Bob Simpson: Remembering another prisoner of war

June 7, 2014 

The current furor over the return to U.S. military control of the lone American held by the Taliban brought a very different prisoner of war story to my mind. Forty-three years ago this past March the longest-held American prisoner of war in our history was released from captivity. He'd been held just 10 days short of nine years, first in the jungles of South Vietnam and then, eventually, in Hanoi. He'd somehow survived severe wounds, torture, starvation, and isolation. For a period of more than five years he never spoke to another American. And once released, he would belatedly learn that he had suffered the ultimate betrayal while held captive.

Floyd James Thompson, known as Jim, was five years out of high school and working in a grocery when he was drafted in 1956. Hard-headed by nature and resistant to discipline initially, he changed dramatically and decided to remain in the Army. He completed Officer Candidate School and was commissioned in the Infantry. When he was a captain, he was recruited into Special Forces at Fort Bragg. In December 1963, he departed for a six-month tour in Vietnam, leaving his wife and three small daughters, with a fourth child on the way. Three months into the tour, Thompson and the pilot of an L-19 reconnaissance aircraft were shot down by Viet Cong and Thompson was captured.

At some point during the horror of the following years, many of them in a bamboo cage in the jungle, Jim Thompson realized he was near death and that his only hope was to somehow find the strength and will inside himself to live. An escape ended in recapture and brutal punishment, so there was no hope of soon departing the hell he was in. He later said the one thing that kept him alive was the thought of being reunited with his wife and children. He could not know that the dream was already in tatters. His wife, while he was still listed as missing, moved with her children to another state to live with a retired sergeant she'd met at Fort Bragg. Once the Army informed her that her husband was a prisoner of war, she insisted that his status not be publicized. The Army acquiesced. Thus he could not even be recognized as the longest in captivity once that became the case. Navy Cmdr. Everett Alvarez was so designated and publicly recognized. So, unlike Bowe Bergdahl, Jim Thompson passed the years in a jungle hell, forgotten by a world no longer aware that he even existed.

Contrary to the joyful homecoming Thompson dreamed of, after nine long years he rejoined a son he'd never seen, three daughters who didn't remember him, and a wife who'd been living much of that time as the de facto wife of another man. They tried to make a fresh start, hoping the marriage could be saved. But the combination of infidelity, nine years of separation, and the incredible psychological effects almost certain to bedevil Thompson probably made that a forlorn hope from the start.

When I think of Jim Thompson, I picture a man in a bright red convertible, top down, radio blaring music, as he whizzed down the narrow street that ran behind my quarters at Fort Benning. He'd been promoted to lieutenant colonel and brought to the Infantry School to somehow get up to speed in his branch, and he and his family lived in quarters about 100 yards farther down the street. I saw him only as he passed, driving a little fast, one-handed, soaking in the sun and the music. And freedom. I had the sad impression of a man futilely trying to recover a treasure gone forever. A friend of mine involved in coordinating his reorientation sessions said he had a difficult time fitting in, and the sessions were not very productive. Jim Thompson was still hard-headed, and he was sometimes inclined, despite his missing professional growth, to lecture rather than to listen. He completed the reorientation and was reassigned. The Army, in an effort to repay some small part of the man's incredible loss, eventually promoted him to full colonel. But it couldn't restore his marriage or his internal damage. He was divorced, remarried, divorced again. He was estranged from his children. He suffered from bouts of severe depression and from acute alcoholism. He was hospitalized for those problems and later for a heart attack and a stroke. Retired after 25 years of service, unable to speak except in single words or short bursts, he lived alone, a gregarious man with few friends to share his gregariousness. He died of a heart attack, alone, in his small Florida apartment. At least it was not a bamboo cage. But maybe not all that different.

I don't know enough about the young man now being repatriated to comment on his experience as a prisoner or his outlook for the future. But our longest held prisoner of war I do know a little about. I know that we owe men like Jim Thompson a huge debt. We ought at least to remember him from time to time, maybe to pay back a little for those bleak years of hell he spent in Vietnam. And the others he spent back home.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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