By Commander Jack H. Fellowes, U. S. Navy, with Lisa Hillman
John Heaphy “Jack” Fellowes (November 22, 1932 – May 3, 2010) was the the pilot of an A-6 Intruder from squadron VA-65 operating from the USS Constellation (CV-64), on his 55th bombing mission when he and his Bombardier–Navigator, Lieutenant, Junior Grade George Thomas Coker, were shot down over North Vietnam on August 27, 1966. He was known as “Happy Jack” because of his infectious sense of humor, which he maintained even while a POW. He was awarded the Silver Star for his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” while a POW, credited with “contributed significantly toward the eventual abandonment of harsh treatment by the North Vietnamese. He retired at the rank of Captain.
This article by Commander Fellowes was originally published in the December 1976 issue of Naval Proceedings. (Click to view the original article)
The emotional airport welcome for Commander Fellowes in March 1973 marked the end of six years of longing and waiting, both for him and for the members of his family. While he was in North Vietnamese prisons, he had changed, and so had they. Returning him to American soil was only the first step in a process that would attempt to strip away the effects of those six years and restore him to his roles as husband, father and naval officer.
On the morning of 7 March 1973, I was suddenly awakened by the quietness in my room. Everything seemed so still. I opened my eyes, stared at the ceiling, and blinked again. No mosquito net? Not here, you lucky dog. Light filtered in the window from the sun just rising over the Chesapeake Bay. The room was glowing warmly. My wife was asleep beside me.
It seemed so long ago that I had been flying my A-6 Intruder from the deck of the USS Constellation (CVA-64). We’d been located in the Gulf of Tonkin for two months when I flew off on that fateful mission to dive-bomb a pontoon bridge in the Vinh area. Approaching the target, the airplane suddenly rocked with two explosions. My right wing was torn from the airplane, and I had to eject. I landed in a small hamlet in the middle of a workday. Surrounding me, almost immediately, were scores of Vietnamese-soldiers, peasants, and women with hatchets.
For the next six and one-half years I lived in five different prisoner of war camps in North Vietnam. I was luckier than some. I had to endure only 15 months solo compared to as much as four years for others. My lowest point during those years was 10 September 1966. After a 12-hour torture session in which I resisted my captors’ attempts to force a statement condemning my country, I lost the use of both arms for the next four months.
Now I was in the Naval Hospital at Portsmouth, Virginia. Eight of us had arrived the day before to spend six weeks in a concentrated period of rehabilitation. Several more weeks of post-hospital care would follow. This was my first morning. Getting to the head to shave was my most pressing concern. Although I’d shaved and showered and scrubbed at least once an hour since my release on 4 March, it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough to wash away the years of dirt.
The eight of us at Portsmouth were fortunate. This was the only naval hospital where returning POWs could have their wives as roommates. Each couple was assigned a separate “suite” on the 12th Boor: two hospital rooms adjoined by a private bath. In one room the beds had been replaced by comfortable chairs, a desk, and a small dining table to form a kind of sitting room. The other served as the bedroom.
While Pat slept, I luxuriated in the hot water. When I was washed and dressed, I took a look at the digital clock by the bed. It wasn’t even 0630 yet. How could I sleep when today would begin a more traumatic and emotional period in my life than even my prison term? I’d been prepared for the eventuality of being a POW, but no one had prepared me for returning home. A favorite maxim crossed my mind: today was the first day of the rest of my life.
Not wanting to wake Pat from the first restful sleep she’d had in those long, hard years, I stepped out into the hall. There was no movement there either. The only two people in sight were Marine guards, one posted at either end of the hallway. I’d seen them the night before, but in the reunion with my family after an eternity of longing, I hadn’t really noticed them. They weren’t there to keep us in, but to keep others out. We were being protected from the rest of the world until the Navy made sure we were all right.
In prison we had considered ourselves losers. Here we were, sitting out the war while our shipmates had to take over our duties. We were fighting our own kind of war in which defeating the enemy meant communicating over walls and remaining silent during interrogations. We never labeled this “heroism.” To us the heroes were those actively engaged in the war effort.
In 1972, a group of recently-shot-down pilots first brought the term “heroism” into camp. They told us what was going on at home to prepare for our return. C-141s were standing by to fly us out. Each of us was being assigned an officer to help him through the transition, and our names were etched on bracelets! America was actively concerned about us. We were told that our biggest problem would be handling this image. To the American people, we were heroes.
