your life,” Kirk said. “You don’t know how long you’re going to be away. Every vet is sort of unique – no matter if you’re a cook or whatever – you served your country and you paid a price for this. A lot of people look at veterans as heroes. I ask people to look at vets as people who served their country. They deserve recognition and support.”
Kirk said veterans are not getting the support they need – physically or mentally. Part of this, he said, is because the U.S. government is not equipped to take care of thousands of vets for years and years. But Kirk said the government does have an obligation to do exactly that.
“A soldier who loses an arm or a leg has got several years of medical care ahead of them. Then you’ve got to get in their head. We not only have to fix their body; we have to fix their minds. We need to get them to the mental state to be able to continue on with their lives.”
While Kirk said he does not have an immediate solution to the problem, he said he plans to keep speaking out until a solution is found.
For more information on the Veterans Heritage Project, go to www.veteransheritage.org.