MIDDLEBURG – It was late in the day, William Byrns sat in an old bomb crater, covered in leaves and mud from the surrounding Vietnamese jungle. Byrns clutched his radio tightly, waiting for a …
MIDDLEBURG – It was late in the day, William Byrns sat in an old bomb crater, covered in leaves and mud from the surrounding Vietnamese jungle. Byrns clutched his radio tightly, waiting for a response. When the response finally came, it was not what he wanted to hear, “We can’t get you ‘til tomorrow morning,” Byrns remembers hearing from the voice on the other side of his walkie, “I won’t be here,” he responded, just 10 days to go on his second tour of duty.
“I could hear them going around in the bushes, shooting, trying to scare me,” he said, “And it was working great.”
It was at this point that Byrns turned to prayer for the comfort he needed.
“I said, ‘God, I haven’t been trusting you, I’ve been trusting the United States government, but it’s up to you. I’m willing to do anything to get out of this situation, but I’ll accept your will, whatever it is,’” Byrns said. “Then a calmness and a peace came over me after that and really never left me after that.”
Around midnight, Byrns woke up with the boot of a North Vietnamese soldier pressing his head into the muck – he had been captured.
Today, Byrns lives a comfortable life in his Fleming Island home, enjoying visits from grandchildren and seeing his own children enjoy their successes. He was honored recently by the Clay County Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America No. 1059 who have renamed their organization in Byrns’ honor. The chapter is now the Col. William G. Byrns Chapter 1059.
“By naming the chapter, I feel that there are not enough American heroes in the lives of our youth. By us displaying our banner with his name on it, hopefully people will ask who was that man and then we’ll be able to tell his story,” the chapter’s president Gary Newman said. “That’s where our interest is, to have somebody that our youth can look up to and respect and hopefully be a role model.”
Byrns began his military career in the late 1960s, a time in American history when he didn’t really have a choice.
“In those days you either had to join or you were gonna get drafted,” Byrns said.
So, instead of being drafted into the Army, he signed up for the Air Force. After completing the exam required for enlistment, he was given a spot in officer’s training and after that, pilot school. The Air Force wanted him to fly fighter jets.
Byrns, about 23 at the time, had just graduated from William Jewell College in Missouri. Soon after graduation, he got married, and six days after his wedding, he signed himself into the Air Force on August 18, 1967.
Byrns’ father had been a pilot during World War II, and Byrns had been on planes, but never flown them. After almost two years of officer training and flight school, Byrns had mastered the F-4 aircraft used by combat pilots during the Vietnam era and was ready for his first tour.
“In those days, the training was just getting you ready to go,” Byrns said. “I really enjoyed it and I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do it, until I got shot at. That kind of flying, it’s kinda fun but it’s kinda scary.”
In November 1969 Byrns was sent to Southeast Asia for the first time, returning a year later after numerous successful flying missions. He returned to his family, and then reported back to the Air Force for additional training on an updated version of the F-4. Byrns said that typically they would send the new pilots to Vietnam, but in the early 1970s the U.S. had started to pull troops from the southern part of the country and the northern soldiers were taking advantage of the dwindling U.S. presence.
“They were going to go back to North missions and bring people home so they wanted to send guys who had been there before, and they sent the new guys to Europe,” Byrns said. “So, I had to go back, and my wife was really not happy about that but we’re Christians so she said, ‘If that’s what God wants you to do then go.’”
He deployed in June 1971, set to return, again, one year later in June.
On May 23, 1972, Byrns took off from base on a routine bombing run. He took the lead. His job was to find enemy vehicles moving south, mark the position for the rest of the squadron, and begin the attack. Byrns found some trucks on a remote road, marked them and started dropping bombs. Some pilots earlier had told Byrns’ group that there were no active surface-to-air missiles in the area and that they wouldn’t have to worry about anti-aircraft fire, however, when Byrns saw the first missiles, he realized they were wrong.
