Ret. Lt. Col. James W. Williams has logged a stellar career as a standout fighter pilot in the Vietnam War and a retired AFJ ROTC instructor at Tucker High School in DeKalb County School District in Stone Mountain, GA.
That combination warranted an invitation as a featured guest on a recent Sunday morning broadcast on the gospel-formatted WLOK radio station.
“We thought Lt. Col. Williams’ visit to our Sunday broadcast recently would be a timely one, given the American president alleging to have called prisoners of war (POWs) and those who have been killed in battle ‘losers and suckers,’ said Dr. William Young, founding bishop of The Healing Center church.
Williams, 76, is a Vietnam POW. The former Memphian spoke from his home in Norcross, GA, sharing his experiences with the radio listening audience and answering questions along the way.
In 1972, Williams’ fighter plane was shot down. He survived the encounter and was taken as a prisoner to the “Hanoi Hilton,” nickname for the infamous Hanoi prison camp, where the late Sen. John McCain also was held.
McCain was shot down in 1967. Williams and McCain met when all the prisoners were let out into the prison camp’s courtyard to congregate. They were about to be sent home.
In October of last year, Williams and several other Vietnam War veterans returned to Vietnam. They met ex-soldiers, who once were their enemies, and revisited sites of battles and other landmarks.
It was a “healing mission,” said Williams of the experience of going back to the prison camp where he was held and sometimes beaten.
“We made it clear that we were not there representing the United States, but we were there on a healing mission,” he said. “It was emotional, but it was, indeed, healing.”
Dr. Rick Miller, also a Vietnam veteran, went back on that trip with Williams.
“Col. Williams handled the visit to the prison camp a lot better than we did,” said Miller. “It was very emotional for us, but he handled it with class, dignity and grace. He really is a war hero, and he should be honored.”
As to whether President Trump labeled soldiers such as he and Williams “losers” and “suckers,” Miller said, “It’s so politicized on both sides. …I don’t know if he called POWs and those who died in battle ‘losers and suckers.’
“There’s no denying what he said about John McCain. He said that, and we all know he said it. But the rest of it could just be speculation.”
D.T. Nguyen, who now lives in Dallas, also went back on the “healing mission.” He was a young boy, who escaped as one of the “boat people,” in 1975 when Saigon fell.
“I have been back before,” said Nguyen, who acted as an interpreter for the soldiers returning and those who welcomed them back. “My family all made it out on that boat. There were 300 people on that boat. We were all rescued and taken to Guam.”
Nguyen’s father, Nguyen Thuc Vinh, attended the 4th class of the elite Vietnamese National Military Academy in Dalat, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (USACGSC) in 1964 and the U.S. Army War College (USAWC). He was the youngest major in the South Vietnamese Army at age 24, and served with distinction as High Command’s Chief of Staff of Vietnam’s Airborne Rangers (81st Airborne Commando Battalion) in 1961 and High Command’s Chief of Staff of Vietnam’s Special Forces in 1965.
The highly-decorated officer was able to get his entire family out of the country when Saigon fell in 1975. Nguyen was a young boy when his father got them out of harm’s way. Nguyen serves on the board of Valor Veteran, a non-profit organization that works with veterans to help relieve PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) issues and emotional trauma that military personnel sometimes deal with when returning to civilian life.
Williams spent nearly 11 months in captivity. Part of the time he was kept in solitary confinement because he had “a bad attitude.”
“I had been in the country for nearly a year, and I was flying my 228th combat mission when I was shot down,” said Williams. “I had only 40 more days remaining on my tour before returning home. I can’t repeat what I said when I realized I had been shot down.”
During the interrogation, Williams was asked about the number of missions and the targets he had flown. His answer was that he had just been in Vietnam two or three weeks before his plane was shot down. His interrogators called him a liar and the result was solitary confinement for his “bad attitude.”
While imprisoned, Williams learned the system of tap codes, which POWs used to communicate with one another. Two South Vietnamese prisoners were tasked with cleaning the camp. One of them would share information with the American POWs. His signal was to whistle “God Bless America” when he came near.
Of the 662 prisoners at the prison camp where Williams was held, there were only 16 were African American: seven officers and nine enlisted men. For him, the return visit came with a flood of memories and a chance to meet with former captors and soldiers who had been former enemies.
“We got a chance to meet and talk through an interpreter,” said Williams. “We initially thought I would be able to meet the pilot who shot me down, but he was deceased. I did meet his widow and gifted her my Air Force lapel pin.”
Williams was the oldest of five children born to Isaac and Shirley Williams in Memphis. A graduate of Douglass High School, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Tennessee State University and two masters degrees: one from Central Michigan University and the other from Pepperdine University.
Williams pledged the Alpha Theta Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. in 1965, two years before receiving his commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force at Detachment 790th – Tennessee State University, AFROTC.
Williams is the only African American Vietnam POW in Kappa Alpha Psi. He is also the only Vietnam POW, African-American Air Force fighter pilot in the states of Georgia and Tennessee.
Williams presently sits on the POW Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He chose not to comment about the losers-suckers remarks being attributed to President Trump.
Anita Williams-King, a FedEx executive and Williams’ sister, fielded the subject matter this way:
“Knowing my brother, Col. James W. Williams, his character, the love of his country and his record of service, I can tell anyone that he is far from being a loser or a sucker.
“Our family is proud of him. Our parents were proud of what he accomplished. I have no qualms about calling my brother just what he is – an American hero.”