By Rear Adm. Rick Williams, Commander, Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific
Recently, Rear Adm. Mike Franken, director of the OSD Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, and I had the distinct privilege of meeting with retired Navy Capt. Gerald “Jerry” Coffee and retired Capt. Jim Hickerson. Both are American heroes and former Vietnam prisoners of war at the prison branded the “Hanoi Hilton.”
Capt. Coffee was held for seven years and Capt. Hickerson for five. These esteemed warriors shared some of their sage guidance and wisdom, along with an enlightening perspective that provided a deeper appreciation for these special veterans.
I read and recommend Jerry’s elegantly penned book “Beyond Survival: Building on the Hard Times — a POW’s Inspiring Story” about his triumph over adversity and what he calls “the invincible human spirit.”
Jim’s wife, Carole, is a founding member of National League of Families of America’s Prisoners of War and Missing in Action in Southeast Asia who designed the logo used on the POW/MIA flag.
American and Allied POWs, including Jerry Coffee and Jim Hickerson, endured torture, humiliation and extreme deprivation at the hands of their captors. Their families lived with fear, emptiness and grief.
During the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War, a grateful nation remembers and honors the sacrifice of all those who served, most as volunteers. In particular, we remember those who were held as POWs or who are still missing in action or unaccounted for. We remember the more than 58,000 killed in action and the hundreds of thousands wounded or who suffered PTSD. They and their families are heroes, and they must never be forgotten.
One of the great tragedies of Vietnam was the way service members were treated when they returned state-side. Often, the men and women who served in that war were shunned, disrespected and even verbally abused. The nation is trying to correct that wrong.
Speaking to Vietnam veterans, President Barack Obama said this:
“We reaffirm one of our most fundamental obligations: to show all who have worn the uniform of the United States the respect and dignity they deserve, and to honor their sacrifice by serving them as well as they served us … This is what this 50th anniversary is all about.
“It’s another opportunity to say to our Vietnam veterans what we should have been saying from the beginning: You did your job. You served with honor. You made us proud. You came home and you helped build the America that we love and that we cherish … You have earned your place among the greatest generations.”
During the Vietnam era, Hawaii provided key bases for forward deployment, training and support. And, of course, Honolulu was the best R&R spot for troops. In the ’60s and early ’70s Marines, Sailors, Airmen and Soldiers often met their loved ones at Fort DeRussy for a brief respite in Waikiki.
When POWs finally came home from Vietnam in March 1973, the first state they stepped foot on was Hawaii — right here at what is now Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
Today, all of us, in or out of uniform, need to understand the service and sacrifice of the more than three million Americans who served in Vietnam. Collectively, we must refocus our efforts to the lessons of history.
That’s why here in our region we’re committed to remembering and honoring all veterans: Vietnam and Korea, World War II and the Cold War; Desert Storm and the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
We must communicate our appreciation and conviction that the United States would not long exist without brave heroes like them — those that demonstrated the fortitude to defend the enlightened ideals upon which this country was founded.
For that dignified purpose, some of our beloved shipmates perished and our POWs suffered. From this uncommon sense of commitment, veterans like Jerry Coffee and Jim Hickerson have helped us preserve peace.
Those of us in uniform today feel a strong kinship with our veterans through our privileged association, whether or not we served alongside them in battle or suffered the same hardship. We will keep alive the memory of our fallen shipmates, better understand their strength, and show our appreciation for their courage and service to our nation.
Through our veterans outreach initiatives, including Pearl Harbor Colors ceremonies, we show our appreciation and deep conviction to preserving the memory, history and heritage of our service members past and present.
The ability to stay connected with our veterans and our heritage is a team effort. Our stakeholders and partners include the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii Military Affairs Council, Navy League, Friends of Hickam, Fleet Reserve Association, Pacific Aviation Museum, USS Missouri Memorial Association, Bowfin Museum, National Park Service and other groups.
Capt. Hickerson, Carole Hickerson and Capt. Coffee remind us of the importance of that team effort and the importance of working together toward a common goal.
As a POW, Capt. Coffee overcame adversity with his fellow POWs in part through a simple but inspiring phrase. “Our motto in prison was simple: Unity Over Self,” he said. “Our very survival depended on it. It was based upon faith in and loyalty to one another: Unity Over Self.”