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Former Vietnam War POW Charles Klusmann of Pensacola has an unusual story: first he was held in supposedly neutral Laos, and he successfully escaped his captors.
The National Naval Aviation Museum is preparing a new exhibit about Klusmann’s adventures to open in September, coinciding with National MIA-POW Recognition Day, traditionally the third Friday in November.
Klusmann, 80, and now a retired Navy captain living in Pensacola, was honored earlier this month by the local chapter of the Daedalians Order, a foundation of former military pilots.
Retired Navy Vice Adm. Jerry Unruh toasted Klusmann at the Daedalians event, held at the Pensacola Yacht Club: “I will tell you about it before we raise our glasses. In 1964, Chuck was deployed to the Tonkin Gulf flying missions from the carrier in his F-8 Crusader into Vietnam.”
President Lyndon Johnson ordered the Navy to conduct secret missions into Laos, where guerrilla forces, the Pathet Lao, were fighting the Royal Laotian government forces, who were friendly to the United States even though their country, bordering Vietnam, was officially neutral.
On June 6, 1964, Klusmann’s Crusader, launched from the carrier Kitty Hawk, was hit by ground fire and he parachuted into enemy hands. He was his squadron’s maintenance officer, and as he floated down to the Plain De Jars, he remembers thinking, “That was our best airplane.”
He landed in “the only tree” in sight, and partially dislocated one hip.
In his prison cell he measured the length of the room as 20-something feet, “so I would figure out how many times I would have to walk across to go a mile, and put a mark on the wall. And that’s all I would do. Walk. By the time I got out I figured I had gone 263 miles.”
While as prisoner, his living conditions were stark, typical of those experienced by other POWs during the Vietnam war.
“I was in a woven bamboo hut, plastered with mud, so you could just chip away the mud and see outside. I would peek out through the cracks and see out and get some fresh air.”
Although he was provided food, including turnip soup, there wasn’t much of it. In three months, Klusmann said, his weight dropped to about 130 pounds from 170. “I never did like turnips. I still don’t.”
He hadn’t looked in a mirror while in captivity, and didn’t see himself in a full-length mirror for several days after escaping. “I was shocked. I thought, ‘Wow, you’re skinny.'”
Unlike many other American pilots who were shot down later, and eventually repatriated, Klusmann was in solitary confinement for the first two months and then in a prison camp accompanied by Royal Laotian Army troops who had been captured by the guerillas.
He had little to do but walk in his cell, and worry. “The thing that bothers you most is wondering, ‘When will I get out of this? Will I get out of this?'”
Yet Klusmann wasn’t subjected to the torture endured by many Americans who were in the hands of the Vietnamese. “I got a lot of political lectures. They gave me a lot of literature,” printed in English, “about what good guys they were.”
Much of what the Pathet Lao communicated was political indoctrination, Klusmann said: “Our system is better than your system.”
The Laotian communists surprised Klusmann with their knowledge about the American forces.”They knew a lot about the chain of command, and what ship I was on.” He learned that his captors had a confidential document about the U.S. Pacific command “right down to the squadrons.”
Klusmann escaped by gradually loosening nails in a section of the prison fence on the occasional days when he and the Laotian troops were allowed outside to do their laundry. “It was barbed wire nailed to a wooden post. When we came back with our laundry we’d hang it up to dry and wiggle a nail until it got loose enough so it would pull out and slide back in.”
On Aug. 31, 1964, a rainy night at the prison, Klusmann and two Laotian prisoners opened the fence and ran, unnoticed. “I didn’t hear of anybody me chasing that night. They did later.”
Crossing rice paddies and ducking into clumps of tall grass to hide, pulling numerous leeches off their bodies, the escapees evaded capture for 3½ days, traveling an estimated 25 miles before they encountered friendly Laotian forces at an outpost.
Klusmann flew again, but never returned to duty in Southeast Asia. He retired from the Navy as a captain in 1980. A grandfather of three, he retired with Ellen to Pensacola, where he went to flight school 59 years ago, in 1996.
Soon after his captivity, Klusmann led a humanitarian effort for Laos to raise funds to buy food, clothing and educational supplies, a gesture that still impresses retired Vice Adm. Unruh: “His contribution effort sent seven tons of stuff, primarily for the Laotian children.” He describes Klusmann as “a true American hero.”
At the Daedalians Order event honoring Klusmann earlier this month, the admiral turned to the former POW on the 50th anniversary of his reclaimed freedom, and said, “Chuck, please lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance.”