Ret. Col. Benjamin Purcell, the highest ranking Army POW in Vietnam, dies at 85

Forty years after he was released as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, former Columbus resident and retired Army Col. Benjamin Harrison Purcell Jr. died Tuesday of natural causes at his home in Clarksville, Ga. He was 85.

"He was faithful in his duty to his country, and he was a soldier of honor," said his widow, Anne Purcell. "He was also a warrior for his Lord. It took both the soldier and the Lord to bring him home."

Purcell was the highest ranking Army officer held as prisoner of war after the helicopter he was riding in was shot down Feb. 8, 1968, in Quang Tri City, Vietnam. He was released from the Hanoi Hilton more than five years later on March 27, 1973.

The funeral with full military honors will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Clarksville, with the Rev. Jack Hancox, retired Army Chaplain Dan Payne and the Rev. Furman Lewis officiating. Burial will follow at Level Grove Cemetery in Cornelia, Ga. Visitation is from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday at Hillside Memorial Chapel, 5495 Highway 197 North, in Clarksville, according to the funeral home.

Purcell was born Feb. 14, 1928, in Banks County, Ga., to the late Benjamin H. and Hattie Oliver Purcell.

He first enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1946 and left two years later.

Under the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps program at North Georgia College, Purcell was commissioned a lieutenant March 15, 1950.

After serving in the Korean War, he had assignments at Fort Benning, in Europe and other locations across the United States before he was sent to Vietnam in August 1967.

He was executive commander of the 80th General Support Group when the helicopter he was riding in started taking ground fire and flames ignited inside before it crashed. Purcell and the crew were soon surrounded by 12 Viet Cong soldiers.

During the crash, Pfc. James E. George was seriously burned on his hands and face. As the soldiers and other crew members were forced to march to a camp, Purcell recalled how the young George asked him to pray. The commander said he later heard a shot fired and never saw the soldier again.

In an exclusive interview with Ledger staff writer Lisa Battle shortly after his 1973 release, Purcell said he was beaten, knocked down a few times and held in a 3-by-6-foot room with wooden floors.

Most of the time he was held in solitary confinement with no one around him until shortly before he was released.

His wife, Anne, didn't know whether he was alive or dead, but stayed in Columbus with their five children during his captivity.

"Ben was 40 when he was captured so he had a good bit of living behind him," she said. "He survived that. His age concerned me. He was captured in the south, and I was afraid he was going to be held in jungle camps and exposed to the elements and at that age might not make it like a younger man. But he was taken to North Vietnam and that was a blessing. At least he had a roof over his head. Conditions weren't perfect but they were better than being in a jungle."

Near his cell, Purcell told the Ledger he trained a chicken to squawk and flutter its wings if a guard came near him. He used the time to drill holes in the bottom of his door to escape.

He slipped out of the K-77 prison camp in December 1969, but he was quickly caught.

He was at another prison in March 1972 when he escaped again while soldiers were eating breakfast. He was ambushed on a road and taken back to prison about two hours later.

By November 1972, Purcell was able to talk with other Americans held captive for the first time since he was held.

Four months later, he finally left Hanoi on March 27, 1973, and arrived at Clark Air Base in the Philippines on his way to Bush Field in Augusta, Ga.

"Words cannot express what a joy it was to see my family again," he said in an interview. "One has to experience it. It may sound melodramatic, but it's almost like coming back from the dead."

Anne said the couple often talked about the difficult years.

"We spoke extensively about those years we had experienced and shared how God had taken care of us through those years," she said. "We shared that with a lot of military audiences and civilians."

Last month, the couple recognized the 40th anniversary of his release and his arrival in Georgia.

"We had 40 good years after he came home from Vietnam and so many people came home without a good day ever," Anne said. "That is the kind of thing that breaks my heart."

During his military career, Purcell was awarded the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and Parachutist and Combat Infantryman badges.

He and his wife co-authored a book, "Love & Duty," about the wartime experiences while Purcell was held captive.

At the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, there is a display featuring Purcell in the Cold War gallery.

It holds his ditty bag, a cup and spoon he used as a captive and a crude chisel made from a six-penny nail, which he used in his escape attempts.

Purcell tells the compelling story of his capture in a two-minute oral history, said Cyndy Cerbin, director of communications at the National Infantry Foundation.

Shortly after the museum opened in June 2009, Purcell was spotted in his uniform telling his story to visitors. "He may have visited the museum numerous times, but never asked to be singled out," Cerbin said.

After retiring from the Army in 1980, Purcell served as a state representative and member of the State Veterans Service Board.

He owned Purcell's Christmas Tree Farm in Clarksville and served on the board of the Habersham County Chamber of Commerce.

He also was active in civic organizations, serving as former president of the Clarksville Lions Club and site selection coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Northeast Georgia.

Survivors other than his wife of 62 years include three daughters, Debbie, Sherri and Joy Purcell, all of Clarksville; two sons, David Purcell of Alexandria, Va; and Clifford Purcell of Winston-Salem, N.C.; a brother, Vernon Purcell, and a host of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Donations may go to the Bethlehem Baptist Church Missions Fund at P.O. Box 488, Clarksville, GA, 30523, or to the Col. Benjamin Purcell Fund at the University of North Georgia.