Kings never had better treatment than we POWs experienced. The officer assigned to help me was Commander John Holtzclaw, a fighter pilot who had volunteered to assist in Operation Homecoming. As I stood there talking with John in the hallway that first morning, a man in a white smock walked up to us and asked, “Everything okay? They treating you all right?”
“Outstanding!” was all I could reply.
“Well, if you need anything don’t hesitate to let us know,” he smiled.
I wondered how I could possibly need anything when suddenly I had everything! But I thought quickly, then blurted out, “Well, there is one thing I could use. Maybe just some cigarettes or where to find some?”
“Fine,” he said, and then he was gone. The next thing I knew the refrigerator down the hall was stacked with four boxes of cigars and 13 cartons of cigarettes. The following day, when the man appeared again in our hallway, I caught up to thank him and reached for my wallet.
“Oh, no,” he smiled as he walked away. I turned to John and asked, “Who was that guy?”
“That’s Rear Admiral [Willard P.] Arentzen,” he said, “He owns the hospital.”
Later I learned it was because of this man that we’d been given the luxury of the double-room suite. Other hospitals were sending their men home after half a day. But Admiral Arentzen had argued we needed time to be together with our wives, away from the rest of our families. His staff said putting up eight men with their wives would be too costly. The government wouldn’t pay for it. “We’ll do it anyway,” the admiral replied, and the eight couples have been eternally grateful. Sure, we felt we deserved such treatment. After the hell we’d been through, who wouldn’t? But at the same time we knew this was costing the taxpayers extra money, and it humbled us. There was always a conflict. We felt we’d earned all the good things that were coming to us. But when we received each kindness, our surprise and appreciation were boundless.
The courtesies, casual, offhanded, but always indicating someone had gone out of his way, were common on the 12th floor. So were the white smocks. Everyone wore them, nurses and doctors of all ranks. Meeting Admiral Arentzen had taught me a lesson. From then on I wasn’t taking any chances. I “sirred” everyone.
That made Jim Scutero wonder a bit about me when we met. Scutero was my doctor, and when he came into my room that first morning, I responded to all his questions with a proper “Yes, Sir.” After all, I was only a commander, promoted while in prison. All the doctors I’d met so far had been captains. The night we returned, all of them had been in uniform. Though Dr. Scutero had never worn his, I assumed he was of higher rank also. I soon discovered he was a lieutenant commander and dropped all formalities instantly.
For his part, Lieutenant Commander Scutero had never shown any. He bounced into my room, propped his feet up on the desk, and cheerfully finished my wife’s bacon, eggs, and two slices of toast. I watched as he made himself at home, then suddenly leaned over and took my blood pressure. Without dropping a crumb, he checked my eyes, ears, and reflexes. Lighting up a cigarette, he told me not to smoke, then popped out a few more questions. Just as suddenly, both he and the hour were gone. The next time my blood pressure was taken, it wasn’t Scutero at my side, and the count went way up.
Our match had been made in heaven. Each POW had his own physician, based upon the wife’s prior description of his personality. Lieutenant Commander Scutero was my best clue to what Pat really thought of me! A chest specialist, someone whom the nurses referred to as a “dirty old man,” he was less than conventional and perfect for me. We met each morning for an hour. During the next few weeks of very thorough physical and psychological testing, he saved me from medical horrors more than once.
Our schedule every day was basically the same: physical testing from 0800 to 1100, break for lunch, and more testing from 1300 to 1600. 1600 to 1800 was reserved for debriefing. Evenings were our own. During all of this, the Navy showed tremendous care. If I walked down the hall and needed something, anything, a nurse was there to get it. If I needed responses written to some of the many, many letters I was getting, or an extra pair of shoes, or a scheduling conflict resolved, I had my aide to help me. When we went for blood tests or dental checks, other patients in the hospital were asked to wait, and they did, willingly. We finally turned to one of the nurses one day and asked, “Why are you doing all this? We’re just guys.”
“No,” she replied, her gaze steady, “you’re not.”
The American people had gone a long way to bring us home. Now they were going at least as far to be sure we were well. Most of us weren’t. Unfortunately, we all suffered from rather nasty little friends who had been with us for years: worms. Of the four strains, the most difficult to knock out were the whip worms. These little fellows, visible only through a microscope, had entered our bodies through our feet and made their home just above our intestines. Three or four doses of a strong, thick liquid usually washed them out of our systems. In me, however, the little buggers hung on.
