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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There are some days a person never forgets. Forty years ago, March 28, 1973, was one of those days for Joe Kernan.
Kernan, then a naval flight officer, had just endured 11 months as a prisoner of war toward the end of the Vietnam War. But, on this early spring morning, Kernan and 67 other former POWs were at Hanoi's Gia Lam Airport. They were escorted by Air Force officials to a waiting C-141 transport plane.
“We got aboard and taxied out and started to roll,” Kernan said. “When the pilot said, ‘Wheels are in the well,' that's when everybody went nuts. A big hoot and holler went up.”
For Kernan, the former South Bend mayor and Indiana governor, it was the end of a long ordeal.
Kernan followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father when he enlisted in the Navy in the spring of 1969.
“I had decided I wanted to join the Navy, and I wanted to fly,” he told the South Bend Tribune. “It was the opportunity to do something I wanted to do instead of sitting around and waiting to get drafted.”
After completing aviation officer candidate school in Florida and navigation training in Georgia, Kernan was given his wings and assigned to a flight squadron. He spent more than a year training aboard his RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance aircraft before he was assigned to a fleet squadron and deployed to Vietnam in January 1972 aboard the Kitty Hawk.
“We did two things. We did road reconnaissance, which was searching for enemy traffic primarily along the Ho Chi Minh trail,” Kernan said. “We'd bring our film back to the ship, it would be developed and if there was traffic that merited some kind of attention we would have other aircraft that would go after those targets.
“The second thing we did was bomb-damage assessment. That was to determine whether a target had been sufficiently destroyed or whether we needed to go back and hit it again.”
On May 7, 1972, on Kernan's 26th combat mission, his RA-5C Vigilante took off with its F-4 Phantom fighter escort for a bomb-damage assessment run. After the assessment, squadron commanders asked Kernan to do some road reconnaissance along Vietnam's Highway 1, the main highway.
“We came over our target; it was a truck park, a staging area for troops and tanks and trucks. We took pictures of that target, and as we continued down Highway 1 we were about halfway through our mission and got hit by anti-aircraft fire,” Kernan recalled. “We got hit in the tail. The nose pitched down violently. We came right out of it.
“As we rolled wings level, the nose pitched down again and we were pointed at the ground. I look at the altimeter I had — 2,900 feet — I made the decision to eject not knowing anything other than I didn't want to ride it in.”
The cockpit filled with light and Kernan was flung at forces approaching 23Gs from the aircraft, rendering him unconscious from the force of the ejection.
He landed in a small village.
“When I got up, people were coming from everywhere. I was surrounded and was getting kicked around,” he said. “I was carrying a .38 revolver with flares in it. So, you're not going to start a land war with six rounds of small flares.”
Kernan was quickly subdued, stripped to his underwear and brought to Hanoi. He did time in two of the most infamous POW prisons of the war, the Hanoi Hilton and one dubbed “The Zoo,” he said.
There he would stay for 11 months, until the peace agreements were signed and the C-141s allowed in to remove the former prisoners.
For seven weeks, Kernan was listed as missing in action.
The first month, he was kept in isolation. Eventually, another prisoner was brought in with him. The two discreetly talked.
“He said, ‘Your escort lost you guys, and you're presumed dead.' That was the worst day of my life,” Kernan said. “I assumed my family thought I was dead, the Navy thought I was dead and if everybody thinks I'm dead there's no reason for these guys to keep me alive. It wasn't until three months later I found out my family knew I was alive.”
Kernan's path home went through the Philippines, Hawaii and eventually Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. After 90 days' leave, Kernan spent another 18 months in the Navy even though he could have gotten out at any time.
“Wouldn't trade it for anything,” he said. “I loved it. Made great friends.”
He's spent the past four decades observing his shoot-down day as a nod to those less fortunate — the more than 58,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who never made it out of Vietnam.
“Every May 7, I play golf with friends,” Kernan said. “What I missed most was pizza and beer on Friday nights. So after playing golf I go to Rocco's, eat pizza and drink some beer.
“I've been doing that a long time now. It's a day when it could have gone the other way, very easily and with greater probability. With flight crews in Vietnam that got shot down, three out of four didn't come home.”
Kernan said it's hard to believe it has been 40 years.
“Some days it seems like it was 100 years ago. Some days it feels like last week,” he said. “I got the big break. I have no regrets, no second thoughts about the things I've done over the last 40 years.
“I count my blessings. The odds are that I wouldn't be here. If I'd waited to eject another second, to punch out, I wouldn't be here.”