Vietnam ex-POW shares story of courage, survival

KRDO NewsChannel 13's Wear Red Friday Hero

Vietnam ex-POW shares story of courage, survival

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Paul Kari, then an Air Force captain, wasn't supposed to fly into enemy territory on Father's Day in 1965.  He hadn't taken R&R in 69 missions. But, as fate would have it, he followed orders and became the first F4 Phantom II pilot shot down in western Vietnam and a prisoner of war for nearly eight years.

"The weather was pretty bad," Kari remembered. "We probably shouldn't have gone in that day but we did and I got bagged. My back-seater got picked up by the Americans the next day. I wasn't quite so lucky."

Kari broke his back during ejection and landed in the middle of a Vietnamese military training area. He knew his chances of escaping were slim to none.  Vietcong guerrilla fighters picked him up within 15 minutes and marched him back to the area he bombed.

"I wouldn't give them anything but name, rank, serial number and date of birth," Kari said. "That's what our code of conduct says."

Kari remembers feeling frantic when he realized the enemy had his radio.  They were trying to use it to communicate with other members of his team.  With his arms and elbows bound behind his back, he pretended he had to use the restroom. When they were just out of sight, he ran straight to the iron radio.

"I smashed it with my knee, about broke my kneecap and it didn't do much damage," he said. "So I swung around and threw in the well."

For that action, he later received a Silver Star.  

The next seven years and eight months were filled with physical and mental torture.  His once 170-pound body was ravaged with starvation.

"They ended up starving me to death," he said. "I got down to 103. It affected my health adversely of course."

The enemy wanted Kari to confess to being a criminal.

"It wouldn't have really stopped the war, but it would have told the world that we were wrong and they were right," he said.

But even through unthinkable pain, including having his shoulder forcefully dislocated, he refused to write a confession.  He attributes his determination to his Christian faith and love of country.

"You just live day to day," he said. "You say, 'I made it through today. I can cope with it.'"

In 1973 his prayers were finally answered.  The United States made a deal with the Vietnamese to release the prisoners of war in the order they were captured. Kari was the 12th POW and came home in the first airplane.

"Tail number 60177 which means a lot to me," Kari said. "There was an Air Force colonel coming toward me and he put his arm around me and said, 'Welcome home you so and so,' and tears just started flowing down because I hadn't cried the whole time I was up there.

"As I got close to the airplane I could smell the nurse's perfume, the guy's aftershave which we hadn't smelled in almost eight years and I remember saying, 'If heaven smells anything like this, I don't want to miss it.'"

While Kari's return to the United States was mostly filled with joy, he faced some troubled times with his family.

"My first wife didn't come meet me in the plane and divorced me shortly after, which was devastating," he said.

He reconnected with his two children -- an infant and a 2-year-old when he last saw them. He later remarried and had two more children.  He says overall, he had no problem integrating into society.

His last military assignment was at the Air Force Academy, teaching cadets at the survival training camp. He retired as a lieutenant colonel at the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day in 1974 before working for the Federal Aviation Administration.  Now 78 years old, he lives on a farm in Ohio, raising corn and soybeans.

Reflecting on his treatment during those eight years, Kari said it gave meaning to the rest of his life.

"It's how you treat people," he said. "It's not how much money you make. It's not what position you have. It's that you do the right thing in whatever you're doing."

Kari was featured as KRDO NewsChannel 13's Wear Red Friday hero. If you know someone who deserves to be featured, you can nominate them here.

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