“They look like telephone poles, and they’ll blow your airplane out of the sky,” Byrns said. “You gotta dodge [the missiles] by going down and getting airspeed, getting them to come down with you, and then pull away and they can’t make that turn.”
After dodging missiles for a while, Byrns’ fighter jet began to lose airspeed, and about that time he lost control of the aircraft – he had been hit.
“I didn’t see it, it wasn’t locked onto me with radar, but somebody saw it and told me later, after I got released, they saw it hit the belly of my airplane and the thing pitched up, caught on fire, and it was spinning,” Byrns said. “I could see the Navy out off the coast and that’s where I wanted to go, but the airplane wouldn’t fly, the stick was like a noodle. So I said, ‘We’re getting out,’ and I punched us out. I pull the handle, my backseater goes first, and then I go.”
After ejecting from the burning airplane, Byrns and his backseater parachuted into two different locations, and reverted back to the survival training they had received while training for combat flying.
Byrns stashed his parachute and began walking, 20 minutes in one direction, like he had been trained, to lose any enemy soldiers who had pinpointed his location while watching his descent. At the end of his walk he reached an old bomb crater and climbed inside, with a .38 caliber pistol on his belt, sure that he would be evacuated before nightfall.
Following his capture, Byrns was stripped to his underwear, hogtied and blindfolded. His captors beat him with a wooden club and shattered his arms and shoulders as he tried to protect his head. Then, a soldier pulled Byrns’ .38 from his belt. Byrns felt the gun barrel as the man pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger.
The gun didn’t fire, and another soldier took it from the man’s hand, shouting something about how American soldiers are worth more alive than dead. Byrns began a nearly three-week trek through the jungle, blindfolded, in socks, over rough terrain.
A day after he was captured, his backseater was found nearby and brought along for the journey. Other American prisoners of war were added during the trip to Hanoi. Once there, Byrns was placed in solitary confinement for a while before beginning a stint in the infamous Hanoi Hilton, a repurposed French political prison that Byrns described as being very primitive.
“I slept on concrete, and the rats were bigger than dogs,” Byrns said. “The roaches were bigger than the rats, I thought. All the crud and corruption they can eat, I guess.”
The days began to add up, and the thought of his family’s safety never left Byrns’ head. He hadn’t heard anything from anyone since his capture, but that changed around Christmas time. Some members of his squadron had been shot down and captured, eventually they found Byrns and were able to tell him that his family knew he was alive.
“We knew how to survive, we were trained for it, the families are the ones who had a hard time,” Byrns said. “They didn’t know what was going on, I think it was harder on the families [back home].”
Following the Paris Peace Accords, pushed by Henry Kissinger in early 1973, POWs started to be released. Those with serious injuries were taken first, and Byrns left in the second to last group from the prison where he had been kept. From his time of capture until the day he was rescued, Byrns counted 10 months, 5 days, 12 hours and 26 minutes, a statistic he recites without pause.
He returned to the U.S. in March 1973. Now a decorated soldier, Byrns would not shy away from the military. By September that year, he was back in an F-4, and began a series of stations at bases across the country and in Europe where he taught young pilots to fly.
When the United States got involved in Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s, Byrns was sent to Iraq. Now qualified on the F-16 fighter jet, he flew a handful of missions before the short-lived military operation was halted.
“I flew F-16 missions with guys on my wing my son’s age,” Byrns said. “It was a lot different war then.”
After this final deployment, Byrns would return to teaching and eventually land a job at Kansas State University heading up the school’s ROTC program. He retired as a Colonel on October 1, 1991 after just over 30 years of military service. During those three decades, Byrns earned two Purple Hearts, the Legion of Merit, six Distinguished Flying Crosses, 36 Air Medals and others.
Byrns now travels to schools, where he gives an annual four-class lecture at St. Johns River State College talking about the United States Constitution, something he wishes he had read and understood at a younger age.
“In civics class I didn’t pay attention, but when you almost die defending it you pay attention,” Byrns said.