Another problem was a bit more serious. Because of an “interrogation” I’d endured during my early years in prison, the nerves in my hands were damaged. Twelve hours in ropes, cleverly tied to extract information, had left their mark.
I was luckier than I’d originally thought. For four months following this session, there had been no feeling in my arms or hands at all. They hung limp at my sides, and I feared they were permanently paralyzed. Now, the feeling was returning, but it was not the same as it was before. As though some operator had made the wrong connection, the nerves were retaliating for the abuse they had received. The ones in my hands were sending out peculiar burning sensations, like an irritant under the skin I couldn’t reach.
Four hours of testing, during which my hands and fingers were prodded by electric needles, decided the need for an operation to help speed the regeneration process. One other problem would remain forever. Because of the maltreatment and the resulting infection, the fingers of my left hand had shrunk to a ring size one and one-half times smaller than before.
Nevertheless, I was lucky. My two problems were solved by other POWs. Jim Mulligan got the worm cure. During a two and one-half hour procedure, a long probe was inserted with a 20-centimeter-long tube to spray and flush out the miscreants. The operation didn’t cure Jim, but my worms heard about it. After a few more martinis, they died of natural cases.
The same miraculous cure was repeated in my hands. This time Commander Ned Shuman took my place. After a three-hour operation, Ned returned with a 5-inch gash down his arm and the knowledge that he did have nerve damage. Unfortunately, there was nothing more that could be done.
Lieutenant Commander Scutaro saved me from all this. Bouncing into my room one of those bright mornings, he described Mulligan’s worm cure. The next morning he described Shuman’s operation. Both times he said, “Let’s wait.” Although he was actually quite eager to take a look at my arm and see what could be done, he let somebody else go first. I never had to have the discomfort of the worm treatment, minor though it was, any exploratory surgery, nor a long scar down my arm. Dr. Scutaro’s protectiveness epitomized the Navy’s help and concern for us.
The most immediate problem for most of the POWs was dental. In prison I had broken three teeth, and the pain of one had plagued me for six months before returning home. Oddly enough, we broke our teeth eating rice. The Vietnamese stored their rice in large bags. When they broke one open, they simply swept the spilled grains off the streets. We could detect the black rocks, but the small white stones were invisible. This never bothered the Vietnamese, who suck their rice. We, in good old American style, bit right in. Despite the constant agony a sore tooth brings, we all chose to wait for the friendlier hands at home.
In addition to the physical problems we had were the psychological or mental ones we were supposed to have. After all, prison life is different. We’d established a new way of living in seven years, and now everything was different. I knew more about those guys and their families than most people know about their own families in a lifetime. We’d had a very close organization, and suddenly I was breaking away from that organization, coming into a new one. I had come back to where I was before, only it wasn’t as it was before. Now there was long hair where there had been short and teenagers where there had been toddlers. The potential shock and emotional trauma warned those entrusted with our care to watch out. They feared they might even lose a few of us.
The morning I met my psychiatrist, I informed him right away: “You know, of course, that I’m crazy,” I joked. That single statement, alone and unadulterated, blocked me for two days. The basic purpose of the psychiatric interview was to clear us so we could walk the streets unescorted. For the past three days, I’d had Commander Holtzclaw walking along beside me. John was a fine fellow, so fine, in fact, I was sure he was capable of far greater accomplishments than walking me to the drugstore every day. But now Lieutenant Commander Fisher, whom we called “Dr. Mouse” for his short, unsmiling appearance, was worried. Not only had this POW confessed his insanity; he’d done it cheerfully!
I later learned that my happy-go-lucky spirit had insulted him. Because of the shock and sudden readjustment to society, I was supposed to be more depressed, even bitter. Commander Holtzclaw informed me that “Dr. Mouse” thought I wasn’t playing the game. Not only wasn’t I depressed enough, but I was calling everyone “Sir.” My error with Jim Scutero and Admiral Arentzen had returned to haunt me. Dr. Fisher was interpreting this in his own way: the man’s been repressed for so many years, now he calls everyone “Sir.”
We met every three days. Finally, during our third meeting, I sat down and addressed him candidly. “Look,” I said, “let’s get something straight. Let’s talk about me before prison, then during prison, then after prison. I was happy when I went in, I laughed a lot while I was there, and I ain’t about to change now.”
