Berger ’61: 2,271 Days a POW (James Berger)

When Jim Berger ’61 took off on his 30th mission as an Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War, he had no idea that this would be his longest flight, lasting more than six years. Jim was the backseater on an F-4C, also called the GIB, or guy in back. The Air Force used two pilots on each F-4 back in 1966. This was Dec. 2, 1966, and Berger and his pilot, Capt. Buddy Flesher, were headed to Thud Ridge, about 18 miles northwest of Hanoi. Their mission was called MiG Caps. That meant protecting an accompanying flight of bombers from MiG-17 attacks which were prevalent around Hanoi.

Berger had been in country for almost six weeks and had accrued a lot of flight time. His F-4C could hit Mach 2.2, but his plane was traveling at 913 Mach speed when a surface-to-air missile slammed into his aircraft, and he was forced to eject. Pilots say a SAM looks like a telephone pole coming at you in the blink of an eye. Ejecting at that speed was dangerous, and Berger suffered a spinal compression. That caused him to lose a permanent 2-and-a-half inches in height, and he wasn’t tall to start with. The worst was yet to come.

He landed hard and was knocked unconscious. He had a concussion. Berger awoke to find himself surrounded by angry villagers carrying bamboo sticks. They proceeded to beat him, and his arm was broken trying to protect his face. Berger was a prisoner of war.

James Robert Berger was born in West Virginia in 1938. His parents’ marriage was short-lived, and he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle on a farm. When he neared high school, he went to live with an aunt in Richmond, Virginia, and attended Thomas Jefferson High School. VMI appealed to him, and he entered in 1957, planning to be a civil engineer.

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