Thomas Van Putten was born on September 12, 1947, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He enlisted in the U.S. Army on September 15, 1966, and completed basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in November 1966. Pvt Van Putten next attended advanced individual training as a construction machine operator at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, from November 1966 to January 1967, followed by service as a construction machine operator with the 362nd Engineer Company and with Company C of the 588th Engineer Battalion in South Vietnam from February 1967 until he was captured and taken as a Prisoner of War on February 11, 1968. After spending 412 days in captivity, SP5 Van Putten escaped from his captors on March 28, 1969, and made it to friendly forces on April 17, 1969. He then returned to the United States and was briefly hospitalized to recover from his injuries at the U.S. Naval Hospital at Great Lakes, Illinois, from April to July 1969.
Mr. Van Putten was a 20-year-old construction machine operator with the Army’s 79th Engineer Group when he was captured in February 1968 while helping build a Special Forces camp in Tay Ninh Province. Putten operated a road grader on that fate fateful day in February, 1968. During his captivity, Van Putten attempted to escape on two prior occasions but he was successful in his third attempt. His captors came after him, but he managed to elude them and other Viet Cong who came nearby, once as close as 15 to 20 feet, by hiding and following a river.
An Army helicopter crew from C Troop, 3d Squadron, 17th Air Cavalry, spotted him after 18 days. He was signaling an OH-6A Light Observation Helicopter flying a visual reconnaissance mission in Tay Ninh Province. The pilot at first thinking he was an enemy soldier but quickly recognizing he was a G.I.
According to WO1 Gary D. Gray, Ketchum, Oklahoma, pilot of the helicopter, “We weren’t sure this wasn’t a VC trick, so we took our time looking the man over before we went in for him.” As soon as they were sure the man on the ground was an American the Air Cav Pilots set the LOH down and picked up the wandering soldier. Van Putten had escaped from the VC early in April and had been roaming the jungle for nearly three weeks looking for friendly forces.
The rescuers, WO1 Gray, 1LT Claude M. Nix, Dalton, Georgia, and SP4 Dale E. Wampler, Lake Stevens, Washington, were flying their mission in support of the 25th Infantry Division when SP4 Wampler spotted Van Putten wandering aimlessly in the jungle below.
Crew chief Wampler said, “When we sat down to pick him up, boy he was really in rough looking. He jumped inside, grabbed me by the shoulders and said, ‘I love you’ .” The next thing Van Putten said was that he was hungry. After a quick snack of canned fruit he told the crew his story.
“Boy that guy sure was happy to be back,” reported the sharp eyed crew chief, after the Air Cav team had turned Van Putten in to the 45th Surgical Hospital in Tay Ninh.
Van Putten remained in the Army and served at bases both in Europe and the United States – mostly in construction, but spent almost two years as a trainer with a Basic Training unit in Fort Ord, CA. He was honorable discharge from the Army on September 12, 1975. As a veteran, he told many high school students, civic groups and others about his Vietnam War experience and even spoke at schools. Thomas H. Van Putten had a leg amputated in September 1990 as a result of complications stemming from injuries during his captivity. He resided in Michigan with his wife, Evelee until his death. Thomas Van Putten died on October 25, 2008, and was buried at the Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
His Silver Star Citation reads:
Specialist Five Thomas H. Van Putten distinguished himself by outstanding gallantry in action on 28 March 1969 while a prisoner of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. On 28 March 1969, after more than one year in a Viet Cong prison camp and after attempting to escape on two previous occasions, he was able to deceive his guard and slip unnoticed from the rear of his bunker into the thick jungle surrounding the POW Camp. For 21 days, Specialist Van Putton utilized every bit of training he possessed, continuously evading the Viet Cong attempts to recapture him, and narrowly missed being recaptured on two separate occasions. In one instance he placed his black colored underpants over his head for camouflage, and getting into the water, pulled himself along with his hands on the bottom of the stream to a position down-stream and away from the enemy. Over the 21-day evasion period he survived on a frog, lizard and a few pieces of sour fruit. Specialist Van Putton’s determination and internal fortitude were demonstrated by continuous movement toward what he believed to be friendly positions. Upon recovery by United States forces he was so weak that he could only walk 15 or 20 feet at a time before blacking out and collapsing. Upon return to United States control, he sought to provide information in order to assist in the rescue and recovery of his comrades still in enemy hands. Specialist Van Putton’s burning determination to escape, undiminished after two unsuccessful attempts, his clearheadedness in formulating an effective plan and his audacity in executing it successfully, reflect the highest credit on his professionalism and courage and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service.
Information for this article was obtained from: Veteran Tributes, POW Network, Militarytime.com, http://www.Mlive.com, and Hawk Magazine.
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