Colonel Benjamin Purcell: 5 Years in Hell

Colonel Benjamin Purcell was executive commander of the 80th General Support Group in Vietnam when his helicopter was shot down on February 8, 1968. He and five other passengers were captured by the Viet Cong. Colonel Purcell was the highest ranking Army officer captured during the Vietnam War. He spent more than five years in captivity, mostly in solitary confinement.

After returning from Vietnam after the end of the war, Colonel Purcell was assigned to the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. While there, he delivered an address at Carlisle High School on Veterans Day in 1973. Through this address, he related his story of courage in captivity. The following excerpts are from that address:

“On the 8th of Feb 1968, I was a passenger aboard a helicopter when it was hit by machine gun fire, caught fire, and crash landed in a cemetery about 5 miles southeast of Quang Tri City… after the crash we were surrounded, taken prisoner, tied up (thumbs and arms behind our backs) and searched.”

Within hours, Purcell’s captivity was marked by tragedy:

“After dark we were marched off toward the mountains to the SW [south-west]. On the way to the first camp the passenger who had been burned in the crash was permitted to stop for a short rest and the others ordered to continue on up the trail. Within minutes I heard the sound of a pistol shot and had the terrifying thought, “The VC killed him!” The young soldier has not returned and has been officially declared Killed in Action.”

A few days later, Purcell marked his 40th birthday:

“I remembered it was my 40th birthday and had to smile when I thought of the old adage, “life begins at 40.” Frankly, at that particular moment, I’d just as soon stayed 39.”

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