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‘No more bad days’

Caramie Schnell

On Oct. 28, 1967 Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Kirk was leading the largest air raid the Vietnam War had seen to that point. Kirk was an experienced pilot with 66 missions over North Vietnam under his belt. For Kirk, now a resident of West Vail, the 67th mission was the one that will always reign supreme in his memory.”It was 7:30 in the morning as I rolled in on my bomb run,” Kirk remembers. “During the dive, I was hit by anti-aircraft fire.”The day I was shot down, 34 missiles were fired at my flight. If you can imagine a telephone pole coming straight at you, that’s what it looked like.”And I reckon I should have just jettisoned my bombs and tried to get away because had I been able to fly 40 miles to the jungle, maybe I could have been picked up. But, and I really didn’t know why, I kept going and my bombs hit the bridge. Then I was able to pull off the target.”But Kirk’s airplane was on fire. His instruments had gone haywire and the one light the one that all pilots dread, the fire warning light was flashing red. Every pilot knows that when the FIRE light comes on, the plane probably won’t be airborne for much longer.”I was thinking, ‘How am I gonna get out of this?’ So I started towards the jungle at 600 knots as fast as I could go. The plane was burning and I was getting smoke in the cockpit.”The radio in Kirk’s fighter jet had been shot out, leaving no way for him to communicate with his wingman or call in a mayday. Suddenly the flight controls in the plane burned through and the airplane nosed over, heading straight for the Vietnamese fields below. Kirk had no choice but to eject from the plane. He was knocked unconscious by the windblast.”I came to floating down in the parachuteblind. I thought, ‘This is unreal,’ and then I lapsed into unconsciousness again. When I came to I was lying on my side in a plowed field. I could see again. I was hurting badly from the ejection and landing. A group of Vietnamese men, women and children civilians were kicking me and spitting on me; they beat me black and blue. Some Vietnamese Army soldiers came and captured me. They blindfolded me and bound my hands behind me, gagged me, and stuck me in an old farmhouse for a while until a truck came. Then they bumped me over 27 miles to the Hoa Lo prison, what we called the Hanoi Hilton.”And so began the single most defining period of Tom Kirk’s life: five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war in a Vietnamese prison.Life at the HiltonKirk lay on a stretcher for, as best as he can tell, two days. After being ejected from a jet that had been traveling at 600 knots, it’s no shock that Kirk was hurt very badly. It would be nearly three months until he would walk again.”You stick your hand out of a car at 60 miles an hour, you know what that force feels like times that by ten,” Kirk relates. “I was tumbled and from my knees to my waist I was blood red, just torn up inside.”On the morning of the third day the interrogation began. Because Kirk couldn’t walk, they sat him on the floor and propped his back up with a box. They began asking him the kind of aircraft he was flying, what his targets had been and what his tactics were. Kirk stuck fast to the military’s code of conduct, which in a prisoner of war situation allowed him to give his name, rank, date of birth, serial number and nothing else.”I just keep saying, ‘I can’t answer that, I can’t answer that,'” Kirk said. “We went awhile and then the senior guy there says, ‘Well, you’re very stupid,’ those were his exact words, I remember, ‘It’ll be very difficult for you here.’ And then he got up and left the room.As the door shut, Kirk breathed a sigh of relief. Not much later the door opened again though, and the biggest man Kirk ever saw in Vietnam walked in. His nickname was Big Ugly and he was a torture expert.”He did what we called the rope trick,” Kirk said. “He took a piece of rope the size of a finger and wrapped it around my arm, just above the elbow, two or three times, ran it around my back to the other arm, then yanked it tight, then ran it around my ankles and pulled my ankles up behind my back and then ran it around my neck and left me lying on the floor, just writhing in agony.”When the men finally returned, they didn’t say a word until they untied Kirk. They sat him back up and asked him if he was now ready to talk. Kirk said ‘no.’ He immediately went back into the ropes. For three days and three nights Kirk alternated between refusing to talk and the rope torture.On the fourth morning he broke.”They came in and I could see it was just cracking dawn,” Kirk said. “They untied me and they started kicking me about the ribs and the kidneys and I broke. I have no idea to this day what I told them because I was so out of it. I had lost complete use of my arms and I’d been screaming and writhing in pain and I think I would have killed my own mother at that time rather than go back in the ropes. I failed but maybe no, I don’t think so, I did the best I could.”For the first time Kirk was put into a cell by himself. They gave him soup, bread and water, the first real nourishment that he’d had since he’d been captured. It was also the first time he’d ever really wanted to die.”That was as close as I’ve ever come, where I really wanted to die,” Kirk said. “I had failed my country, I had failed myself I know now that and I really hadn’t, but I thought at the time I had. I was left alone there for 28 days, by myself, in the cell.”Music and the militaryTom Kirk was born in Richmond, Virginia, on Nov. 10, 1928. He grew up in Portsmouth, Va. Where his father worked in the local naval shipyard. After graduating in 1946, Kirk attended Virginia Military Institute. He was afraid of being drafted straight from high school into the military; if he ended up in the military, he wanted to go in as an officer. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in pre-medical chemistry and, as a distinguished military graduate, he had the opportunity to earn a regular commission in the Air Force or the Marines.Kirk decided on the Air Force and left immediately for flight school in San Antonio, Texas.”I’ll never forget the first ride I had,” Kirk said. “The airplane was leaving the ground and I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?'”Just a year after graduating, Kirk completed his advanced flight training and received his wings. He was 22 years old.Kirk went right to Korea where he became a Mosquito pilot, flying AT-6 trainers that were responsible for finding targets for the high-flying jets. He later transferred to the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing where he flew F-86 Sabre jets. During the Korean War Kirk flew 50 missions.After his tour in Korea, Tom joined the 389th Fighter-Squadron at Alexandria Air Force Base in Louisiana. During his time there he started going to Europe for three-to-six months at a time as part of a NATO rotation. He traveled all over Spain, France, Germany and Italy during the deployments.During this time Kirk was very active with his music, carrying his saxophone with him wherever he went. He played in a number of jazz festivals and concerts all over Europe.”I can say that between 1954 and 1960 I knew every good jazz musician in Europe,” Kirk said. “That period of time was really exciting in my life.”In August of 1963 Kirk enrolled at the University of Southern California. He studied for a year and was awarded an MBA degree.From there he was sent to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and was promoted to Major. He was 30 years old.Kirk volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1965, but couldn’t get a position.”I wanted to go so bad,” Kirk remembers. “If you’re a professional military aviator and there’s a war, you want to be there.”Kirk couldn’t get Vietnam, but he was offered a transfer to Misawa, Japan. He jumped on the chance and worked there as a squadron operations officer. Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam had worsened and American involvement increased. Kirk decided to spend 15 days of leave in Vietnam, where he was able to fly 25 combat missions during the two-week period.Kirk returned to Japan and, not long after, volunteered to fly F-105s. After a six-month training course in Las Vegas, Kirk was sent to the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Thailand, from which all the missions into North Vietnam were flown. His base was called Tahkli and he served as the squadron commander. He commanded 250 people, including 30 pilots and 23 airplanes. In July of 1967 Kirk began flying missions into Vietnam. He was captured in October of that same year.Alive in a cellThe turn-of-the-century French-built facility officially called “Hoa Lo Prison,” is known in Vietnamese as the “fiery furnace,” and to Americans, as the infamous Hanoi Hilton.The cells in the prison, at least the ones that Kirk inhabited, were 7-by-7-foot square. They had side-by-side concrete bunks and at the end of each bunk there were half-circles cut out for ankles and a big iron bar that could close down and lock prisoners in leg irons. Along the very tops of the cells were a few windows, but they were covered over with bamboo mats. Instead of natural light, a 25-watt light bulb burned 24-hours a day.Each inmate was given a small spoon (similar to one you would get in a Chinese restaurant), and a jug for water. Two small, cotton blankets were all the bedding one got, along with a mosquito net, because “the mosquitoes are big enough to carry you away in Vietnam,” Kirk remembers. As far as toiletries were concerned, they received one little towel, a brittle toothbrush, and a small bar of soap, which was to last a month. A five-gallon bucket served as a toilet and the only time Kirk was allowed out of his cell was to dump that bucket, once each day for only five minutes.Twice a day, for over five years, Kirk was fed