Jeremy P. Amick is the public affairs officer for the Silver Star Families of America.
With a beaming grin that shrouds the hardships he has endured, local veteran John Clark recounts his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and how it has fortified his faith in family, God and nation.
Born on January 1, 1940 as the first baby of the decade in Boone County, Clark began attending the University of Missouri in 1957 following his graduation from Hickman High School.
“I thought that when you went to high school in Columbia, it was just natural you then went to MU,” Clark joked.
While attending university, Clark participated in the Air Force ROTC program, rising to the rank of cadet commander among 2,200 cadet corps members.
The aspiring airman graduated as the “distinguished military graduate” in 1962 with a degree in mechanical engineering, at the same time receiving an appointment as a second lieutenant in the Air Force.
He immediately began his initial flight training at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, a 13-month intensive program where students were introduced to flight in a small jet trainer, and progressed to the T-33 (T-Bird) — a Korean War era fighter.
Finishing the program as a distinguished flight graduate, Clark went on to complete survival training. He was then assigned as a pilot with a medical transport unit. However, he soon had a realization that led to a change in the direction of his career.
“I learned that in the Air Force there is a division between flying propeller- driven aircraft and jets,” he said. “It was kind of a jet arrogance.”
Clark was accepted into the RF4C program at Shaw AFB in 1965 and soon became qualified on the jet.
“It was a monstrous plane with unbelievable performance,” he stated.
He was then assigned to Royal Air Force Base Alconbury in England, where he spent two years flying in support of NATO operations. But in late 1966, he received an assignment to Vietnam that would forever change his outlook.
Assigned to fly reconnaissance missions over North and South Vietnam, Clark flew over 80 missions before a fateful event on March 12, 1967.
“It was a routine day as far as the war went,” he explained. “We were out performing a weather recon and flew right into a flak trap.”
Clark’s plane was struck in the belly and he was forced to eject. Although his parachute opened, the plane’s close proximity to the ground led to moderate injuries to his neck and shoulders, including spinal compression.
Attempting to evade capture, Clark was quickly apprehended by locals who turned him into North Vietnamese Army (NVA) authorities.
During the next six years, the captured airman was detained in prison camps such as the “Hanoi Hilton” and confirms many of the widely held suspicions regarding the treatment of American POWs.
“They (NVA) were bagging several guys a day,” Clark explained. “They looked for opportunities to torture prisoners and make them confess to (alleged) crimes they had committed.
“It’s really hard to project the actual deprivation, fear and pain a person endures under such horrible circumstances,” he added.
Toward the end of the war, Clark notes that public sentiment toward the treatment of POWs lead to somewhat better conditions, such as placement in “propaganda camps” where they were allowed care packages every month.
On February 28, 1973, Clark’s six-year internment came to a close when he was among a group of 20 prisoners released “as a gift of the NVA to Henry Kissinger.”
Returning to the mid-Missouri area, Clark remained on active duty until 1978, then joining the Air National Guard and retiring as a colonel in 1992.
He went on to earn an MBA from the University of Missouri. In 1987, he became a water engineer for Columbia, from which he retired in 2000.
“I retired (from Columbia) six years early because I wanted to get back the six years I had spent in prison camps,” Clark said.
With his characteristic convivial demeanor, those unfamiliar with Clark’s history would never suspect the weight of hardship he has overcome, but he does not hesitate in sharing the lessons born of his experiences.
“When you’re in such a situation, you realize how fortunate you are to be an American,” he said. “It also helps shed a light on the intolerance and selfish, simplistic thoughts of greed that come from those who have never had to suffer for something they truly care about.”
This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.