Shot down, San Antonio POW saw how the world could be — if not for war (Joe Milligan)

Joe Milligan knew he had a problem when his North Vietnamese prison guards began wearing handkerchiefs over their faces when they entered his cell.

The odor of rotting, infected flesh came from his arms, badly burned after Milligan ejected from his crippled F-4C Phantom and into a fireball.

His burns become infected from rolling in the dirt during a torture session at Hoa Lo Prison, called the Hanoi Hilton by the Americans held there. American POWs were interrogated and tortured at a part of it called the Heartbreak Hotel.

Milligan had no medicine and if his captors had any, they weren’t sharing, the retired Air Force colonel and veterinarian recalled this week before joining other former POWs for an annual reunion Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.

“I realized that I was in a lot of trouble. I didn’t have a lot of medical knowledge at the time, but I knew enough to know that if that infection went systemic I was probably going to die,” said Milligan, 77, of San Antonio.

“And I remembered the training I got in survival school, which was if you have combat injuries like that and no medical attention available, let the flies get at your wounds.”

The flies lay eggs, which hatch into maggots, which eat bacteria but not live flesh, he knew.

The next step was to wash the wounds with a sterile fluid. Milligan didn’t have anything but his own urine. It worked.

Friday’s ceremony at the 46th annual Freedom Flyers Reunion came nearly 52 years after he was shot down in a fierce dogfight. There were flyovers from F-16 fighters and a B-2 Spirit bomber, and a three-ship “missing man” formation. A wreath was brought forward, salutes were given and old comrades remembered their piece of the war.

The closing bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace” made Milligan think of “some of the gentlemen that I knew that didn’t come home,” he said as the crowd broke up.

First Lt. Joseph Edward Milligan was one of 684 American prisoners of war to come home alive in 1973 after the long conflict in Vietnam.

His plane went down May 20, 1967, over a mountainous area where the indigenous people he encountered were curious, not angry. It was as if they knew nothing at all of the war.

Milligan and a fellow pilot, Maj. Jack Loan, had flown their Phantom out of Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand. The mission, his 113th of the war, was to join three other F-4C fighters and escort a group of F-105 Thunderchiefs to bomb the Kep railyard northeast of Hanoi.

The Thunderchiefs could hit Mach 2 but were heavy with bombs. The Phantoms were to protect them from enemy aircraft.

“We got into a big dogfight, a rather historic dogfight. On the way to the target we encountered a large force of MiG-17s, and it’s still not sure how many there were,” Milligan recalled. “Years later, getting some of the participants in that dogfight together to talk about it, we think there were 32 MiGs and we attacked those with four F-4s. So needless to say, we were greatly outnumbered.”

A wild battle ensued for the next 15 minutes, a duration Milligan thinks might have been the longest in the history of jet combat. When it was over, at least four and as many as seven MiGs had been shot down. The F-105s were untouched. Loan and Milligan were the sole Americans downed.

They had just fired a missile at one of the MiG-17s in hopes of driving it off of the tail of their flight leader, World War II ace Robin Olds, when they heard the whump-whump of 37mm cannon fire hitting their own plane.

Suddenly, their flight controls stopped working.

Loan called out the last order. Ejecting from the front seat, he just cleared the fireball erupting at the back of the Phantom and was uninjured. But Milligan flew right into it, suffering third-degree burns to his forearms, and first- and second-degree burns to his face.

As both drifted toward earth, a pair of MiGs closed to strafe them but a Phantom piloted by Capt. Bob Pardo chased the intruders away.

Milligan waved to Pardo, who would become famous for using his F-4 to push a powerless fighter over enemy territory for 20 minutes — a legendary feat of airmanship now called “Pardo’s Push.”

It’s memorialized in a painting at the 12th Flying Training Wing’s offices, where the 560th Flying Training Squadron gave four ex-Vietnam POWs “fini” flights Thursday, a tradition that ends with champagne — the way their deployment would have ended if they hadn’t been shot down. Milligan observed but didn’t participate — he’d had his “fini” years ago.

Loan and Milligan landed in a thick canopy of craggy jungle and were amazed to find they had nothing in their survival kits to treat burns. They had no hope of becoming the few to escape captivity, something only 37 Americans did over the course of the war. After an hour, they encountered their reception committee — mountain tribesmen wearing black pajamas who’d never seen aviators’ flight suits. They had no idea how to unbutton the pockets as they frisked the pilots, so they cut them open with knives.

Their firearms seemed from the previous century. Milligan wondered if he could make a run for it, guessing the weapons might blow up in their captors’ faces, but gave up on the idea. In addition to his burns, he had injured a knee.

The tribesmen took Loan in one direction and Milligan in another. They wouldn’t meet again until the Hanoi Hilton.

“They started poking me with bayonets trying to get me to move and try to start climbing down the mountain,” he said. “It quickly became obvious they weren’t going to help me … so torn up knee or not, I climbed down that mountain on my own power.”

The experience grew surreal as darkness fell and they reached a village. To Milligan, it was like a walk back into prehistory — a half-dozen mud-and-stick huts so tiny that the average-size American couldn’t stand up in one.

“The impression I got was this was the end of civilization right there,” Milligan said.

But each village got a little larger than the last as the march went on, and he was treated more as a guest than a captive. They came to a village with a communal house, where Milligan was seated with tribal elders. No one could speak English, so they used sign language.

The elders were curious about the coins in his pocket, so Milligan raised one finger to identify a penny and five fingers for a nickel. A group of younger men then entered the hut. They were followed by even younger males and then women with children.

Milligan was offered tea in a tiny cup.

“They were showing their hospitality in a traditional Vietnamese way,” he observed.

They came to a more modern village where the homes had stucco walls and red-tiled roofs. The two-day journey ended with a pair of North Vietnamese soldiers handcuffing Milligan and beating him with their rifles. They gave him one bowl of rice and a small teapot of water over the days it took to reach Hanoi from there.

At the Heartbreak Hotel, the beatings began in earnest. Over the years before his release on Feb. 18, 1973, Milligan’s life was marked by long stretches of boredom wondering when the next torture session would come.

He would live in seven POW camps and eat a bowl of something that vaguely resembled soup with rice or bread twice a day — the bread sometimes moldy and laced with roaches and rat droppings.

The Vietnamese would give him a pot of tea daily, not enough in a hot, humid climate that baked the prisoners from dawn to dusk. His captors’ cruelty and indifference took its toll. Weighing 180 pounds on the day he was shot down, Milligan slowly starved. He once was as low as 130 pounds, but gained about 20 more as the Vietnamese fed the prisoners more often while negotiating a peace treaty in Paris.

His trek with the tribesmen had been a different world. People were kind. At the final, more modern village, the warm reception might have been a reunion of old friends and relatives, not a chance encounter of enemies.

“Everybody in the village came in at once to see me and everybody wanted to touch me. They looked at my wounds and would go ‘Tsk, tsk,’ showing some sort of sorrow for the physical state that I was in, and they brought me two bottles of beer to drink,” Milligan said. “Those are still the two best bottles of beer I’ve had, ever, in my life. I say that facetiously, but it was something I needed at the time, for sure.”

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