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Former captive recalls past during POW/MIA breakfast

Retired Air Force aviator Col. Leroy Stutz began his talk at Tinker’s annual POW/MIA recognition breakfast by peeling off his flight suit to reveal the actual pants he was forced to wear during more than six years of captivity in Vietnam.  (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

Retired Air Force aviator Col. Leroy Stutz began his talk at Tinker’s annual POW/MIA recognition breakfast by peeling off his flight suit to reveal the actual pants he was forced to wear during more than six years of captivity in Vietnam. (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Col. Leroy Stutz, a retired Air Force pilot who spent more than six years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, remembers the precise number of days he was imprisoned and the torture he endured, and details about his fellow hostages, several of whom died in captivity.

Colonel Stutz, who lives in Oklahoma City, was the featured speaker at the National POW/MIA Breakfast held Sept. 21 at the Tinker Club. The event was attended by 118 Air Force and Navy officers and enlisted personnel plus civilians.

The colonel, a Kansas native, graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1964, earned his pilot's wings in 1965, and less than a year later he was deployed to Udorn, Thailand.

Then 27-year-old 1st Lieutenant Stutz was awarded the Silver Star for bravery exhibited during a mission near Hanoi on Nov. 23, 1966. He was cited for "exposing himself for 55 minutes over hostile territory in a highly sophisticated and lethal anti-aircraft defense structure" to obtain "the required intelligence" on his unit's assigned target.

Less than two weeks later, on Dec. 2, 1966, he was flying his 85th combat mission (the 67th over North Vietnam; the others were in Laos and South Vietnam): reconnaissance on the heels of a bombing raid 25 miles north of Hanoi. He was traveling at 660 knots and an altitude of 75 feet, "barely over the trees," he related, when his RF-4 Phantom was hit by ground fire.

Capt. Bob Gregory, the aircraft commander, and then-Lieutenant Stutz, the co-pilot, were forced to eject. Lieutenant Stutz parachuted into a North Vietnamese village, where he was captured immediately. He said the villagers were unfamiliar with zippers, so they used a machete to cut off his flight suit, tied his arms behind him, "and the games began."

He was held captive for 2,283 days, during which he was routinely beaten and otherwise tortured, and was moved about among several POW camps in the North, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He also was starved: at one point his weight had dropped from 175 to 105, he said.

Captain Stutz (he was promoted during his captivity) was finally freed on March 4, 1973. He managed to return home with the red-and-tan striped pants he wore in prison, but his captors made him discard his tattered shirt before he was repatriated.

Captain Gregory, the aircraft commander on Lieutenant Stutz's fateful flight, was snagged in a tree about 75 feet above the ground after ejecting from their crippled aircraft. The Vietnamese chopped down the tree and he plunged to the ground; he was knocked unconscious and later died. Captain Gregory's remains were not returned to his family until 1995.

Marine Chief Warrant Officer John William Frederick Jr. was captured in late 1965, and died in captivity in 1972.

Capt. Edwin Lee Atterberry was shot down over North Vietnam in August 1967, escaped but was recaptured, and died in captivity "from the beatings they gave him," Colonel Stutz said.

Air Force Capt. Ron Storz was captured in 1965 and died in captivity in 1970.

Colonel Stutz also recalled being housed "next door" to Lt. Col. Robinson Risner for a couple of months. Colonel Risner, a fighter pilot, spent more than seven years as a North Vietnamese POW before his release on Feb. 12, 1973.

"I've been told that only 30 percent of the air crew members shot down in Vietnam survived as prisoners of war or were rescued," Colonel Stutz lamented. "Over 1,300 of them didn't come back from the war."

The bookends for Colonel Stutz's recollections were provided by a base chaplain and by the Tinker Air Force Base commander.

"As the 1 percent who actually serve in the military, we know what it means to put ourselves in danger, to leave our families and perhaps never return," Chaplain Kraig Smith said during his invocation. And Col. Steven Bleymaier, commander of the 72nd Air Base Wing and of the installation, thanked Colonel Stutz for "helping us understand the magnitude of the sacrifice that's made by POWs and MIAs."

The Tinker Chiefs Group donated $200 to the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, in Colonel Stutz's name, to help provide educational scholarships for children and family members of service members missing or killed in action.

A special table was donated to the John Ivory Lounge in the Tinker Club to commemorate "our missing comrades in arms." Around the edge of the table is printed the motto, "Land of the Free Because of the Brave."

Every table in the banquet room had an empty chair reserved for a service member listed as MIA. The empty seats represented Americans still missing from each of the five services: the Army, Marine Corps, the Navy, the Air Force and the Coast Guard.

In addition, the audience was reminded that "the sacrifices of our prisoners of war are not limited to past conflicts." Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was captured in Afghanistan more than three years ago and, so far as is known, he remains a prisoner of the Taliban.