either cabbage or pumpkin soup, depending on the season, some bread and, once or twice a month, a small portion of dried fish.That was it.”I lost 90 pounds,” Kirk said. “I was down to around 90 pounds. I could count every rib and my legs looked like my arms look today. If the American public could have seen us in those days, they would have really gotten serious about the war.”Winters in Vietnam are extremely cold and summers, excruciatingly hot. Prisoners were not allowed to shower and as a result, usually suffered from heat rash.”The temperature in Vietnam is very different than people think,” Kirk says. “From mid-December till March it freezes every night and it’s bloody cold. In the summertime it’s boiling hot, with no showers we were all full of heat rash all the time.”After 28 days in the cell, Kirk was marched out one evening. He saw, for the first time since he’d arrived at the prison, three other Americans.”It was the camp commander who said, ‘From this day forward, you will live together,'” Kirk said.The four were put in the same size cell as Kirk had been in previously, except now the cell had double bunks. For fourteen months the four men lived and breathed each other.Solitary confinementVice Admiral William Lawrence lived with Kirk for nearly three of the five-and-a-half years he was there and the two remained in close contact even after they were released.”Those years, well they weren’t very pleasant,” Lawrence remembers. “We got tortured a lot. We had a lot of discussions during our time together; we talked about our experiences in life, our families. That’s how we got through each day we had to survive somehow. We were very bonded, being in a small cell all day long, every day.”One day Kirk was trudging out to dump his toilet bucket, his one time out of the cell for the day, when he snapped.”We were going down the hall and it was cold, and I was sick and I’d lost weight and I was depressed,” Kirk remembers, “and one of the guards takes his ring of keys and he starts hitting me over the head with them and blood starts running down the front of my face and I turned around and hit him. Two years in solitary confinement. I never saw another American for two years. And of course I was tortured. And that was the toughest period of the whole thing, just being totally by yourself with nothing to do, without anything to read or write.”Some people have difficulties spending an afternoon alone. They’ve never gone to a restaurant solo; they’ve never ventured out to the movie theater alone. For Tom Kirk, solitude was one of the only constants during his time as a prisoner of war.”Everyone, in his own way, had to come up with things to do a routine, or you’d go crazy,” Kirk said. “I’m a musician. I was able to find a little stick about the size of a finger and for years I’d simulate playing the flute. I’d make up exercises and technical things. When I came home, my technique was wonderful on my saxophone.”Some days Kirk would build houses in his head, nail by nail. Today Kirk is a financial planner and as such, he loves to play with different investments and their interest-earning potential. During the days he was imprisoned, Kirk would work different interest situations, figuring numbers all in his head. Having lived in Europe for significant periods of time, Kirk was fluent in French, Spanish and Italian and so he’d spend time forcing himself to speak in each of the languages, practicing for an unknown time in the future. Each morning Kirk would walk back and forth, across his cell three-a-half-steps until he’d walked for a total of two miles. He had to build his muscles back up and strengthen himself just to be able to walk again and so each morning he’d do sit-ups, deep knee bends and leg lifts.”I did basically anything I could do to pass time,” Kirk said. “We never thought about next month or next year; it was one day at a time.”The tap codeThe summer before Kirk arrived at Hoa Lo prison, Air Force Capt. Carlyle Harris had perfected and spread a tap code. The code, which Harris had learned in survival training at Stead Air Force Base in Nevada, became the standard for communication throughout the prisoner population. The prisoners used a five-by-five grid for the letters of the alphabet, with two numbers assigned to each letter. They dropped the letter “k” and used “c” interchangeably. Prisoners quickly began using short cuts “God Bless You” became GBU the universal sign-off.”In a masonry building you can put your ear against a wall and tap so lightly that a person on the other side couldn’t hear it, but someone 150 feet down the wall, could,” Kirk said. “If there was danger we’d slam our hand onto the wall they never caught on because we were always swatting bugs. I got so good that even now, thirty years later, I can still do it.”As each new prisoner came into the prison, their identity was spread to the rest of the POW’s on down the line courtesy of the tap code.”When the new people came in, that’s how we found out what