Tears for the horrors of war.
Joy for returning POWs, captured “prisoners of a war” in far-off Southeast Asia.
Turbulent times of youth.
Oh, so much emotion is engraved into the POW bracelet I wore in college.
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Yet, the shiny silver band is printed with only a rank, a name and a date: CDR Cole Black: 6-21-66. The Navy pilot was captured near Hanoi on that date after ejecting from his crippled Cruiser F8E in the Vietnam War. He was imprisoned in the hellhole “Hanoi Hilton” and three other North Vietnamese POW camps for 2,428 days, 18 hours and 35 minutes.
“On the way to Hanoi, I was put on display for the local people,” Cole Black would later write.
“Some of them were very hostile, others just curious. When I arrived at Hanoi I was treated like an animal. The communists call it ‘reducing you to a dog.’ Perhaps that is a good analogy because when they get done with you, you are unable to use your hands and have to do things, such as eating, like a dog.”
I didn’t know any of that background then because it was classified.
I didn’t know Cole was the epitome of a Top Gun, only seven days shy of completing his second tour of Nam when captured at 33. Or that, raised on a Minnesota farm, he enlisted in the Navy at 17 and was so bright he found himself in Officer Candidate School. I certainly didn’t know he was a father.
Wrist bands of support
I only knew Cole Black was a POW and that his was one among hundreds of POW and Missing In Action names engraved on the $2.50 bracelets that would total more than 5 million at war’s end.
Wearing the bracelet was my generation’s way of positively supporting POWs and MIAs. The inexpensive metal band also symbolized a call for humane treatment without getting its wearers embroiled in the controversy over the Vietnam War that would claim 56,000 American lives.
Amazingly, news of the mass wearing of these support bracelets filtered into prison camps by way of new POWs who arrived in Nam wearing them. The idea bolstered early captures like Black who survived torture, 7-by-9 cells, concrete mattresses and starving conditions for endless years. The bracelets were proof their country had not forgotten them.
“I would like to say many thanks for thinking about me and keeping the faith while I was a prisoner,” Cole wrote me years later.
“I believe the support of you and others who wore the bracelets was instrumental in helping us to return to our country and we shall always owe you all a debt of gratitude.”
The visceral emotions of watching Cole Black walk off the plane on the first day of Operation Homecoming do not evaporate. Like millions of other Americans on Feb. 12, 1973, I was glued to the TV screen, in my case in a dormitory common room at Marshall University.
The great homecoming
We watched as the first freed POWs walked, sometimes limped, across the tarmac, smiles belying their thin bodies. My POW was on the third plane. Free at last! Tears gushed from all.
For the first time since promising to wear it until the person came home — freed or in a coffin — I removed the bracelet. Today, that same band is perched on my keyboard as I write this. Tears still fall.
I suspect that the millions who wore these POW/MIA bracelets are reliving the emotions of watching the 1973 returnees. At least I am, thanks to PBS’s 10-part “Vietnam War” documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. I haven’t watched all episodes yet, but I suspect they will mention the bracelets.
At the end of Episode 1, I ran upstairs to check my memento box. Sometimes, I forget what I still have and what the Hurricane Katrina mermaids stole along with my Biloxi house. But there it was, nestled in the box with my own military dependent dog tags and my late brother’s Boy Scout tie clasp.
My 1/2 inch-wide metal band is a survivor just as Cole himself was a survivor.
A repeat emotion
I removed the bracelet from the box and hugged it to my chest. Buried memories of corresponding with him flooded back. After Cole Black’s return, many who wore his name sent him their bracelets. As a thank you, he sent back photos of the family Christmas tree decorated with the shiny bands.
Why didn’t I send him my bracelet? I don’t remember. Perhaps I didn’t know the organizers of the bracelet program expected us to do that. The wisdom of age, however, tells me a young Kathleen just couldn’t have parted with it. The bracelet, in my mind, was also representative of the death of my own father who could never return.
Dad had survived Pearl Harbor in World War II only to die from a cancer caused by exposure to atomic radiation in the Cold War. Just three years had passed between his death and Cole’s capture and that’s why I picked a Navy lieutenant commander’s name. That was Roy Louis Bergeron’s rank.
Cole later explained to me that while a North Vietnamese prisoner, his rank was raised to commander. He retired in 1986 as a Navy captain.
Finding a POW
Through newfangled Internet search, I located Cole in 2000 and finally got to ask questions I’d pondered for years.
“My advice to our youth who may have to answer the call one day,” he wrote back, “might go something like this: Do Your duty, always preserve your honor and trust and believe in your country. It’s the greatest country in the world and our way of life is worth fighting for.
“Prepare yourself as well as you can, do your best and know that your country and the people will forever support you and never forget you.”
The on-going PBS series reminded me of Cole, now in his mid-80s, so I searched the Internet again to learn where he is living. I was saddened to read he is buried at Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego. He died in 2007, at age 74, in a twin-engine plane crash that also killed the pilot and one other. I’m still pondering the irony of how he died.
The memorial accolades heaped on Cole Black — brave, good-natured, unflappable, clarity of purpose, strong but gentle-hearted — can be said of many of the other 590 POWs who returned in Operation Homecoming.
The passage of years brings an enlightened perspective, a better appreciation of all who donned U.S. uniforms to head to Southeast Asia.
Next week: With more than 2,000 servicemen still unaccounted for, the bracelets have not disappeared. Who started the POW/MIA bracelet program, how many wore them and why do they revive such strong emotions four decades later?
Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.