Seven minutes from a six-year POW
By Garth Meyer
The annual Redondo Beach Veterans Day ceremony Nov. 11 featured a six-year Vietnam POW as keynote speaker.
Col. Kenneth Hughey, 91, walked to the podium and told of his four favorite veterans – four men from his hometown of Chic, Tennessee, one of which was his brother: Jack Hughey, Hollis Reager, John Fronabarger, and “Manboy” Boals.
“Can you imagine what Hollis Reager thought when he ran out of ammunition in the Hurtgen Forest?” Hughey said about one of a two-man team shooting a Browning automatic rifle in Germany. Hollis’ partner, the ammunition loader, was killed in action.
Hughey told of “Manboy,” whose unit stormed a beach in Italy, his body still there. He told of his two other favorite veterans.
He did not mention his own experience, as an F-4 Air Force pilot shot down in 1967, on his 105th mission over North Vietnam. His wife did not know if he was alive for 3 ½ years.
Hughey has four Purple Hearts – mostly shrapnel from bullets that entered the cockpit.
“Those four soldiers that I just described had a powerful effect on my entire life,” he said in his speech at Veterans Park. “Their willingness and capability.”
He retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1979 and worked for 15 years as an engineer and project manager for Hughes Aircraft in Redondo Beach. Along the way, he went to law school and later worked as a criminal prosecutor in the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office, retiring in 2011.
. . . . .
The morning he was shot down, Hughey’s plane led four groups of four F-4s in a raid.
“It was a big raid. Black puffballs all over the place,” Hughey told Easy Reader this week. “We dived right through a wall of flak to hit the target.”
Then he looked at his instruments.
“Engine firelight – both engines, it said fire with a big red light.”
Hughey’s co-pilot, Mel Pollack, called out that they were hit.
“.94 Mach with two engines burning,” Hughey said. “In just a little over two minutes at 24,000 feet the right engine exploded.”
“I ejected. I didn’t know what Mel was doing because it’s every man for himself at that point.”
Suddenly Hughey was in the air, still in his seat.
“You’re just sitting there. Except you’re going down; vertical,” he said. “I saw Mel’s parachute pop. So I knew he was alive. I looked around, it was nice country. It was a beautiful day.”
When a pilot ejects, first it is with a “drogue” chute connected to the seat, then a regular single parachute. Hughey landed in a green thicket.
Villagers quickly surrounded him, they tied him with a rope, and made him undress to his underwear.
“They didn’t mistreat me in any way,” Hughey said. “That night I went to Hanoi in a truck. That’s about it.”
. . . . .
“They had a very skilled interrogation team,” he said.
They put him in a room.
“Here is not Geneva!” a Vietnamese man screamed in English. “Here is Vietnam!”
The man’s first question, after name, rank, date of birth and serial number was, “What is your base?”
Hughey did not answer, only giving his name, rank, date of birth and serial number – as designated by the Geneva Conventions.
“They tied my hands behind my back, pushed me in a corner, put in the biggest lamp in Hanoi, probably a 250-watt bulb, with a reflector. I woke up on the floor. I couldn’t move.”
When he could move again, the lead interrogator returned.
“Now, we will begin (once more),” he said.
“He put a pitcher of water on the table and poured himself a great big glass.”
“Da Nang,” Hughey answered this time. “And he gave me a glass of water.”
“I want you to name all of your squadron mates.”
“Willie Fay Hamilton…” Hughey started.
It was the name of one of his classmates in first grade. The next name he gave was Cicero Jones, the son of a farmhand who had worked for Hughey’s father. All names – about 10 of them, Hughey said, he knew from childhood and would remember if he had to list them again.
“Cicero Jones was the best squirrel hunter contemporary with me in Chic, Tennessee,” Hughey said. “Maybe the best in history.”
“When I handed (the interrogator) that list, they left me alone. That was the only torture,” he said.
Of his six years?
“That’s right. That’s right.”
. . . . .
So, Hughey’s speech on Saturday, was it by design that he never mentioned any of this?
“Yes, it was by design,” he said. “Whenever I have spoken, the audience wants to know about my experiences. This meeting is all about veterans. This is a (park) full of veterans. Those were my favorite four.”
. . . . .
