The article below originally appeared on MercuryNews.com and is being reprinted with permission.
Foster City’s Robert Stirm has been to hell and back. That’s not a cliché. That’s reality. It’s been half a lifetime since he was freed from a notorious North Vietnamese prison, nicknamed, in the gallows humor of the day, the Hanoi Hilton.
For Stirm, now 80, it’s still an unpleasant chore to recall his six-year incarceration, nearly one year of which was spent in solitary confinement, as a prisoner of war. His memories are stark and vivid. A U.S. Air Force pilot, his F105 fighter was shot down in October 1967 during a mission over the Hanoi area.
Next March will mark the 40th anniversary of his release. A photo of his family greeting him on the tarmac at Travis Air Force Base in 1973 remains an iconic visual reminder of that tumultuous era.
Stirm, a 1950 graduate of San Mateo High School and an alumnus of College of San Mateo, grew up in leafy San Mateo Park. His horrific prison experience was a far cry from the suburban comforts of his family home on quiet Clark Drive.
Tortured, starved and denied meaningful medical care, Stirm, at one grim point, weighed less than 100 pounds, but he managed to survive. So did another San Mateo County POW, Ernest “Mel” Moore, a U.S. Navy pilot, who lnow lives in Coronado in the San Diego area.
Moore’s A4E Skyhawk was downed in March of 1967 near Hanoi. Stirm says he and Moore, a 1947 Burlingame High School grad who lived in Millbrae, were the only young men from the county who spent much of the Vietnam War as POWs. Moore, 83, says they didn’t meet until after they were set free.
Both were repatriated in March of 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming, engineered by President Richard Nixon; the effort saw a total of 591 captive Americans brought back to the U.S.
Their selfless service, and what they and their colleagues endured (in all wars), will be marked again Friday on National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
Stirm, who was imprisoned one day after current U.S. Senator (and 2008 candidate for president) John McCain, a Navy pilot, was captured by the North Vietnamese, is classified as 100 percent disabled. He suffers from chronic joint problems, particularly in his compromised shoulders, knees and feet (he was hung by his arms, with his shoulders stretched out of their sockets, and beaten and struck regularly, among other punishments).
“Name a disease,” he adds, “and I probably had it.” Three times, he says he was taken in front of a firing squad for what seemed to be a scheduled execution. All three occasions were cruel ruses to get him to divulge information. He says he didn’t do so.
“I was one of the more senior officers,” he recalls. “For some reason, they thought I had a direct line to (President) Lyndon Johnson. I was a hard-liner. I lived with my information throughout the period.”
That included knowing that one of the other POWs was a U2 (high-altitude spy plane) pilot, a highly prized captive who, had the North Vietnamese realized he was in their custody, might have provided the communists with some real propaganda value.
Remarkably, the articulate Stirm maintains an upbeat outlook with a wry sense of humor and a penetrating perspective on life in spite of his lingering physical handicaps. He explains, “We all live with limitations.”
The survival instinct may be genetic. Stirm’s great-grandfather, fighting on the Union side, was a prisoner of Confederate forces not once but twice during the Civil War.
After his release from prison, Stirm returned to active duty with the Air Force, retiring in 1977 as a full colonel. The father of four adult children (Stirm has eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild) then went into the family business in San Francisco. He left that job to become a corporate pilot. Finally, he again came back to the family firm, helping with its eventual closure in the late 1990s.
Asked if he has come to terms with the behavior of his brutal captors and his systematic wartime mistreatment and imprisonment, the blunt Stirm, who has not returned to Vietnam since his release, categorically states, “No.” He does not elaborate.
Mel Moore, on the other hand, (who retired from the Navy in 1979 as a captain) has a different outlook. In a statement provided years after his return home, he wrote, in part:
“It is very important that those six years of my life leave no feelings of bitterness within me. I have worked hard to make those bleak years contribute something of value to me as a man, as a human being…I know what freedom is because men attempted to deprive me of it…Life is very beautiful for me now…In the end, knowing the tragedy and terror of war, it is necessary to combat those who would try to control every thought, breath and word, even every act of life, to their own way. That is a more evil thing.”