GERALD COFFEE—-CHAPTER ONE
I ejected at 680 miles per hour and was knocked unconscious by the impact of the jet stream.
Gerald Coffee and his crewman, Robert Hanson, were shot down on February 3, 1966 while flying a mission over North Vietnam.
I was born June 2, 1934 and grew up in Modesto, California. My father worked for large construction companies, and my mother was a homemaker who later became a secretary for the school district. My father had polio, which left him with a withered right arm and a shorter leg, but it never slowed him down. It was not an issue in the family nor did he get any special consideration. I realize now that my dad was an inspiration to me. He was my hero.
In high school, I was athletic and active in the student government. My self-confidence was strong, thanks to my parents, and I had been taught good values. They took me to swim meets, football games and skiing trips to the Sierras. I would have to describe my upbringing as “All-American.”
I majored in art at UCLA and after graduating in 1957, I signed up with the Navy, which allowed me to procrastinate from entering the real world. I liked the Navy and after two years I received my wings and was sent to a light reconnaissance group where I flew a Crusader, which was a variation of the fighter plane. I served three years in that squadron flying from the US Saratoga in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and the North Atlantic.
During the Cuban missile crisis I was on the first mission that flew over Cuba. I took the photos that Adlai Stevenson later used in the United Nations to prove that Russia had installed missile sites. We actually saw the missile launchers and the missiles stacked like wood alongside one another. There was no problem spotting or identifying them. Flying at 400-500 feet, we knew we had found the right place because we could see the launch pad and tracks where a missile could be positioned, the trucks designed to transport them, as well as miscellaneous electronic equipment and radar. The Soviets had tried to pull a fast one!
I went over to Vietnam in December 1965 and flew missions from the US Kitty Hawk in the Tonkin Gulf. While flying on February 3, 1966, a sensation occurred similar to driving a car across a speedbump at 60 miles per hour. Since the air was smooth, I immediately assumed we had taken a hit. The warning lights came on and then the hydraulic pressure gauges flickered. I started to lose power. The controls got very sluggish. My plane had been hit by anti-aircraft fire over North Vietnam and the hydraulic system was disabled.
We were at 4,000 feet when we took the hit. The plane rolled uncontrollably and started to go down. I told my crewman Robert Hanson to eject. By that time, the plane’s speed had picked up to 680 miles per hour. When I ejected, I was knocked unconscious.
I regained consciousness in the water, where somehow I had inflated my survival flotation devices while drifting in and out of consciousness. Almost immediately, Vietnamese boats were coming to pick me up. They were firing at me mostly to intimidate me from trying to escape. I think they knew they couldn’t hit me from that far away, and when they got closer they stopped firing. After being pulled out of the water, we were strafed by U.S. attack planes from the Kitty Hawk who didn’t realize I was in the Vietnamese boat.
My first feeling upon being captured was one of classic denial. I was very groggy and probably suffering from a concussion. My elbow was shattered, my right forearm was fractured, my shoulder was dislocated, and I also had many cuts and burns. I worried about whether Robert Hanson had managed to eject safely.
Over the next twelve days, under the cover of darkness, I was taken north to Hanoi and into Hoa Lo Prison. The first year was the toughest as I realized what was going on in my life, and asked, “Why me, God?” It was very tough dealing with emotional factors.
I was tortured three to four times per year, until 1970 when the North changed their policy on this. They would interrogate me, and I would refuse to talk so then they would bind my upper arms tightly with parachute shrouds which were tighter than ropes and pull my hands behind me, put a bar over my ankles and feet, and then pull, cutting off all circulation, to the point where it felt like my upper body would split open. The captor would then put a foot on the back of my neck so that my ears were between my big toes. My shoulders were being separated and there was tremendous pain from lack of circulation. Then they put a hook in the ceiling and hoisted me up, so that all my weight was on my arms. I was twisted in all directions; it was as if they were playing tetherball with me.
Other times, they would put me on a high stool and let me sit there for days without sleep and with ankles cuffed to the rungs of the stool. When I would fall over, they would shove me back up on it.
