EDMOND, Okla. — He was barely 40 years old and headed back to the contentious war in Vietnam. Col. William Talley deployed from McConnell AFB, Kansas, to Korat Air Base in Thailand as the pilot of an F-105G Thunderchief. It was April 1972, in the height of the Vietnam War.
This was the third time this Sayre, Okla., native had been to Southeast Asia. His mission: to fly northeast over Laos into North Vietnam and engage the enemy as part of the 17th Wild Weasel Squadron of the 388th tactical Fighter Wing. Part of a two-man crew, he was assisted by an electronic warfare officer who was trained to detect and jam enemy radar. Unfortunately, the adversary had tools of its own.
On April 21, a MIG-21 fighter fired a heat-seeking missile up the tailpipe. Col. Talley and his “bear” bailed from the plane before it crashed, and they were separated.
Trying to bury himself under rocks, Col. Talley escaped capture for 18 hours but eventually was found and taken to the “Hanoi Hilton,” a POW camp, where he remained for the next 322 days.
At this point in the war, some prisoners were longtime residents — some as long as seven years. One of the POWs Col. Talley met was future U.S. senator and presidential candidate John McCain.
“My most difficult time in prison was the first few months after capture," Col. Talley recalls. “The fear of the unknown was nearly overwhelming. Not knowing what would happen next and considering how long I might be in prison were very depressing thoughts. My faith in God and prayer gave me strength to adjust to the conditions.
“After five months in the ‘Hilton,’ I was able to meet some of the prisoners who had been captured for years before me. They became like big brothers to me and gave me advice, encouragement and the help I needed to sustain me until release.”
Col. Talley was released from his prison during Operation Homecoming on March 28, 1973.
“Although my life as a prisoner was miserable, I can’t say that the time was entirely wasted,” Talley said. “A person develops a new perspective toward life and his fellow man. I have seen hungry men give up what little food they had to help a companion, and I have seen cold men share the few clothes they had with sick or injured prisoners.
“Perhaps the most impressive sight was to see men fashion a simple cross from two sticks and in their own way offer God thanks for the blessings they had. The lesson I learned in prison was that I can be happy and comfortable in life with less than I previously thought necessary.”
Col. Talley now lives at Touchmark at Coffee Creek, a retirement community in Edmond. He has shared his story and memorabilia (two Distinguished Cross medals for his Vietnam service) with other residents at presentations.
“Col. Talley has never wanted the story to be about him. Instead, he wants to focus on and have people remember all the POWs who fought for our freedom and gave theirs up halfway around the world,” says Shannon Rich-Romero, Touchmark Life Enrichment/Wellness director.
Rich-Romero added, “We all owe a debt of gratitude to those who sacrificed so mightily on our behalf. We honor Col. William Talley and his brothers in arms. We can’t thank them enough for their service!”