TEMPLE, Texas — Inside his Temple home, retired Air Force Col. Thomas “Jerry" Curtis is surrounded by memories of his past. The Air Force veteran spent 25 years in the military, with 7½ of those years spent in captivity in Vietnam.
“The will to live gets pretty strong when people are trying to kill ya,” Curtis exclaims.
In 1965, Curtis volunteered as a search and rescue helicopter pilot for the war in Vietnam. He arrived in Thailand in April and flew several rescue missions.
“If I were in their shoes, I would want someone coming to do what I was going to do with combat search and rescue," he said. "It was the right thing to do.”
Curtis safely rescued three downed pilots.
But during a mission in September, while trying to rescue another crew, disaster struck.
“We went from 100 percent to 18 percent power, and I had to fall about that far until the blades hit the trees,” he recalled.
Curtis had already begun lifting the stranded pilot to safety when his helicopter started going down.
"My first thought as I stared down and realize that I can’t fly is ‘I’m gonna smash him like a bug,'" he said. "He's in the hoist and he’s to the side, but also close to being underneath."
Curtis and his crew didn’t tumble, since the fall “went straight down.” He didn’t end up crushing the other pilot either, but they did get separated when they reached the ground.
“He went off to take cover where he had secured to wait for us,” he said.
Curtis and his remaining crew members tried to hide and wait behind a fallen tree for their own rescue, but they were soon captured.
He said his mind started racing.
"Scared, bewildered, can’t believe this is happening and what’s next and all those jumble of thoughts that go on," Curtis remembered.
For days, they walked as they were paraded in front of the Vietnamese in villages throughout the countryside.
"Sometimes, they would pick up whatever they found on the ground and throw it at us, and sometimes they would rush at us and try to hit," he said.
After about a week, Curtis and his fellow captors finally got to their first prison, infamously known as “the Hanoi Hilton” to American forces.
Curtis said a code on the wall gave him hope and a way to communicate. It was five letters across, five letters down, all the letters of the English language except "k."
"Anyway you could make noise, you could communicate. It was a lifesaver," Curtis said.
When another prisoner of war asked him how long he thought they'd be there, Curtis had a bleak, yet realistic, outlook.
“I mustered all the pessimism I could, and I said ‘We're gonna be here at least a year’ and I often wondered what I would have done if I’d known my sentence was 7½ years."
As the years passed, Curtis and his fellow prisoners were moved from prison to prison, and camp to camp.
Eventually, he was allowed to write letters back home to his wife, Terry, and their two children, who were waiting and praying for his return. Curtis said it was memories of his family, his love of country and most importantly, trust in God that kept him going.
"I was a Christian before I got there, so that was a source of strength." he said. "They could kill me, they could keep me in that hole, they could beat me, they could starve me, but I knew the rest of the story, and I took a lot of comfort in knowing my ultimate destination.”
Finally, in 1973, Curtis and other POWs were released.
"We're loaded on the bus riding through Hanoi and I think some of the people knew what was going on," he said. "They were like 'OK,' and others picked up a rock and threw it so you still have that dichotomy. The whole time we were on that bus, there was no joke telling, no loud talk. It was a somber occasion... We gotta see it to believe it."
At the airport, he walked onto the plane with the pilot he attempted to save all those years ago.
“I nudged him and said ‘See Will! I told you I’d get you out of here! Only 7½ years too late!"
When they finally left the ground, Curtis said the POWs erupted in cheers.
However, it didn’t feel like freedom until they were safely over the water.
“The commander comes on and says ‘Feet wet’ and we finally believed we were on our way! I hadn't really thought a lot about homecoming. It was just freedom that I wanted," Curtis said.
Sure enough, he got that homecoming!
Curtis and the other POWs received a hero’s welcome.
“Our reception was one of joy, you know, finally we’re free again,” he said.
Like a true military man, he’ll never call himself a hero.
“I was doing the job for which I was trained, and I didn’t get the results I expected, but let me tell you that the three guys I got out of the woods before this happened, I can't tell you the exultation you feel when you get one of your people out," he said. "It was just doing what you were supposed to do… What you were trained to do."
Once he finally settled in at home, Curtis started writing down his story for family and friends.
Thanks to a ghost writer, Carole Engle Avriett, his story is now available for anyone to read in the book “Under the Cover of Light.”
Curtis said he wanted to honor God with this book because while he didn’t take away his troubles in Vietnam, he did get him through it all.