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NEWS | March 29, 2010

Former POW takes 'freedom flight' 37 years after his release

By Robert Goetz 502nd Air Base Wing OL-B Public Affairs

Retired Lt. Col. Jay Hess climbed down from the back seat of a T-38 on Randolph's east flightline last week and figuratively and literally soaked up a few moments of elation that only 194 other Airmen had ever experienced.

Given a spirited champagne bath by his pilot, Lt. Col. Darryl Parkinson, and other members of the 560th Flying Training Squadron, the former prisoner of war finally joined many of his fellow survivors of the horrific "Hanoi Hilton" and other North Vietnamese POW camps in another elite brotherhood, this one known as the Freedom Flyers.

"That was a good soaking," Mr. Hess exclaimed as an appreciative group of past and present Airmen and civilians witnessed the occasion and media representatives chronicled the event, part of the 560th FTS' 37th annual Freedom Flyer Reunion. "Thanks for the crowd, thanks for the ride and hooray."

It was only fitting that one of Mr. Hess' first well-wishers - and there were many this day - was retired Col. Thomas Norris, who spent many a day with him in the worst of circumstances. Their dreadful experience and ultimately triumphant battle for survival forged a bond that endures to this day.

Mr. Norris, who continued his service to the Air Force for 14 years following his release after 2,041 days in captivity, became the 86th Freedom Flyer in January 1974. Like many of his fellow Air Force pilots who were shot down in combat over North Vietnam, he was repatriated as part of Operation Homecoming and requalified for flight and given his "freedom flight," the "fini" flight he never got to experience because of his capture, by Randolph's 560th FTS.

Mr. Hess elected to retire from the Air Force the same year he was released from captivity. He became an Air Force JROTC instructor in his native Utah and later remarried. He credits Mr. Norris for persuading him to join the Freedom Flyers.

"He's urged me more than anyone else," he said. "He called me again and this time I didn't turn him down."

Mr. Hess called Mr. Norris, with whom he lived in three different POW camps, "a special guy."

"He boosted your spirits," he said. "He did that for everybody."

Mr. Norris described his friend as "quiet, conservative, knowledgeable, reliable and friendly."

He also exhibited the will to live.

Shot down in his F-105 in late August 1967, less than two weeks after his future "roommate" suffered a similar fate, Mr. Hess was soon imprisoned at the camp that American POWs named the "Hanoi Hilton." Like many other prisoners, especially in those first few years, he endured solitary confinement and various forms of torture.

"The worst thing was just being there," said Mr. Hess, whose wife and five children only knew that he was missing in action for a long time after he was shot down. "You're cut off from everything you want and you love."

He said the experience, especially in solitary confinement, would make him ask "What if?" and "Why me?" But his faith brought him comfort and strengthened his will.

"Faith was a big thing - faith in each other, faith in our country," he said. "You didn't want to let the other guys down, and you wanted to get back to your family."

One of Mr. Hess' most uplifting moments occurred when, after his family was notified he was a POW, he received a letter from his son Cameron, who informed him he had become an Eagle Scout.

"I was really proud," he said.

Mr. Hess underwent aircrew flight equipment training instruction in Hangar 63 the day prior to his freedom flight. Something jogged his memory.

"Putting on the G-suit is a reflective experience," he said. "There's a smell about the military flight suit that gets stuck in your memory."

The sight of Mr. Norris and other Freedom Flyers brought back other memories. Mr. Norris and John Brodak were also getting ready to fly the next day, their "refresher" flights in T-38s. Both of them, along with Freedom Flyer Ken Cordier, who also attended this year's reunion, had lived with Mr. Hess at times during those long years of captivity.

"The big thing for him is he gets to be with the guys he lived with for six years," said Mr. Hess' wife, Michelle. "It's a reunion."

Mr. Hess called it "a special experience."

"There were four of us in the same room together," he said. "I was fortunate to be with this group."