He looked at me, and I could see the look was different. From that day on, he finally allowed me to walk the streets by myself. Though we were supposed to have five meetings, we had only four. Dr. Fisher’s still waiting for the fifth. One afternoon he telephoned and spoke with my wife. Although we will never be sure, Pat sensed, intuitively, that he wanted to talk with me, not for my well-being, but his own. Perhaps Dr. Fisher was gaining an insight into the survivability of man. He discovered he was dealing with someone who returned after six and one-half years strong and eager to resume normal life. I can only guess that in his daily practice he did not meet many patients with such a positive approach, and that my outlook was helping his own. I found the possibility that I might have something to offer others fascinating. It was one of my earliest realizations that I had actually gained something rather than lost during all those years.
Of all the Naval personnel who worked so diligently, eagerly, and enthusiastically, to help us, the psychologist bothered me the most. At least, it began that way. It was the first time I’d seen a naval officer with long hair, mustache, and a beard. That started it. Then it was the way he looked at me. He stared. The whole time he was running me through all kinds of tests—the ink blots, memory retention, and general information—he stared.
I finally told Commander Scutero that I wanted no more. I’d been stared at long enough, and now I was a free man and didn’t want it anymore. The experience, obviously, was frightening to me, and I was surprised a little at my strong reaction to it. But this was only my first week home. I needed more time. If the experience was upsetting to me, it was even more upsetting to the staff. Scutero’s face fell, and he calmly, but purposefully, left the room. The next time I met with my bearded friend, several days later, he smiled, we proceeded, but he didn’t stare. He was doing his own small part to make me feel more comfortable, just as everyone was, and I appreciated it.
We got along well after that, and the tests ran smoothly. Interestingly, I performed best at anything involving memory, such as the number sequences. This to me was simply a repeat of the tap code we used on the prison walls to communicate. Memory in prison had been our greatest asset, not only to relive every facet of our lives to keep our minds active, but also to keep our minds growing. If someone knew a story or a poem, we’d ask him to teach it to us just so we could memorize it. The average person today doesn’t do that. He doesn’t have time for mental gymnastics or concentrated exercises of the mind. I’d always had a good memory, the kind that recalled incidents my family had long forgotten. But it was better in prison than it’s been in my life, and it was good now only because it had been exercised continuously those long years.
All of us had been lucky that way. Our minds had fared far better than our bodies. Physically we may have looked pretty good. We were leaner and harder because we’d exercised our bodies, too. But injuries and diseases had preyed upon them that hadn’t touched our minds.
My mental outlook was healthy, and I hoped I conveyed that not only to the psychologist, but to all the medical staff. What they saw was not a man who was embittered or unhappy, or worried about his mind or body. Sure, those long years of constant mental pressure and physical harassment had to have taken some toll. I looked ten years older than I was. My hair had turned white after one day’s “interrogation,” and I would probably have high blood pressure forever. Maybe it would take five years off the end of my life, but I’d already seen what it was like to be dead, and I didn’t particularly care for that. Whereas some guys give up living ten years before they die, I won’t give up until the day I die, and maybe not even then!
My memory was tested in another way. From 1600 to 1800 every day, I was scheduled for a debriefing which lasted 14 days. Most of us hadn’t been looking forward to these sessions because we knew they would be grueling. In another way we had. We needed to talk about those experiences in detail with someone, to relive those years thoroughly, and soon. Though we could never forget them, this, at least, would help us move on.
Again, the kindness and concern shown by my country humbled me. To compile this information, Naval Reserve officers had volunteered to return to active duty. They wanted to be a part of this extensive rehabilitation program the Navy was providing for us. “Operation Homecoming” they called it, the first of its kind ever planned for returning prisoners of war. The lieu tenant and lieutenant commander intelligence specialists assigned to me had both relinquished law practices and time with their families to sit through two weeks of listening to my voice.
What amazed me most was what good conversationalists they were; they listened. The story, hopefully, was fascinating to them because they were getting it firsthand. In the archives of time those tapes might prove very valuable. Still, I often feared I might bore them, or at least wear them out.
That was never a problem. Like two little kids waiting to see the hero tumble the villain, they kept me going. They asked the questions others were afraid to ask: “What was your mental outlook during torture? Did you feel you were broken?Did you ever think you’d never come home? Describe your daily routine as precisely as you remember it.” In return, each of us felt he was contributing something to the overall story of the POWs and of those missing in action.
