Monday, November 11, 2013

American Hero - Part I

Bill Talley
In honor of Veteran's Day, I'd like to share a feature story about Vietnam POW Bill Talley. I wrote the story for Wesley Towers, the retirement community in Hutchinson where Bill and his wife, Louan, now live. Wesley Towers gave me permission to reprint the story from their Fall 2013 newsletter, Tapestry. (I've been writing for Tapestry for nearly 25 years.) As a side note, Bill's wife, Louan, grew up in Stafford and then lived in Stafford while Bill was imprisoned in Vietnam.

Because it's long, I will print it in two parts. Come back tomorrow for the "rest of the story." Remembering veterans and their families on this day, including my late father-in-law, Melvin Fritzemeier, who served in the Korean Conflict. 
Hero or Not?

    Bill Talley was like many young boys who grew up in the Great Plains in the 1930s and ‘40s. Looking up at the wide open Oklahoma sky, he’d imagine becoming one of those flying aces of World War II featured on the news reels before Saturday movie matinees. He carefully glued together model airplanes, adding the decals for the Flying Fortress or the F-47 Thunderbolt, and he dreamed of soaring.
    Midwestern practicality trumps dreams, so when he graduated from high school in the small town of Sayre, Okla., he opted to study pre-veterinary medicine at Oklahoma A & M College to build upon the passion for animals he discovered as an FFA member.  
    He didn’t know that Air Force ROTC would forever change his life. He just thought he was fulfilling a requirement for all male students at land grant universities of the time. He chose Air Force ROTC over Army ROTC, remembering those dreams of flying and the handsome heroes from those matinee movie reels.
   He made the Air Force his career. In 1972, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William H. Talley was shot down near Hanoi, Vietnam, and became a prisoner of war.
    He says he isn’t a hero. He saves the “hero” label for his friends and mentors.
    This is Talley’s story. You can decide whether or not to call him hero. 
    When Talley finished his second year of college, his ROTC commanding officer encouraged him to give up his plans to become a veterinarian and pursue the military as a career.
    “He was the epitome of a military man,” Talley recalled. “He was a tall, handsome, well-dressed Air Force guy with rows of medals on his uniform. He advised me to go into advanced ROTC, telling me that I would be subject to the draft if I started vet school. … I thought about it. Nobody was knocking at my door, wanting me to be a veterinarian. This man I admired was telling me that he thought I would be a good fit for advanced ROTC. So that’s what I did.”
   Talley earned his bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, and then was commissioned through the Air Force ROTC on May 28, 1955. He married Louan Jenkins in June 1955 and moved to active duty that August.
   “I didn’t originally plan on a career in the Air Force,” Talley said. “But I had 20/20 vision, and they were ready to send me to pilot training. What young guy wouldn’t think it was the epitome of life to become a jet fighter pilot? On weekends, I’d take an airplane out and fly across the country. I’d look down and see all those cars and trucks, looking like ants traveling down the road. I could fly as far in an hour as it took them driving all day. I was hooked.”
RF-101C Voodoo. Photo from
Pilot wings
    Talley earned his pilot wings in September 1956. He completed advanced fighter training and reconnaissance school. His first overseas assignment was May 1959 to June 1962, flying reconnaissance missions out of Laon Air Force Base in France in RF-101 Voodoo planes equipped with cameras, not guns. At the time, the Voodoo was the fastest operational airplane in the world, flying at one and a half times the speed of sound.
    The Talleys were the typical military family, moving from assignment to assignment and moving up the ranks. After consulting with Louan, Bill decided to make the Air Force his career. He set a goal of becoming a Major by his 20-year mark in the service. In reality, it took him only 17 years to make Lieutenant Colonel.
    Talley completed F-105 Thunderchief Combat Crew and Wild Weasel Training before deploying to Southeast Asia, where he flew 151 combat missions as an F-105 pilot with the 44th Tactical Fighter Squadron out of Korat Royal Thai AFB, Thailand, from November 1969 to March 1970.
    He then came back to the States and was stationed at McConnell AFB in Wichita.
    “It was Easter week, 1972. I had completed a 10-month tour of duty and a temporary duty to Korat, flying missions in Laos and North Vietnam. U.S. forces were being withdrawn from Southeast Asia. I had been selected for a promotion. On Good Friday, I was verbally told of a new assignment. I intended for it to be my last assignment in the Air Force. I planned to retire at the end of that assignment with 22 years active duty. I didn’t plan to return to Southeast Asia.
    “However, on Easter weekend, the North Vietnamese Army began a large-scale offensive across the demilitarized zone into South Vietnam. Our squadron was put on alert. Four days later, I deployed again to Korat.”
   Neither Bill nor Louan was worried about him going to Southeast Asia again. Bill knew it was part and parcel to go where he was needed. As a military family, Louan, 15-year-old son Mike and 12-year-old daughter Susan had plenty of practice at waving goodbye as Bill bounded up the steps of his F-105 and took off into a world they could only imagine.
   “It’s just like with anything else,” Bill said. “You never think anything is going to happen to you. Even though I’d been in plenty of combat situations when I was diving toward the earth while bullets were coming at me and tracers were whizzing by, I never thought about being shot down or killed.”
    Talley says he wasn’t superstitious then. And he isn’t today, even though it was on his 13th mission of that tour of duty that his plane was hit by a missile over Hanoi. The mission on May 11, 1972, was his 182nd as a pilot.

