Vietnam veteran shares POW experiences with Beale
By Airman Preston Cherry, 9th Reconnaissance Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 25, 2015
BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, California --
Retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and Vietnam veteran, Barry B. Bridger, shared his experiences as a prisoner of war with Team Beale June 23, 2015, at the base theater.
Bridger survived six years of captivity and hardship at the "Hanoi Hilton" prison camp after his F-4 Phantom was shot down over Son Tay, North Vietnam in 1967.
Bridger said when his family heard he was going to war, it was something rather familiar to them. His brother was a World War II fighter pilot, who was very devoted to his work, serious and professional. He expected the same from Barry, and Barry expected the same for himself. Bridger commissioned into the Air Force in 1963 and completed pilot training the following year.
"I knew the mission would have challenges, but I also knew I wanted to go, and I was going," said Bridger.
Upon arrival for duty he saw what some of those challenges might entail.
"I flew out of the Philippine Islands and into the combat zone at night in a C-130 Hercules," said Bridger. "As we crossed...South Vietnam, you could see the flares and explosions going off over the landmass. It was very foreboding."
Starting in 1966, Bridger served two tours in the war torn country, accumulating more than 200 combat flying hours and completing 70 combat missions over North Vietnam. On January 23, 1967, his aircraft was shot down trying to evade enemy ground fire.
"Just as we rolled upside-down a missile was coming in the backseat, and it went off," said Bridger. "It blew the back of the aircraft, one wing, and half of the other wing off. All of the lights in the cockpit lit up...and one light that I've never seen said, 'You're in deep kimchi.'"
After ejecting, Bridger said he was taken by the enemy and spent the next six years in captivity where he and other POWs endured physical and mental distress.
"American POWs quickly learned that the desperate, crushing environment of a POW camp can destroy the mind and the body, but it cannot touch the values of a good heart and spirit," said Bridger.
Bridger said the POWs in the camp came together and worked as one cohesive team looking out for each other during their time as prisoners.
"I was amazed at the attitudes of my fellow POWs in Hanoi," said Bridger. "Nobody hesitated to jump into the breach to help those in greater need than themselves, if they had any way to do it. Knowing full well, if caught, they would be taken to the torture chambers and made to squeal like a baby, or perhaps die. Yet they still leaped."
Bridger was released during Operation Homecoming on March 4, 1973, and was hospitalized for his injuries. He remained in the Air Force and retired after 22 years of service.
Bridger said his story is not one of plight but one of revelation.
"What counts in life is not winning," said Bridger. "What counts is never quitting."