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Never Forgotten: POWs Operationalize History on NAS Pensacola

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MARCOA Media
Story by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Dan Mennuto

Thousands of officer and enlisted aviation students receive flight physical evaluations annually through the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute onboard Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola. Tucked away in the back of the same building that all of those students receive their first flight physical is the Robert E. Mitchell Center (REMC) for Prisoner of War (POW) Studies.

The goal of the Repatriated POW program and the Center for Prisoner of War Studies is to evaluate the former POWs and their experience both in captivity and through repatriation and reintegration into society so that the data collected from their experiences may be used to help future warriors a resilient combat advantage in future conflicts.

For 46 unbroken years, Vietnam-era Navy POWs as well as POWs from more recent conflicts, have been coming to NAS Pensacola for annual evaluations. In 1993 the Air Force, and then 1996 the Army rejoined the Repatriated POW study.

"With the anticipation of the end of hostilities in Vietnam, plans for the Center for Prisoner of War Studies (CPWS) began in 1971," said Dr. John P. Albano, MD, program manager for the REMC for POW Studies. "The Department of Defense recognized a lack of extensive longitudinal data, from direct clinical examinations, forecasting the long-term impact of captivity on injury, disease, and psychological problems and established the five-year charter as a tri-service effort under the Naval Health Research Center (NHRC) at San Diego. Operation Homecoming began January 1973 and lasted until late May 1973. Capt. Robert E. Mitchell conducted the examinations for the Navy and Marine Corps repatriated POWs at the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory (NAMRL) in Pensacola, Florida. The resulting data were then sent to CPWS."

Navy Cmdr. Bill Franke and Lt. Cmdr. Robert Doremus were the 19th and 20th POWs to check into the Ha L Prison in Hanoi, commonly referred to the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs. Franke and Doremus's F-4 Phantom II was shot down over North Vietnam by a surface-to-air missile in August 1965. They were listed as killed in action for almost two years before word got back that they were captured.

"The first SERE (Survive Evade Resist Escape) training focused on escaping, evading and surviving on the sea because if you went down, you're going to be in the ocean," said Doremus. "The second one that I had was when I got into the F-4 Phantom training squadron; they were more worried about you becoming a POW. It took us into a lifelike POW status. The one thing that's different there is, I had orders that said I was going to come home on Sunday and I didn't have any orders like that when I was shot down in Vietnam. You know exactly when you're coming home and what bus you're going to be on, but you don't know that in prison. In fact, as most Americans would do, we bet on when we were going to come home. I was shot down in August of 65 and my date in the go home pool' was Groundhog Day, which is February 2. I was only 10 days off [in the month], but I was seven years off."

Doremus and Franke attribute always having a positive attitude to their drive to live while in captivity. They also said that they learned a lot of things through their training that helped them during their 2,730 days in captivity.

"The survival school tried to make it as realistic as possible, but they couldn't fully because they weren't sure who the new enemy would be or what they were going to do to you," said Doremus. "There were some things that were paramount. When a new prisoner would enter the prison, we would review the code of conduct and explain the tap code (a way of communicating between prisoners). We would also get their name for the list of who the Vietnamese captured, so that later on we could account for them."

Doremus said that he does not make the trip to Pensacola every year from Ohio to be cured of anything. He comes so that the services can follow him to see how he is performing each year after returning home. He hopes that in the future, the military will know what it might be able to expect when and if there are more POWs.

"Service members continue to come here on a volunteer basis," said Albano. "They want to contribute to the knowledge base that allows for analyses that would help future warriors, so it's important for me to do the evaluations, design research questions, conduct the research and provide potential solutions (ie; lessons learned) and give it to the operator so they can employ it in their training new scenarios."

There were some 600 POWs released from Hanoi in 1973. Dr. Albano has been with the program for the past seven years. He conducts approximately 225-250 POW evaluations annually.

"As I look at the five-year plan and wonder where this program is going to, even though many of the POWs from Vietnam are in their 80s and beginning to pass on, the future of the program is that research can always be done on their data," said Albano. "We ask all kinds of questions in certain ways and then go back to that data and do the right studies and the right analysis and we can get the answers. If we do go to war with countries, that are demonstrating aggressive behavior in the naval domain, what is the probability that there would be new and an increasing population of, particularly Navy, POWs?"

The mission of the Robert E. Mitchell Center is to determine the long term physical and psychological effects related to POW captivity. Honoring and keeping the faith to a grateful nation's warriors, the center has remained steady and true ever since Operation Homecoming began in 1973.

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