A Tennessee State University alum who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam recently returned to the Southeast Asian country and met the widow of the pilot who shot down his fighter jet nearly 50 years ago.
Lt. Col. James W. Williams was flying his 228th combat mission when his F-4D Phantom was hit over North Vietnam on May 20, 1972. He was taken captive and spent 313 days in the infamous Hoa Lo Prison (a.k.a., Hanoi Hilton). He was released with other American POWs on March 28, 1973, about two months after the Vietnam War ended.
Last month, the Memphis, Tennessee native was among several Vietnam veterans who returned to Hanoi, Vietnam, as part of a trip organized by the Dallas, Texas-based group Valor Administration, members of the Vietnam-USA Friendship, and North Vietnamese combat veterans.
Organizers said the trip was a way to help veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder possibly gain closure.
“There are a lot of Vietnam veterans that still have wounds from the war that haven’t been addressed,” said Adriane Baan, with Valor Administration.
Williams, who was imprisoned a period of time with late U.S. Sen. John McCain, acknowledged it was therapeutic revisiting the place where he was tortured and meeting veterans who were once his enemy. But he said the highlight of the trip was meeting Nguyen Thi Lam, the widow of Do Van Lanh, the North Vietnamese pilot who shot him down.
Williams said he did not know he was going to meet Lam until he got to Vietnam, and that the meeting was awkward at first, but that changed the more they talked.
“I found out her husband died in 1980,” recalled Williams, who lives in Atlanta. “She showed me pictures of him. I expressed my condolences for his passing. The trip definitely helped me. It gave me some closure.”
During his visit to the prison, which is now a museum, Williams noticed a photo on display that showed two lines of airmen being released. He was leading one of the lines.
“It was really amazing,” said Baan of the photo.
Lt. Col. Nick Callaway is the commander of Tennessee State University’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 790, which Williams was part of when he was enrolled at TSU. He recognized Williams at the university’s Veterans Day program last month.
“If there’s anything I learned from Lt. Col. Williams, it’s that we as human beings are capable of so much,” said Callaway. “Lt. Col. Williams’ patriotism and devotion to this great nation is truly an inspiration.”
Williams’ son, Brandon, said his father’s courage and perseverance while in captivity have motivated him when he faced adversity.
“Through any situation or circumstance, don’t give up,” said Brandon, a former TSU football player who is now a financial advisor for numerous professional athletes. “He’s my hero.”
After he retired in 1995 from 28 years of military service, Lt. Col. Williams started an Air Force Junior ROTC program in the DeKalb County, Georgia School System and taught for 20 years before retiring.
The 75-year-old currently serves on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs POW Advisory Committee.