Chic, Tennessee in the 1940s was not really a town, but a grid of farms with a house every mile and a half. As Hughey told the Veterans Park crowd during his speech, he was nine years old when he heard the news from Pearl Harbor on the radio.
He was an only child of a second marriage; of his eight half-siblings, the youngest were teenagers then. One was still in the house.
“During the war, me and a bunch of my buddies were enamored with fighter pilots,” he said.
They followed their exploits in the news; the aces vs. Japanese Zeroes and the German Luftwaffe.
“Richard Bong was our no. 1 fighter ace. We knew all of them.”
When did Hughey know he wanted to be a fighter pilot?
“Ever since I can remember.”
His mother would not sign the papers to let him enlist in 1949, the day after high school graduation. His father had died. He was still 17.
“I became such a deadbeat around the house that she finally relented,” Hughey said.
He joined on July 6, later training to fly F-4s, the top-of-the-line fighter planes of the late 1950s and ‘60s.
. . . . .
“Let me tell you, John McCain was one tough son of a gun,” Hughey said. “He couldn’t do anything for himself (after he was shot down)… they needed a stretcher to move him. It’s a miracle he lived. Five years later, I met John McCain. We were still prisoners.”
At one point, Hughey, McCain and 20-30 guys lived in each room of a prison known as the Hanoi Hilton.
“These rooms were like drunk tanks,” Hughey said. “That’s the last place we were.”
. . . . .
“I wish Hollis Reager was here to talk, too,” Hughey said. “And Manboy. Nobody knew his name. Three months, it might’ve been closer to six, he was drafted, went through infantry training and hit that beachhead and was killed. The most dangerous weapon he’d ever seen before was a hoe cuttin’ Johnson grass.”
. . . . .
At the start of Hughey’s seven-minute speech, first he corrected emcee Tom Lasser’s introduction.
“My wife, we haven’t been married 64 years. We’ve been married 70 years.”
The first time he saw her – from a School Bus window – she wore overalls with a dress over the top, standing in a group of girls going to pick the commercial flower fields outside Finley, Tennessee.
“I went home to drive a tractor all summer and thought about her everyday,” Hughey said.
The next fall, they rode the same bus to high school. Her name was Sue Austin.
“One day, getting ready to get on the bus at the end of the school day, he said something to her.
“Hey there, sweetening.”
“She dropped her books,” he said.
. . . . .
Also at Saturday’s ceremony in Redondo Beach, an Air Force band played “Taps” in honor of Joe Eskanazi, the local Pearl Harbor survivor who died earlier this year at age 105.
Mayor Bill Brand presented Lasser, a Vietnam helicopter pilot, a Key to the City for his work on the Redondo Beach Veterans Task Force, and acting as master of ceremonies for the local Veterans Day and Memorial Day events since 2006.
“I get the best seat in the house, and it’s turned into a labor of love,” Lasser said later.
Ernie O’Dell, another founding task force member, came to the aid of a hitched flag in this year’s ceremony.
Lasser saw Hughey speak at an event earlier this year and invited him to come to Redondo Beach in November. Hughey lives in Hawthorne.
In the leadup to Veterans Day 2023, the U.S. Department of Affairs Veterans Day National Committee chose Redondo Beach as one of its regional sites in California.
. . . . .
“Once you got the tap code, if somebody had a common wall with you, you could tap,” Hughey said of communication in prison.
Someone taught him the code early on – an American POW who had gone to survival school and learned it. POWs could sometimes talk for a few moments at a change of guard.
“Prisoner in the next cell, can you hear me?” said a voice.
Hughey said he could. The man explained the code.
“Take the alphabet, form a five-letter box. Omit the letter ‘K’. To tap a letter, tap down and then across.”
“We all still know the tap code. We just don’t have to use it,” Hughey said.
Mel Pollack, his co-pilot, arrived in Hanoi the same night Hughey did.
“We came out exactly how we got there, he was right behind me,” Hughey said of their release in 1973. Pollack now lives in Florida.
The state department arranged the POWs freedom in order of arrival.
Hughey and the prisoners knew it was coming when, one day, they saw a U.S. Army brigadier general walk across the prison grounds in a pressed, sharp, clean suit. ER
Col. Ken Hughey self-published a book in 2015 about his experiences titled “Outlaw Lead.” It is available online.