Vietnam POW shares his story with Kiwanis

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 3, 2005

In an infamous place called the Hanoi Hilton, an American pilot in Vietnam survived against the harshest of odds and lived to tell his story.

Colonel Henry Fowler, USAF, retired, shared details of his experiences with the Greenville Kiwanis Club and their guests on Tuesday.

The former fighter pilot, who jockeyed F-4 Phantoms at an average speed of 600 mph, was forced to eject from his plane over Hanoi on March 26, 1967.

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An encounter with two surface-to-air missiles transformed his beautiful plane &#8220into Swiss cheese.”

The North Koreans took the downed pilot, who was suffering from painful compression fractures in his lower back, into captivity.

&#8220I didn't see a doctor for six years (until my release)…I walked for eight hours. I kept repeating the 23rd Psalm as I walked…something had to be holding onto my hand,” Fowler said.

Fowler, who described himself as &#8220a stoic with a good sense of humor,” said his personality, as well as his faith, helped him survive the six-year ordeal.

A windowless, six-by-nine-foot concrete cell, lit by a single 25-watt bulb, became Fowler's home. A bucket served as his toilet; his bed was made of wooden boards or the cement floor. For six months, he lived in solitary confinement.

&#8220Some men spent years locked up by themselves,” he said.

A bath was a bucketful of cold, polluted water poured over your head, and a single bar of lye soap had to last two months.

&#8220You don't have to have those fancy shampoos and conditioners…I washed my hair every day with cold water and lye soap and as you can see, I haven't lost it yet,” Fowler said.

Meals were served twice daily, most consisting of some type of vegetable soup.

&#8220Remember, in third world countries, most crops are fertilized by human waste, washed in polluted water and stored where vermin can get into it…I came home with six different kinds of parasites,” Fowler explained.

&#8220You eat or die. What meat we had looked awful and tasted worse…rat, cat, dog, horse, fish heads.

&#8220Remember what it says in the Psalms about ‘eating in the presence of my enemies'? It doesn't promise us filet mignon or any food that's ‘finger lickin' good,'” the former POW said.

He considers himself lucky to have been a junior officer. As a first lieutenant, Fowler didn't suffer the often brutal daily interrogations the senior officers faced.

Still, he experienced permanent nerve and circulatory damage from his own monthly North Vietnamese's &#8220vicious” interrogations. He isn't bitter; he is thankful.

&#8220I had ten friends who were murdered over there, one way or another. I, at least, got to come home.”

He has never been back.

&#8220I've got no interest in going back,” he said bluntly.

&#8220I don't seethe with anger. Who is going to be hurt by that? Me. Instead, I try to look for ways to help my community,” Fowler said.

Fowler, who is currently staff attorney at the Supreme Court of Alabama, is a former instructor at the Air Force Judge Advocate General School at Maxwell Air Force Base. He served, respectively, as Deputy Staff Judge Advocate and Staff Judge Advocate at Ramstein AFB in Germany and Offutt AFB in Nebraska. Fowler is also a professor emeritus at Jones School of Law, where he taught for 12 years.

The highly decorated veteran was awarded two Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, Bronze Star with Valor device, Prisoner of War Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal.