Air Force Lt. Col. Donald “Digger” Odell, a fighter pilot from Harrison Township was shot down during the Vietnam War and remained a Prisoner of War for five a half years.
Shared here to illustrate what the first moments of his life was like as a POW are excerpts from a narrative that ran in the Macomb Daily on May 21, 1973. It was part of a five-part series on Odell, who received the Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal for Valor, Purple Heart and Air Force Commendation Medal among other awards and decorations.
Odell’s horrific day
Just before dusk on the evening of October 17, 1967, the day my F-105D fighter bomber was shot down as I flew my 17th bombing mission over North Vietnam, I stood before a large group of villagers, my hands tied tightly behind me, naked except for my shorts.
Already bruised and bleeding from beatings by the villagers who had surrounded me when I parachuted from my burning plane into a rice paddy, I had just been pulled from a thatched hut by four stocky militiamen who pointed their weapons toward a patch, which wound beyond the hut to a ribbon of dirt road.
I assumed this would be the point at which a vehicle would take me into Hanoi. I wondered if I would be taken to the famed Hoalo Prison (named the Hanoi Hilton by earlier prisoners of war). I also wondered at the absence of the villagers who had been clamoring at me all day. Yet, I saw no one except for the four militiamen. The silence after the hate-filled screaming of the crowd earlier in the day should have been a signal but I was too tired and sore to realize anything other than that I was being taken to a prison camp.
As I rounded the corner of the hut, I saw the reason for the silence and absence of villagers.
Ahead of me in the gathering darkness, I saw the path was lined four and five deep by some 250 men, women and children from nearby villages. In their hands they held clubs, bamboo spears, stones and chunks of dirt. As they spotted me, they began shouting and gesturing. They became more frenzied and agitated as I neared them. The absolute hatred in their eyes sent a chill through me.
Two small boys clutching bamboo spears darted from the edge of the group nearest me, lips set grimly and eyes glaring with hate. Jabbing and poking, they danced around me. I felt sharp pains as the spears pierced my thighs and legs. I tried to draw away but my guards pushed me toward the crowd, the two boys scampering back as I was jostled forward.
With the guards pushing at me, I reached the beginning of the gauntlet line.
Similar village gauntlet with unidentified POW
The actions of the boys had really fired up the others. Their chattering reached a high pitch and everyone was screaming and shouting at me, all the time raining blows with fists, clubs, and hoe handles, jabbing with spears and growing rocks and clods of dirt. I could feel blood running from my nose and forehead. My lips were cut and swollen.
I periodically opened and shut my eyes, partly for protection and also to see whether I had neared the end of the line. But I was only about halfway through. I was getting dizzy and I stumbled, a couple of times, but I hadn’t fallen.
Stay on your feet, I kept telling myself. Stay on your feet. You’ll make it.
Then through half-closed eyes I saw a rather tall Vietnamese step out of the crowd directly in front of me. In his right hand he carried a hacksaw, somewhat rusted and bent. He reached forward and with his left hand grabbed the back of my head and forced me down in a bowed position. I felt something scraping and searing pain across my back and neck. As I struggled futilely in his grasp I twisted my head and saw his right arm pumping the saw across my back.
My God, I thought, instinctively tightening my neck muscles. He’s trying to saw my head off.
It’s at this point that the militiamen pushed the man off but he continued to attack Odell with his fists.
This excited the crowd who renewed their frenzy further. AT one point Odell managed to struggle to his feet but was kicked to the ground by the tall man with the saw.
Now the clubs, fists and spears were really working on me and, half conscious, I felt myself being dragged upright and pushed forward by the militia. For the first time I began to doubt that I would come out of this ordeal alive.
At that moment, the words to the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” popped into my head.
I shut out everything that was happening to me. I seemed to lose all fear. I know I walked a little straighter down the path lined with my tormentors. I remember thinking the worst these people could do was kill me.
Almost to the end of the gauntlet line the crowd began to close in on Odell and his captures. Even the smallest of children joined in. A bloody-lipped Odell tried to smile at one youngster who was about 5 or 6 years old.
His only reaction was to spit and slap at me. I was now totally encircled and felt death closing in on me. The militiamen pushed me to the ground where I sat hunched over as they tried to beat off the surging crowd. But it was futile. Seated there amid a tangle of bare legs churning the dirt, the blows and what I assumed to be accompanying curses I mumbled a prayer.
It was answered by an old Vietnamese man armed with a machine gun who gestured for the crowd to back away. Then, he and the guards broke into a building where they kept Odell safe for transport to a POW camp. the villagers remained pounding on the doors and shouting but eventually gave up. Huddled on the floor in silence, Odell believed he had survived the first real test of what he could take mentally and physically.
As it turned out there were to be many such tests ahead for me.
Brian Bobek, President of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 154, left, and retired Lt. Col. Donald “Digger” Odell visit Resurrection Cemetery where the new POW memorial will be unveiled on Sept. 16. Ray Skowronek–The Macomb Daily
This article was originally posted in the Macomb Daily newspaper on Sept. 13, 2016 by Gina Joseph and posted here with permission. Here is the direct link for the article: http://www.macombdaily.com/general-news/20160913/col-odell-tells-his-pow-story
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