AUBURN, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — An American Air Force pilot whose plane was shot down in Vietnam recounted the most difficult six years of his life living in captivity during the Vietnam War.
On days when the weather allows, former Air Force Captain Gary Sigler flies the black Prisoner of War flag outside of his rural home in Auburn.
“I know what that flag means,” Sigler, 79, said on Thursday. “And I know what that barbed wire on it means.”
Sigler enlisted in the Air Force to learn how to fly airplanes. Before long, he had completed 91 combat missions as a co-pilot and navigator in a RF-4 reconnaissance jet.
“When you reach 100, you go home,” he said. But his next flight would take him on a six year detour.
Sigler and his pilot volunteered to take a high risk mission to take aerial photographs of a bridge in downtown Hanoi when surface-to-air missiles hit their jet in 1967.
“Instantly, I had a wall of fire coming in my cockpit and I was burned pretty badly,” he remembered. “But I heard somebody screaming in my headset, and it was me. And I didn’t feel a thing. Not inside. I guess I was in a state of shock.”
Sigler ejected from his cockpit seconds before the plane crashed. Years later, he would learn his pilot died in the crash that day. He suffered severe burns and says he broke his back in the descent. He managed to escape the enemy for nearly two days before he says he was “captured by what we call the posse of peasants.”
That would mark the beginning of six years of torture, isolation, and pain.
“I was blindfolded and they marched me through sort of a line of people who were beating on me,” he said. “And when they took the blindfold off, there was a bayonet about three inches from my nose.”
Eventually, his captors locked him away in solitary confinement in the notorious Hanoi Hilton, the same prison camp where former U.S. Senator John McCain was held. Sigler says he saw some of his fellow soldiers tortured to death. He would try to stay active by pacing back and forth or doing thousands of sit-ups in a small cell.
Years later, historians at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library would document his incredible tale of survival.
“The amazing part of his story, I thought, was his ability to deal with being in solitary confinement and what he did,” Dr. Mark DePue, a veteran of the U.S. Army said.
DePue is the oral historian at the library and met Sigler years ago. Sigler told him how often he spent his days in confinement dreaming of the home he’d design if he ever got out.
Six years later, Sigler got out and did just that. He returned home and built the home he dreamt of for him, his wife and his young daughter. Their reunited family thanked their friends with a card that read, “This is the first day of the rest of our lives.” Copies of that card remain on display in his home today, not far from his two purple heart medals and other service ribbons.
“That’s a powerful image for me to remember that and to realize, that’s how he kept himself sane, and in a situation that most of us would, can’t even begin to comprehend and deal with,” DePue said.
Sigler said he and other prisoners of war developed a certain dark sense of humor that helped them through, though he feared he would die before he would come home to his family.
“We had sort of a joke in POW humor that said the pessimist was the guy that said, ‘We’re never going to get out of here.’ And the optimist was the guy that said, ‘Oh, they’ll send our bodies back.’ And I was sort of the optimist type,” he said.
“I would think we’re going to get back by Christmas, then take the disappointment. And think we’re going to get out by Easter. That’s how I grew. But it was all faith. It was faith in the country, faith in your fellow POWs, faith in our military, faith in our family, faith in God, and all those helped.”