By Doug Stauffer
Ted Corcoran and the Fort Walton Beach Chamber hosted the American Veterans Center (AVC) from Washington D.C. They interviewed numerous local veterans who have bravely served their country. I was honored to be invited by Ted to share in this incredible experience and interact with the seven men telling their stories.
Col. George Ferkes served in the Air Force during Operation Eagle Claw, the mission to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980. The operation faced numerous challenges, including harsh weather conditions, malfunctioning equipment and complex logistics. Ultimately, the mission was unsuccessful, resulting in the tragic loss of eight American servicemen. Ferkes shared his experiences and lessons from the operation, emphasizing the importance of preparation, teamwork, and resilience.
Retired Cols. Ron Webb, David Gray, Howard Hill and Ed Hubbard were Air Force Vietnam War veteran POWs. Each of them recounted their time in captivity: the brutality, and how they and their fellow POWs supported one another throughout the ordeal. Their powerful stories evoke a sense of awe as they emphasized the importance of camaraderie, perseverance, and the indomitable human spirit in overcoming extreme adversity.
During the interview breaks, I had the opportunity to sit across the table from the POWs as they recalled their experiences. This unforgettable event left a lasting impression on me. I was present for Ron Webb’s television interview, where he discussed the midair collision of two F-4s, resulting in his subsequent capture. Two of the pilots in the collision died. After the crash, he managed to avoid immediate capture but was eventually taken by enemy forces.
Communities in the area were rewarded for turning in soldiers, which contributed to his eventual capture. During his first interrogation, Webb was told, “You and your President L. Johnson are now prisoners of war.” Ron thought this was a shrewd comment because the Vietnam War haunted Johnson throughout his presidency.
I never tire of hearing the POW stories, including the Tap Code used to communicate in secret. The military trains servicemen to provide only the basic four pieces of information as required by the Geneva Convention: name, rank, service number, and date of birth. The captors wanted much more.
The POWs were kept alive with the intention of reforming, proselytizing and ultimately turning them against their own country. Webb said there was no chance of this because every service member considered communism and socialism revolting. The captors also demanded tactical intelligence from their prisoners.
Webb’s captors wanted to know how he got shot down, which turned into a cat-and-mouse game. He initially told them it was a large gun, but they checked and found no large guns in the area. He then claimed it was a Russian MiG jet, but they checked with their air force and discovered that no MiGs had been in the area.
The next day, Ron Webb and I were together at the Crispy Warriors breakfast, and I jokingly suggested that he could have simply said, “I was in the backseat, and I couldn’t see a thing.” We laughed at the thought as he said, “I never thought of that.”
Col. Larry Ropka was interviewed next as he retold the Son Tay Raid, the rescue attempt of Vietnam POWs. Although the mission was ultimately unsuccessful, Ropka’s story underscores the dedication of those involved in attempting to bring home their fellow servicemen. His account highlighted the desire and dedication to free fellow servicemen held prisoner by the North Vietnamese.
CMSgts. Bill Walter and Bernie Oder were interviewed. Both served in the U.S. military during the 1989 invasion of Panama, known as Operation Just Cause. Walters and Oder shared their experiences during the mission, challenges and lessons learned from the operation. Their stories provide insights into the complexities of modern warfare and the importance of adaptability and cooperation.
By sharing these stories, the AVC hopes to honor the sacrifices made by these veterans and educate future generations about their contributions to American history. The personal narratives of these brave individuals serve as a poignant reminder of the resilience of the human spirit and the importance of perseverance, hope, and unity in the face of hardship. A heartfelt salute to Ted and the Chamber for organizing yet another remarkable event to celebrate our military heroes. The interviews will be posted on www.americanveteranscenter.org.