MINERAL WELLS – John Murphy was about 15,000 feet in the air when his vision came back to him. He was also in free fall and still strapped to the ejector seat of the F4 E Phantom fighter-bomber that moments earlier he had been piloting on a mission over North Vietnam before the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire.
It was June 8, 1972, the second time in his service during the Vietnam War that Murphy had been shot down. This time, instead of rescue, Murphy would wind up as a prisoner war of the North Vietnamese.
He spoke about this experience Saturday at VFW Post 2399 in Mineral Wells, as part of the Ralph Ripley and Weatherford chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution Vietnam War Commemoration.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of America’s ground war in Vietnam, when in March 1965, 3,500 U.S. Marines were deployed in South Vietnam to assist against communist North Vietnamese forces. American military advisors, however, had been in country since the late 1950s, shortly after a communist insurgency ousted the French from the former French colony.
Murphy, a Mineral Wells High School graduate, served in the U.S. Air Force and flew two tours in Vietnam, one as a pilot of an F105 fighter-bomber flying bombing missions into North Vietnam in 1968, and then returning in 1972 to fly F4E Phantom fighter-bombers, perform aerial filming and mark targets in North Vietnam and Laos.
“We would put in smoke to mark targets,” he told the audience of about 70 DAR members and veterans, many of whom had served in the Vietnam War.
Thick jungle canopy hid the narrow paths that made up supply trails, and his squadron’s usual mission was to hunt targets of opportunity and call in more fighters and bombers to destroy the marked target, he said.
When Murphy was shot down the first time on Feb. 8, 1972, he bailed out over a mountainous area and was separated from his copilot throughout the night as he hid from North Vietnamese patrols and waited for rescue by Americans.
The second time he was shot down was supposed to be his last scheduled mission before heading to meet his wife, Jo, on R&R.
He and his copilot Larry Johnston were flying missions along the North Vietnamese coast when they headed out to the ocean to refuel, then came back in over the beach to search for more targets.
“We just barely got across the beach and we were hit by anti-aircraft fire,” he said.
They tried to evade the fire, he said, and turned around. That was when he felt the stick getting wobbly and he knew they had to eject.
He said the plane pitched up violently and he and Johnston ejected. He lost sight of Johnston as his vision blurred from blood trickling down his face, and it was only after he was free falling into a barrage of enemy fire that his sight came back.
As Murphy fell, still strapped in his ejector seat, 37-millimeter tracer rounds, which looked like flaming basketballs, burst around him.
He unhooked from the ejector seat and pulled his parachute with the hope that he would drift toward the sea where Navy pilots had a better chance to rescue him, rather than drift to the land where North Vietnamese forces had fired on him and might capture him. As much as he tried to get to the ocean, Murphy drifted toward land, where the North Vietnamese found and captured him, stripping him of his radio and binding his arms with wires.
After spending weeks heading deeper into North Vietnam with his captors, he was taken first to a small jungle camp and held in a bamboo cage with several other South Vietnamese and American prisoners.
Throughout his experience as a POW, his captors kept him in a psychological tangle, threatening to kill him and telling him his copilot was dead. One captor might threaten to kill him, while another helped keep mosquitoes off him with mosquito netting. He was often kept in leg irons with fellow prisoners and usually fed bowls of rice about twice each day.
After spending about two months in small camps, the POWs were taken to Hanoi and held in what was a former French plantation, along with 144 other American prisoners.
In December of 1972, he was transferred to the infamous Hanoi Hilton POW camp.
All this time, his family, living in Lubbock, had no idea where he was, he said. He was officially listed as missing in action.
In January of 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, officially ending America’s involvement in Vietnam, and Murphy, along with other fellow POWs, was released in March 1973.
Almost 800 POWs, both military and civilian, were returned to the U.S. and other countries, including Germany, Murphy said.
After the war, Murphy learned his copilot was not killed, but had, indeed, made it to the water when he bailed out and was picked up by a U.S. Navy helicopter.