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Obituaries

Floyd J. Thompson, 69; Held Longest of Any U.S. POW

July 19, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Col. Floyd J. Thompson, who endured nearly nine years of torture, disease and starvation in Vietnam as the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, has died. He was 69.

Thompson was found dead at his Key West, Fla., home Tuesday after an apparent heart attack over the weekend, said Charles Ingraham, a friend and spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Key West.

His status as the longest-serving POW was long unacknowledged by the military, and inspired the book "Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson" (W.W. Norton, 2001), by Tom Philpott, military affairs columnist.

The book chronicles his horrifying experiences as a prisoner and the personal miseries that befell him after his release.

Thompson was drafted into the Army in 1956, after graduating from high school in his hometown, Bergenfield, N.J. By the early 1960s he had been recruited into the Army's Special Forces, the elite unit whose members were known by their green berets.

In early 1964 he led a team of 11 men into Khe Sanh, one of the most isolated and forbidding parts of South Vietnam. His mission was to help stem the flow of North Vietnamese infiltrators from neighboring Laos.

On March 26, 1964, he was an observer on a reconnaissance plane when it was hit with small-arms fire. The plane crashed and exploded, killing the pilot. Thompson was severely wounded and lost consciousness.

He came to when a Viet Cong guerrilla grabbed his hand to slice off his finger and take his ruby ring. Thompson gave him the ring and was taken prisoner.

He saw no other Americans in the next five years, which he spent in solitary confinement in the jungles of South Vietnam.

His captors bound his elbows behind his back until they touched, then strung him up from a beam, causing such excruciating pain that he thought his chest would split open.

For one four-month period, he was locked in a cage so small that he could neither sit up nor stretch out. His leg irons were removed for 10 minutes a day, carving out a "chunk of flesh" every time they were screwed back on.

He escaped five times and was recaptured five times, which brought more punishment.

Asked how he survived, he told the New York Times last year, "One day at a time. Every morning I closed my eyes and said, 'One day at a time.' "

He was near death when he was transferred to a prison in North Vietnam in 1967. Two years later, he finally was let out of confinement and was held with other American POWs.

He was so emaciated that when a fellow prisoner saw him, he thought Thompson was a corpse brought in to torment him. "He looked like something out of Auschwitz," the former prisoner was quoted by Philpott as saying.

At one point, Thompson was beaten so badly that he agreed to make a radio broadcast in which he said he was being well treated.

What kept him going, he later said, were thoughts of his wife, Alyce, and their four children, the youngest of whom was born the day after his capture.

He was released, along with many other POWs, after the 1973 peace agreement. But the dreams that had sustained him for nine years collapsed in the face of harsh realities.

"The difficulty of living, after so courageously defying death's call in the bamboo cages of Vietnam, haunted him in the land of the free," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), himself a POW in Vietnam, wrote in the forward to "Glory Denied " of Thompson's travails back home.

"Glory Denied" was an interweaving of oral histories taken, not only from Thompson but also from his fellow soldiers, his doctors, his friends and his family. Thompson would later dismiss the book as "half lies, half truths," a criticism apparently aimed largely at his wife's portrayal of their relationship.

By her account, theirs was a flawed marriage before his capture. A gung-ho careerist, he had been absent for the births of all his children. He had volunteered to go to Vietnam, even though she was expecting their fourth child.

She screamed and went into labor when an Army chaplain showed up at her door to tell her his plane had been shot down. After a while, she came to believe that he was dead. Given the cold shoulder by other military wives on the base, she took their children and moved to Massachusetts with a retired Army sergeant.

When word finally reached her that Thompson was alive, she fought fiercely to keep his captivity a secret. At one point she tried to have him declared legally dead.

"I wanted to be free to start over," she said in the book.

In 1971 Thompson escaped and was free for nearly two days, a feat that later would earn him the Silver Star. When U.S. authorities learned of his heroic act, they asked Alyce for permission to publicize his captivity, but she refused.

As a result, the person publicly identified as the longest-held POW was Lt. Cmdr. Everett Alvarez of the Navy, who had been captured four months after Thompson. The military's failure for many years to acknowledge his status contributed to the bitterness Thompson felt to his final days.

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