I was most vulnerable at the beginning when I was injured and in solitary confinement. Even though I knew intuitively that there were others, it was a huge relief when I made my first contact with another prisoner. We communicated by knocking on the walls using a tap code that was highly developed. This allowed us to converse, share information, jokes, and stories, as well as talking about families and the future. The tap code was based on a 25-letter matrix. The guards knew in theory how it worked, but when some of the English interpreters tried to listen, we went so fast and used so much slang that they could never keep up.
I was optimistic 80% of the time, and the other 20% I was pretty low. There were peaks and valleys. Not knowing how long I would be there allowed me to hope that I would be home for each holiday and birthday.
Spiritual faith was essential. In solitary, even in my darkest moments, I felt that I was not alone and this allowed me to find a little strength. At one prison I stayed in, someone had written on the wall, God=Strength, which summarized it well.
After eighteen months I received my first letter from my wife. It told me that my youngest son, Jerry Jr. had been born two months after I was shot down. He joined three other children we had before I left for Vietnam. Receiving the letter brought a mixture of emotions, but mainly indescribable joy.
From 1968 on, the bombing of North Vietnam was more intense. I felt that the pressure of more bombing, would be the only thing they would respond to. In 1972, Hanoi was bombed from December 10 through December 29, which led to the peace pact in Paris.
Finally after seven years in prison, it appeared that I was going to be freed. All the POWs were assembled in the prison courtyard where the prison commander told us we would be released in two-week increments. The sick would be first to go and then it would be in order of when we were shot down. We would not accept any other way.
I was bussed to the airport with fellow POWs, where there was a small ceremony under a parachute canopy. We then boarded a transport plane and were served by four beautiful nurses who gave us coffee, donuts and newspapers. We were still walking on eggs because we were afraid that something might happen to screw up the process. It was almost too much to hope that it would be true.
As the engines started up, we all became quiet, thinking, “Is it really going to happen?” The plane taxied to the runway and then revved the engines. It vibrated as the brakes were released and it began to move down the runway. I was straining against the shoulder harness thinking, “Come on you beast, get airborne, get airborne.” Finally the nose came up and we felt the wheels leave the runway. The pilot came over the intercom and said, “Congratulations gentlemen, we’ve just left North Vietnam!” And only then did we cheer. We were in shock and hugging each other.
It was a joy to finally have hot showers and good food. I flew from the base in the Philippines to Florida to meet my family. My wife had kept my image alive and the kids were great. I finally met my son Jerry Jr. who was by then seven years old.
In my absence we had landed a man on the moon, area codes were now needed to dial direct, and even my most respected friends had long hair and beards. I woke up in a different society and wondered, “How the hell did I get here?”
I had to build a tough shell around me while in Vietnam, convincing myself on a daily basis that I was right to be there and that our cause was just. Upon returning, I realized that I was in the minority who held this view. There was no respect for authority and a lack of love for our country, all of which, I found very difficult to accept. I was struck by the negative feelings about the Vietnam War. As well, rebuilding my relationship with my wife proved difficult and we divorced twelve years later.
In 1988, I watched my former crewman Robert Hanson’s casket being lowered from the plane after it had been released by the Communist government in Hanoi. It was surreal because in my mind I had put this all to rest. It was also a bittersweet experience, for on the one hand, his fate was resolved. I knew his family would feel that way. On the other hand, it was very sad because he was in his early twenties when he was killed and now would have been in his early forties. I thought about the life that might have been. He had earned glory by sacrificing his life for the cause of freedom and helping a rather unsophisticated country try to protect itself and build its own democracy. A myriad of things went through my mind that day.
As I look back, I am not angry with the majority of my captors who were only doing their jobs. No matter what the color of skin, the shape of eyes, the sound of language spoken, we all laugh, cry, hunger, thirst, and want the same things for family and loved ones. You cannot let the objects of bitterness keep control of you.
You must find purpose in adversity and recognize that you have skills, wisdom, and the fortitude to do whatever you need to do in order to survive. Having faith that you will find a purpose in what is happening to you, and then capitalizing on it is going beyond survival. There is a hero in all of us. There is nothing extraordinary about me. If I can do it so can you.
Captain Gerald Coffee retired in 1985, and now is a motivational speaker who shares his story with audiences worldwide.