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‘I shouldn’t be alive’: At reunion of Vietnam POWs, one recounts his capture 47 years ago

Prisoners were paraded before angry crowds in Hanoi, where loudspeakers blared insults and encouraged the crowd’s abuse. Many in the crowd attacked the POWs. Front row (l-r): Richard Kiern and Kile Berg; second row Robert Shumaker and “Smitty” Harris; third row Ronald Byrne and Lawrence Guarino. (U.S. Air Force/Released)

After more than five months in which he had no control over his life, Keith Lewis found a world of virtually unlimited possibilities when he emerged from captivity in early 1973.

He chose religion.

Lewis’ F-4 fighter-bomber had been shot down over Vietnam in October 1972. Saturday will mark the 47th anniversary.

Lewis came to Portland this week for the annual meeting of NAM-POWs, a national organization of former prisoners of war from the Vietnam era. The gathering, which is held in different cities from year to year, has drawn nearly 100 former POWs, including two from Maine: Art Cormier, who lives in southern Maine, and Bob Fant, who splits his time between Maine and North Carolina.

Lewis, who said he ejected from his jet when it was flying at nearly the speed of sound, evaded capture for a few hours by hiding in a bushy area near a freshly plowed field on the outskirts of Hanoi, then the capital of North Vietnam and now the capital of Vietnam. He covered himself with leaves and branches, and North Vietnamese soldiers passed by his hiding place at least three times until he had to give himself up because they started shooting into the overgrowth where he was hiding.

Lewis said he was tortured and interrogated, with his arms tied so tightly behind him that his elbows nearly touched. But he survived until the war ended in early 1973 and he returned to the United States with hundreds of other POWs in March 1973.

Lewis was told that, as a returned POW, he could essentially do what he wanted in the military. Some fellow POWs went to law school, he said. Others went to medical school. Still others opted to remain fighter pilots. Lewis wanted to be a chaplain.

Originally from Ohio and now living in Alabama, Lewis said it wasn’t a choice born of some revelation during his captivity. He had wanted to be a chaplain even before he joined the military and became a pilot. When the war was over and he had a choice of routes to follow in his life, he decided to pursue religion.

Lewis’ jet was shot down during his second tour in Vietnam. He had been a pilot there for about a year, starting in late in 1965. After being reassigned to bases in the U.S. and England, Lewis was sent in July 1972 to Thailand, where a joint base operated with the Thais was used by U.S. forces for raids against North Vietnam.

On the flight when he was shot down, Lewis said other planes alerted him to a North Vietnamese fighter jet following behind him, but he didn’t spot one that was ahead of him. He and the weapons officer in the second seat both managed to eject, but Lewis said he was temporarily paralyzed on one side by the impact of the weapon that shot him down.

He was shot at by troops on the ground as he descended, Lewis said, and the partial paralysis left him unable to reach his radio to tell other pilots he had ejected safely. Once on the ground, he crawled into the underbrush to avoid immediate capture.

“I shouldn’t be alive,” he said. He landed in an area controlled mostly by ethnic Thais and was treated relatively better than pilots who ended up in areas controlled by Vietnamese troops, he said. Also, as a “new friendly guy,” or NFG, he was treated slightly better than POWs who had been held longer. His captors, he said, hoped to get more up-to-date information from newly captured prisoners of war and consequently treated them better.

After he was released on March 29, 1973, Lewis returned to the U.S. and his wife and two children. After he became a minister, he was assigned to bases in Texas, Germany, South Dakota and Florida. He retired from the military as a colonel in 1993 and settled in Alabama, near his wife’s family and their two grown children. His son, Lewis said, followed in his footsteps and became an F-15 pilot, while his daughter is a school administrator.

On Tuesday, the POWs had lunch at the Maine Military Museum in South Portland, which is run by Lee Humiston. Also the archivist for NAM-POWs, Humiston said many of the items in the museum were donated by POWs who are in the organization. A section of the museum dedicated to POWs includes a re-creation of a cell that housed POWs in North Vietnam.

Humiston said members of the group will spend Wednesday and Thursday touring Maine and the gathering will end with a banquet Thursday night.


© 2019 the Portland Press Herald