Profiles of Valor: Capt. William S. Reeder
This cobra pilot was the last American POW in Vietnam.
Having just celebrated the Medal of Honor awarded to Cobra pilot Larry Taylor, there is another Cobra pilot who deserves honorable mention. Fact is, most combat Cobra pilots deserve honorable mention, but Capt. Bill Reeder was also one of the few who were shot down and captured, becoming a POW.
Reeder is a Lake Arrowhead, California, native, born at the end of World War II in 1945. He enlisted in the Army in 1965 and was commissioned a 2d Lieutenant through the Artillery Officer Candidate School. He then completed fixed-wing aviator training in the OV-1 Mohawk in 1968 and served with the 131st Aviation Company in South Vietnam through 1969, including being shot down and rescued. After returning stateside to complete his college degree at the University of Nebraska, he completed rotary-wing training for the AH-1G Cobra Attack Helicopter in 1971.
Back to South Vietnam with the 361st Aviation Company, 17th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade, he was awarded a Silver Star for his actions on April 14, 1972, when he and his Cobra team, defending the American base at Ben Het, repeatedly engaged nearby enemy forces under severely limited visibility conditions at great risk in order to provide cover for outnumbered friendly ground forces. “Captain Reeder’s actions contributed to the escape of dozens of friendly forces and one American soldier.”
On May 9, 1972, Reeder was shot down “in a flaming corkscrew” and managed to evade the enemy until he was captured and taken as a Prisoner of War three days later. He was held in jungle cages for weeks until a grueling march north on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which cost the lives of seven of the 27 POWs in his group. He was held in Hanoi until his release on March 27, 1973. Reeder returned to the U.S., where he served until his retirement in 1995 as a Colonel.
What follows is his account of surviving as a POW shortly after his return:
My second tour of duty began in December 1971. I was a pilot of a Cobra helicopter gunship, flying support for South Vietnamese forces when I was shot down. My front seater, First Lieutenant John T. “Tim” Conry, a fine officer and a good friend, died from injuries received in the crash. I managed to avoid capture for three days, but soon they heard me and five North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded me.
My back was broken and I had one crushed vertebra. I shrank about one inch during my eleven months in captivity.
The interrogator tied me to a tree and questioned me for three hours, slapping me around a little. However, even though the interrogating continued for three days, I refused to sign statements that I had dropped gases, firebombs, or germs.
We hiked through the jungle for three days. I was forced to carry a rucksack full of uncooked rice. With my broken back and a wound in my ankle — this was very painful. We came to my first POW camp in Northern Cambodia. I was placed in a 12 x 40 by 4 ½ foot cage of bamboo with 25 South Vietnamese prisoners. I was the only American. The prisoners were all piled up. They had a wooden stock through the center of the cage into which they put our feet at night and closed it.
After two weeks I was moved to a cage with one other American and four Vietnamese. It was 5 ½ by 10 feet. Shortly thereafter we began our walk to North Vietnam, 200 miles up and down mountains. The other American died en route. My ankle became so infected, even my knee was twice its size from the spreading infection. They told me they would have to amputate, but I asked that they try penicillin, even though I had previously been very allergic to it. For some reason the adverse reaction to the drug never occurred, and by the time I reached Hanoi, the wound was almost healed.
I have been simply overwhelmed by every aspect of my return. It has been the most wonderful experience of my life. I have a brave and patriotic wife, and two fine children.
Through my experiences I have developed a greater love for my country and an appreciation of our freedoms. After seeing a Communist society first hand, I am further dedicated to preserving the principles of democracy established on this continent by the American Revolution. I would like to thank my friends and neighbors and all Americans for their concern and support and my government for bringing me home with my head held high.“
Semper Vigilans Fortis Paratus et Fidelis
Pro Deo et Libertate — 1776
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- Profiles of Valor
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