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7 years in Hanoi: Retired captain reflects on time as Airman POW

  • Published
  • By Mike Joseph
  • 502nd Air Base Wing OL-A Public Affairs
Graduates from one of Lackland's last Officer Candidate School classes, including an honorary class member and former Vietnam prisoner of war, reunited here to commemorate their 50th-year anniversary.

Members of OCS Class 62-A, which graduated Sept. 22, 1961, were honored as special guests during the Sept. 23 Air Force Basic Military Training graduation parade.

Among the class members and spouses in attendance was retired Air Force Capt. Art Cormier, an honorary OCS class member and former enlisted POW who spent seven years incarcerated in Hanoi. Cormier, who never graduated from OCS, washed out after about three months.

Years later, however, he would be commissioned under a unique set of circumstances.
He moved on to pararescue training and qualified as an enlisted PJ on Aug. 7, 1964. At about the same time, Navy Lt. j.g. Everett Alvarez became the first American pilot taken prisoner when his A4C Skyhawk was shot down over North Vietnam.

Little did he know these events would become connected and impact his life.

On Nov. 6, 1965, Cormier, now a staff sergeant, was aboard a Sikorsky CH-3C helicopter when it was shot down 30 miles from Hanoi during a failed rescue mission. He evaded the North Vietnamese eight days before being captured and sent to Hoa Lo Prison, infamously known as the Hanoi Hilton.

"Alvarez was kind of an idol," Cormier said. "When I first got to the Hanoi Hilton I figured if Alvarez can survive 18 months, I can survive 18 months. Eighteen months later, Alvarez had survived three years. I said, 'I can do three years.' It just kept going."

It kept going until Feb. 12, 1973 when Cormier was released. He was aboard the second plane of POWs to leave North Vietnam following the peace agreement. The Maine native had endured 2,655 days in captivity at the Hanoi Hilton and adjacent POW camps.

"There was never a doubt in my mind," he said about being released. "I knew we'd come home."

Cormier and two other enlisted Airmen would take part in Air Force history. Their captivity would lead to the Air Force's first battlefield commissions.

Nine Air Force and Navy officers imprisoned with the enlisted Airmen were determined to promote them.

The three enlisted were cited for keeping their integrity, dignity and faith in America while withstanding individual torture and terrible living conditions for four years. POW senior officers agreed and commissioned the three second lieutenants in 1969.

After their return, the Secretary of the Air Force and Secretary of the Defense approved the battlefield promotions effective April 9, 1973.

However, as a chief master sergeant select, Cormier took time to weigh his options.
He eventually accepted the commission in May 1974.

"When the Secretary of the Air Force offered us the commission, I said, 'I've got a problem. I have a line number for chief with almost 20 years in service, and I'm not sure when I'm going to retire.'

He later said I could accept my commission at any time.

"I accepted my commission as a first lieutenant two months after I put my chief's stripes on," he added.

Cormier served 10 years as an officer, retired in 1984, and went to work for the U.S. Postal Service for another 15 years.

He reconnected with his former OSC class five years ago when he was asked to speak at a reunion. The event led to Cormier becoming an honorary class member.

"I told them I think I did mine (his commission) the hard way," Cormier said.
 
Classmate Gary Belcher grinned and said, "It just took you a little longer."