When Major Berger Came Home

Air Force Maj. James R. “Jim” Berger spent over six years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war after his FC-4 jet was shot down on Dec. 2, 1966. He was released 50 years ago this past February. His release made front-page news in The News-Gazette in the weeks that followed, including coverage of a talk he gave at Virginia Military Institute. The following is an account of that address published in the April 4, 1973, edition.

Berger would go on to run the Lexington Building Supply for many years. He died in October 2015 at the age of 76.

Fulfilling a promise to return to his alma mater and address the corps of cadets of the Virginia Military Institute after the release of all American prisoners of war held by the Vietnamese communists, Air Force Major James R. Berger, in a straightforward soldierly manner told his story of torture and mistreatment as a prisoner of war for more than six years in North Vietnam.

Asked afterwards why he and other POWS refused contact with various American peace groups visiting Hanoi during the period of his captivity he responded, “It was not what I felt my country wanted me to do.”

As to anti-U.S. statements and broadcasts that he made for the North Vietnamese, Major Berger said he was tortured seven times in what he termed the “rope” treatment. His arms were tied tightly behind his back then lifted away from his body with a rope going around his neck so that relaxation of the arm muscles choked him. These sessions lasted about one and a half hours each.

After four days of this the “meat” was torn away from his arms and the veins exposed. “I didn’t really quit but I did concede,” he said. “I gave them their statements and made one to three recordings a day for two years. If any one of you heard those broadcasts you could tell they were not made by a man talking of his own free will,” he continued. By being a poor performer, Major Berger hoped to make it not worth the effort on the part of his captors.

As a 1961 graduate of VMI Major Berger gave much credit to the self discipline and physical training he learned as a cadet which helped him live through his ordeal.

He announced an indefinite loan to the VMI museum of articles he had smuggled out of prison.

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