ANNISTON, Ala. (BP)--In 1967, U.S. Army Colonel Benjamin Purcell traded his job as professor of military science at Kemper Military School and College in Boonville, Mo., to go to Vietnam as deputy commander of the Da Nang Sub-Area and executive officer of the 80th General Support Group.
That career decision would end up putting his life in peril and his faith to the test.
In Vietnam, Purcell was quite comfortable in the bachelor officer's barracks, considering the turmoil of war surrounding him, and he communicated with his family through daily letters, weekly audiotapes and monthly telephone calls. But a routine midnight helicopter ride on Jan. 30, 1968, changed everything when the aircraft was shot down by enemy fire and Purcell along with Warrant Officer Joe Rose, Warrant Officer Dick Ziefler, SP/4 Robert Chenoworth, SP/4 Mike Lenker and Private First Class James George were captured by the North Vietnamese army.
Imprisonment was an issue Purcell and wife, Anne, had never really weighed. "Anne and I had talked about the possibility of my being injured or killed but never of becoming MIA (Missing In Action) or POW," Purcell recounted.
Almost immediately his faith in Christ was put to the test as the U.S. captives walked all night barefooted with their hands tied behind their backs along a narrow path into the mountains south and west of Khe Sanh.
Private George, his face burned after retrieving a rifle in the flaming helicopter, was in urgent need of medical attention. After Purcell was promised George would receive care, the two men fearlessly recited the Lord's Prayer with the tip of a Viet Cong's gun aimed in their direction. "Never had the words meant more to me," Purcell said. George was left behind anticipating a doctor when a shot echoed in the dark Vietnam air. Although he did not witness the gunfire, Purcell believed George was killed that fateful night, as he was never seen or heard from again.
Purcell feared his broken ribs and blistered feet would slow down the caravan of prisoners and he likewise would be killed so he turned to God. "I prayed for a light to guide me and minutes later the man in front of me turned on a flashlight and pointed it to my feet." This would be the first of many incidents when Purcell's Southern Baptist roots would be planted deep in the muddy soil of Vietnam. "There were times when I wanted to give up but I would think of Anne and then of how Christ endured pain on the cross. I knew I had to keep going," Purcell said.
For 62 months, 58 of those in solitary confinement, Purcell suffered interrogations, hunger, depression, illness, loneliness and complete loss of dignity and freedom. Of the many lessons learned during his nightmare, he noted, "I learned that in order to live with fellow man, a person must first live with himself."
Twice Purcell attempted to escape from two different prison camps. And even though he had trained a chicken as a lookout in one attempt and fashioned a dummy named Charlie out of bamboo and spare clothes in the other attempt, it was not until March 27, 1973, that Purcell and 32 other American POWs tasted the sweetness of freedom. Purcell greeted a crowd at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines by saying, "Man's most precious possession, second only to life itself, is freedom."
From that day forward, Purcell would bear the distinction of being the highest-ranking Army officer captured as a POW and released during the Vietnam conflict.
With no communication during his five-year captivity and no idea of his whereabouts, Purcell's wife, Anne, struggled to raise their five children, David, Debbie, Clifford, Sherri and Joy, who was only 18 months when her father volunteered to serve his country. "Faith, hope and love is what helped us all," Purcell said.
Three days after his release, on March 30, 1973, Ben and Anne were reunited at Bush Field in Augusta, Ga. Their oldest son, David, who was a senior in high school when he said goodbye to his father, greeted him in his West Point cadet uniform with what Purcell called the most gratifying salute of his military career.
Whenever he and Anne share their testimony of faith, hope and love to churches and civic organizations across the country, Purcell brings along items from his captivity. Among them on display during a Nov. 3 visit to Parker Memorial Baptist Church in Anniston, Ala., were a communion set he used once a month; a wedding ring fashioned of bamboo; salt and pepper shakers that never held the precious commodity; and drawings of the bare cells and clothes he was forced to wear. He and Anne also recount the ordeal in their book "Love & Duty." Daughter Joy, a television journalist, traveled to Vietnam with her father and a few other POWs in March 1993 to film a documentary titled, "The Final Healing -- Vietnam Revisited."
Purcell retired in 1980 after 30 years in service with such distinguished honors as the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Parachutist and Combat Infantryman Badges and a Purple Heart.
He subsequently served his home state of Georgia as a state representative from 1993-97. Today the Purcells live in Clarksville, Ga., where they operate a Christmas tree farm. They are active members of Bethlehem Baptist Church.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: FREEDOM AND FAITH.