His Face Was Used to Symbolize Vietnam Prisoners of War. This Is His Real Story (William M. Tschudy

He remembers being shot down like it was yesterday.

On July 18, 1965, U.S. Navy Lt. Commander William M. Tschudy and his co-pilot Commander Jeremiah Denton were on a mission over Vietnam’s Song Ma river, with instructions to bomb North Vietnamese ships that were unloading supplies. At first, they thought the plane had malfunctioned. The two men had to eject, parachuting into the middle of a hamlet that seemed empty. But it wasn’t.

Suddenly, they were ambushed by a group of people with machetes, led by a man with an assault rifle and a badge that indicated his role in the militia, Tschudy, now 83, told TIME in a recent phone conversation ahead of National POW/MIA Recognition Day on Friday. Tschudy and Denton would become the 13th and 14th American aviators to be taken captive by the North Vietnamese side as prisoners of war (POWs).

“They unhooked me from my parachute and took part of my clothes away from me — shirt, trousers, boots — and walked me to a camp,” he recalls. “The next night, they blindfolded us, put us into jeeps and drove us to Hanoi and put us in the main prison [compound]. And I was there for seven and a half years.”

It was about five years into that ordeal that Tschudy’s face appeared in dramatic fashion on the cover of the Dec. 7, 1970, issue of TIME.

His name didn’t appear in the cover story, which was a look back at a failed attempt to rescue prisoners-of-war there, and was only mentioned in a note explaining that the cover image was composed of photos “supplied by Communist sources” to news agencies. (The other three men who appeared at smaller size on the cover were identified as, left to right, airmen James Hutton and James Young and Commander Charles Tanner.) So how did Tschudy, who goes by Bill, end up symbolizing what the magazine called “the plight of the prisoners”?

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