was happening in the world. We didn’t know anything about man going to the moon or about big airplanes,” Kirk said. “In every cell there was a loudspeaker and every day they would read us propaganda how many Americans were killed. We all knew about Jane Fonda, she was a great hero to them. It was so sad, whether one believed in the war or not, it didn’t matter. You just don’t go into the enemy camp and espouse the enemy cause like she did.”End of the sagaThe Vietnam War officially ended January 23, 1973, and the men came home in four groups during Febuary and March.Two days before he was released, Red Cross came around and brought the POW’s toiletry kits with razors. The day before they were released, they were given a set of clothes and shoes to try on.The next day the men were released.”The morning we were released they came and gave us the clothes. We got on a bus and we drove through Hanoi en route to the airfield. To me it was the most memorable thing about the whole experience: I was shot down bombing the longest bridge in North Vietnam. I was on the bus, on the bridge, and I looked up and there was this great big, beautiful American transport coming into land and take me home. There was 27 of us on that bus and we were crying like babies.”The men were flown to the Philippines and immediately put into isolation for two days. Doctors came from around the world to provide any medical care that was needed, all within 24 hours time. Uniforms were tailor-made for each of the men and military escorts were assigned to each POW. By the time the men walked out of the hospital, two days later, they had each made calls around the world to their respective families, they’d had most of their dental or medical problems fixed, and they wore their military uniforms, complete with ribbons and medals.Kirk was flown to Washington D.C., and when he got off the plane, his wife and both his parents were there to greet him.Kirk still had to wait another month before he was released to go home. In the meantime, his family essentially lived with him in the hospital. Every now and then he’d go out for interviews with the media.”All of us were on TV shows during that period I was on the Merv Griffin Show,” Kirk said.Finally Kirk was released to go home. He was offered any assignment he wanted in the Air Force, and he chose to go right back to flying immediately, like many of the men he shared time with. He re-qualified for flying and commanded a pilot training wing in Selma, Ala.Landing in VailFor the past 12 years, Kirk has lived in Vail with his wife Ann. He owns his own financial planning business and has been a ski instructor on Vail Mountain for the past 11 years.At the age of 76, Kirk skis as much as possible and then heads straight to the Vail Cascade Resort and Spa, where he plays saxophone in the Tony Gulizia Trio. For the past eight years Kirk has played hundreds of gigs with Tony Gulizia.”One of the most moving moments of playing with him was when we did a gig in conjunction with Tom giving a speech at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley, Kan. (Tom) tied in his musical talents with his stories of his Vietnam experiences,” Gulizia said. “I remember sitting there in the center of the room and crying and sobbing myself and watching 500 high school-aged kids do the same thing.”Kirk spends time sharing his story with young people in Eagle County and across the country, helping enrich their lives and give them a look at the world through his eyes.Dave Cope, a history teacher at BMHS, has brought Tom Kirk in to the school to speak many times.”Kirk is so relentlessly positive,” Cope said. “The guy is in his 70s and I think he could kick the crap out of anybody, on any given day. He’s so vibrant; he’s amazing. Kids can learn a lot about history from him, but even more than that, a lot about life, and that’s why we bring him in.”Blake Stephens, a 1999 graduate of Battle Mountain High School, was one of the students who listened to Kirk speak. She vividly remembers Kirk’s story.”His speech really had a significant impact on my life,” Stephens recalls. “He was so positive about his experience and I was amazed he didn’t carry any hatred towards anyone. It made me realize that, however bad your life is, someone, somewhere in the world does have, or has had it, worse.”To this day, Kirk’s wife, Ann, knows that pumpkin and cabbage shouldn’t be on the menu and Kirk himself says he can barely stand the thought of those two foods, his only sustenance for five years.But those days are over. After spending more than 2,000 of his days in the notorious Vietnamese Hoa Lo Prison, Kirk now spends his days living the good life in Vail and, of course, playing his saxophone. No matter what happens, he said, or what goes wrong on any given day, things always seem wonderful compared to life in the Hanoi Hilton. As Kirk is fond of saying, there’s no such thing as a bad day here in Vail, Colorado. VT


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