Cole Black of Escondido California, who by his own count spent 2,428 hours and 35 minutes as a Prisoner Of War in Vietnam, died Friday in a plane crash near Delano California in the Central Valley. Cole was flying in a Piper Aerostar twin-engine plane from Oregon to McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad. He had visited Roseburg, Ore., to speak to students about his experience as a prisoner of war. He would of have turned 75 on November. 28. The plane crashed before noon in an orange grove after experiencing mechanical problems, said Karen Black, his second wife, from their home in Escondido.
Black, a former Navy Caption, spent seven years as a POW. He was flying an F-8 Crusader on a mission over North Vietnam in June 1966 when a MiG fighter downed his plane. He was 33 years old, had a wife and two children and was one week away from going home. He was ejected from the plan and tried to hide in some tall grass. "I was captured almost instantly." he told The San Diego Union Tribune in a 2003 interview.
He was held in four prisons,including the famous "Hanoi Hilton."
"It's a feeling no one really knows," Black said in the interview. "Nobody knows what it is like to totally lose your freedom and be reduced to nothing. you're thousands of miles from home and haven't got one friend."
Black said he spent part of his time in a 7-by-9 foot cage, with a concrete slab for a bed. Twice a day, the guards served him meals-a dish of rice and boiled greens that grew in swampy, septic water.
He endured through his stoicism, his wife said Friday night. He didn't get rattled. He also had "an honest belief that the country wouldn't let him down," and he would be freed, she said. His strength carried him through times. she said that shortly after he was captured, interrogators told him, "We will reduce you to a dog." His captors bound his arms so tightly that he still carried scars.
One of his worst moments occurred a month after his capture. He and other prisoners were forced to walk through the streets of Hanoi in a propaganda spectacle that became known as the Hanoi March. People began throwing rocks and hitting the POWs who barely avoided being killed. But it was during the march that Black learned of the code POWs used to communicate with one another.
Despite the misery, Cole found a positive aspect to his imprisonment. "Not one among us would wish to get shot down again, but I think it changed my life for the better. I came back with a real zest to live. I wanted to do some things," he said in a 2005 interview with the Union-Tribune.
Cole and other POWs were released in February 1973.
Although Black was able to withstand his captivity, his marriage to his first wife could not. It fell apart within a month of his return. The emotional toll of coming home to a broken marriage was almost more difficult to deal with than his suffering in Vietnam.
Many POWs experienced the same pain, which led Karen Black to write a novel based on the ruined marriages. She self-published the book "Code of Conduct" in 2002. Karen Black has done her homework and research on the POW experience and it shows. Reading her book, "Code of Conduct," leaves you feeling that you just got a realistic view of American POW's life in captivity during the Vietnam War. She has spent years listening to former POWS and her husband, talk and express themselves about their personal experiences: it is obvious that she was listening. She not only heard the small details of their life experiences but she listened to their feelings and emotions. She used all of that emotional and psychological energy to create a historical novel about the Vietnam War.
Cole Black was born November.28,1932. He was raised on a farm in Lake City, Minnesota. He joined the Navy as an enlisted man at age 17 so he could see the world. He rose to petty officer first class in less than four years, and the Navy selected him to attend Officer Candidate School. He graduated in 1955 and earned his wings two years later. Black returned to Vietnam for a visit in 1994 after Karen bought tickets for a cruise. " It was the best vacation we ever had," she said. The arrived at the "Hanio Hilton" the day workers were tearing it down. The couple collected pieces of brick as mementos. Black served for four years as president of NAM-POWs, the national fraternal association of repatriated Vietnam prisoners of war.
The reason this story means so much to me because Cole is my third or fourth cousin and when I was at a family get together I was listening to his stories and right then and there I thought of Cole as my hero.