 Shot down
     “My backseater Major Jim Padgett (electronic warfare officer) and I were flying a surface-to-air-missile suppression mission in an F-105 when we were shot down by a MIG near Hanoi,” Talley recalled. “I asked Jim if he was ready to eject.  … We were in a valley, and I knew we couldn’t clear the next mountaintop, so I initiated the ejection.
   “I never saw Jim’s chute. … I heard an explosion and looked over my left shoulder and saw a ball of fire, our airplane. As I came down, I hit a boulder hard, banging up my knee. My parachute was hung in a tree, and as I was trying to pull it out, I heard a call on my radio. I answered, and the pilot said he had a good fix on my location. … I climbed to the top of the mountain, which was steep, and I had to go part of the way on all fours. But, when I got to the top of the mountain, there wasn’t a good place to hide. I looked over the edge of the cliff and saw another large rock with a ground hole under it that was large enough for me to crawl through. The hiding place gave me enough room to lay with my feet curled in a fetal position.”
    He waited for the rescue radio call.
    “By dusk, I had given up. While hiding, I could hear the Vietnamese calling in a kind of yodel. The sounds got closer, and after dark, I heard footsteps nearby five or six times. At first light (May 12, 1972), I crawled out from underneath the rock, extended the antenna on my radio and heard someone calling for me. I answered, and then I got back under the rock. My hopes were up, and I thought someone would be there within an hour.
     “Just before noon, I believe, there were rifle shots around me. I laid still for a couple of minutes, thinking they might go away. Then, I thought they might be trying to shoot into the hole I had crawled in. So, I wiggled out, stood, and saw about 20 Vietnamese circling and more running toward me. I raised my hands to surrender. The Vietnamese took off my flying suit and boots, tied my arms behind my back, and we started walking down the mountain.”
    Talley walked over the rugged terrain with no shoes and was led by his captors through Vietnamese villages for the next three days, where villagers kicked him, hit him with sticks and rocks and spit in his face. After he’d walked on a bad knee for three days with little food and water, he collapsed.
   “The guards put me in an ox cart to ride for an hour or so, then transferred me to an Army truck. I could see the Big Dipper and the North Star, I could smell the salt air, and I knew we were going south along the ocean. But after walking three days, then riding in a truck about 30 hours, I had no idea where I was when the truck stopped.”
This undated photo is an aerial view of Hoa Lo prison and hangs in the museum entry. Most of the prison has been torn down. Photo by Wyatt Olson/Stars and Stripes. Retrieved from
Hanoi Hilton
    Talley had arrived at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, the Vietnam prison.

TOMORROW:  The story continues. Bill Talley talks about how his faith and fellow prisoners helped him make it through months of captivity in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. 


  1. Truly a hero, I am thankful for his sacrifice for freedom... Thank you for remembering and honoring our veterans today.

    1. It was an honor to speak with him. A few years ago, I also did a series of articles about World War II veterans living at Wesley Towers. It was like the pages of a history book came alive. Thanks for taking time to comment.