Updated Nov 4, 2013 - 12:44 pm
Phoenix Veterans Day Parade grand marshal Col. Gobel James: Grace under fire
PHOENIX -- Several decades before he was chosen as one of seven grand marshals in this year's Veterans Day Parade, Col. Gobel James spent 32 years in the military, most of it as a U.S. Air Force pilot.
"The Korean War was on when I joined the Air Force in 1952 and the hostilities in Korea ended six months after I got my wings, so I never entered any combat until the Vietnam War in 1968.
"I was on my 34th mission," he remembers vividly, "Our job was to destroy surface-to-air missile sites."
There were none, "And, we were getting low on fuel so the lead aircraft said, ‘Let's go down and bomb that road intersection and go home.' So, I dove in and dropped my bombs and as I pulled off the target, the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire."
The warning lights on his dashboard lit up the cockpit.
"I had no control over the airplane at all," James said.
However, he did manage to get the wings leveled and the nose up to feel the jet climbing.
That's when he said the Thunderchief's long nose dropped below the horizon and headed toward the ground.
"I had a man in my back seat [Capt. Larry Martin was his electronic warfare officer] and I told him to eject first," to avoid clipping jet canopies, "And, I waited a few seconds. When I ejected, I was going 450 to maybe 500 knots."
The sheer blast broke his left knee and dislocated it as he drifted by his parachute 3,000 feet in the air.
His chief concern at the time was on Martin.
"I called the lead aircraft and he had seen me eject," James said.
The problem was he only saw James' single chute, not another.
"Captain Martin's remains were returned in 1988, and I will never know; Did he get out of the aircraft safely? was he hit in the air?" James still wonders.
While he was looking skyward, hundreds of North Vietnamese eyes were on him, prepared to make another F-105 pilot their prisoner of war. Still, James was thankful.
"I believe to this day that if there had not been well disciplined military group that captured me, I wouldn't be alive," he credited the soldiers who saved him from a mob of angry villagers working on nearby rice fields and swinging razor sharp sickles. Still, there was brutal abuse.
"One man hit me in the head with a rifle butt," James said.
Officers stripped off his flight suite before they took him on a homemade stretcher to an underground room.
"I sat there while -- what seemed like the entire village -- hit me in the head with their fists, pulled my hair and, with great delight, two women stomped on my injured knee."
It continued, he said, until the sun went down 45 minutes later.
The worst was yet to come when James and two other U.S. airmen were loaded on a truck headed for Hanoi.
"We stopped in this one village shortly after sunrise," recalled the injured James, "They took Captain Michael Burns and Lieutenant Colonel Carl Crumpler out of the truck to a village," leaving James behind to fend for himself. "Capt. Burns and Lt. Crumpler argued they would carry me, but no, (the guards) told me to sit down."
Unable to move far, James watched as a villager spotted him and shouted for the neighbors to jump on the side of the truck.
"They would throw things at me and jab me with sticks. It was a mob."
In the midst of torture, he still had remarkable optimism, "A young girl took a piece of melon and threw it at me and it hit me in the chest. At first it angered me, but then I thought, ‘No, this has got water in it.' And, I hadn't had anything to drink!"
It took 10 days to travel as a convoy 300 miles north to Hanoi. The Vietnamese guards traveled at night to avoid being seen by U.S. bombers overhead. Each time, James said he was left behind in the pitch black night, hoping the U.S. pilots would miss his truck.
"You can do a lot of serious praying when you're totally exposed, the flares are on, it's as bright as day, that you could read a newspaper."
Once in Hanoi, things did not improve much, "They put me in a cell by myself and for three weeks… a bucket for a toilet; they'd bring me food and seasonal soup twice a day."
His knee was not healing, so the guards offered to take him to a hospital for surgery, "It became severely infected," he admits, "I could've easily died."
His knee eventually healed over time, which he had plenty of in the POW camp.
"My total time in prison was 1,703 days," James said.
That's a total of four years, eight months.
When asked how he held it together James credits, "The law of survival. If you want to survive… you had no control… I never became discouraged, I always felt if I can live through it, then I'll go home someday."
Like a birthday, he never forgets the date he was released, "I was shot down on the 15th of July 1968 and I was released on the 14th of February 1973."
During the first year, his family had no idea whether he was dead or alive. Thinking about his wife, their five-year-old son and two high school daughters was the toughest.
"When I'd think about my family, tears would come in my eyes," James said, remembering back to the time he was away.
It was discipline that kept him from going mad, "I would allow what I thought was a minute-and-a-half to think about them. And, that sounds, maybe cruel, but I just decided that if you dwelt on your family too much you'd go insane."
He rarely talks about his nearly five years as a POW, unless someone asks him about it.
"I don't talk much, I don't dwell on it… I learned long ago that being bitter doesn't harm the person you're bitter against, it only harms you."