It was as fascinating for me as it was for them. Never before had I had the experience of sitting down with someone and talking for such lengths of time, or been listened to for so long. My kids had listened before, maybe even as long as 30 seconds! But these officers seemed sincerely interested in everything I had to say. They also seemed proud to be a part of it all. Their attitude, and the sheer amount of time devoted to my narration, contributed to that feeling I first felt at the hospital: we were different from the rest of society, or at least we were being treated as though we were. I hoped they respected me as a man, for showing strength, and for the accomplishment of survival during great duress.
To this day I’m still not sure of the purpose of this debriefing. While I’d like to believe that it will help in future SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) training, each situation is so different that it is impossible to predict the treatment and conditions future prisoners may face based upon those we faced in North Vietnam. There was one value to these sessions: therapy for me. My debriefers allowed me to ramble-like two psychiatrists listening to a patient who’d been silenced for seven years. Reliving those years was far from painful. It was more like the hot showers that were cleansing my body. This cleansed my spirit.
While the Navy probed into every aspect of our physical and mental well-being, preparing us to return to society, it was also preparing our families. Two months before we returned to Norfolk, the Navy arranged group sessions for all POW wives. The sessions were conducted by one of the staff psychiatrists. Lieutenant John Moseley cautioned the wives about potential readjustment problems and the shock of seeing their husbands again after six, seven, or eight years. The talks helped Pat and all the wives. They provided a buffer between years of waiting and the unbearable apprehension of those last days: Will I recognize him? What will he look like? Will he recognize me? And, most critical of all, will we ever be as we were before?
The only possibility Dr. Moseley didn’t prepare them for was the most obvious, that we POWs might return relatively normal. The follow-up provided by the Navy in this one area, unlike the others, may have extended too far. Predicting there would be problems, the medical staff looked for them, and perhaps, unwittingly, created some. Softball is a good example. Before I was shot down, I played the game with my two young sons, with friends, or whenever a group got together and needed a ninth. I was no Ted Williams, but Pat knew I loved sports, any sport, and she usually shrugged it off to youthful exuberance. So it wasn’t unusual for me to say yes, after I’d been home in Portsmouth a few weeks, when an old friend asked me to play. Now, however, it was an incident to discuss with Dr. Moseley. Pat claimed it was the hero syndrome again and Lieutenant Moseley topped that with, “It is immature to play softball.”
After scraping myself off the ceiling, I calmly explained that sitting on the bench nine-tenths of the game hardly qualified me as its hero. I did confess that a part of my desire to play now was to show people that I could, and that the damage to my hands wasn’t restrictive. But even more, it was a desire to return to the things I enjoyed with a renewed appreciation. If it was “immature” to play softball, I intended to remain immature the rest of my life.
Occasionally all the flattery and adulation did affect me too much. Baseball returned me to my place. I’d been asked to participate in the opening of Virginia Beach’s Little League season. A half hour before the game I joined in batting practice. The pitcher thought he’d outsmart me. This gray-haired man who’d been in jail for seven years would be a pushover. I walloped everyone into the outfield while both teams gasped from the sidelines. As I walked to the outfield to catch a few flies, one small boy caught up. From behind, I saw his mother scurrying after him. She looked panic-stricken.
“Hey, are you the guy who hit the home run?” asked the little fellow, surely no more than six years old.
“Yes, I’m the one,” I smiled down at him. Meanwhile, his mother had reached us, and I could see she was dying. After all, one just doesn’t approach returned POWs in this way. She almost fainted at the next thing that came out of his little face.
“Well how come you didn’t run the bases'”
He couldn’t have made me more speechless if he’d punched me in the stomach.
“But I was only hitting for practice,” I stammered.
“I don’t care,” he shot back at me, “My coach says you’re always supposed to run out every hit.”
I remember that baseball diamond and that little boy just as vividly today, and frequently. It helps me keep my cap on.
Throughout those weeks following my discharge from the hospital, there were adjustments, plenty of them, but they were the kind a husband and wife could handle themselves, if left alone and given time. The most immediate adjustment facing me at home was a family with children aged 9, 11, 13, and 15. Before, they had been 2, 4, 6, and 8. The chubby toddling son was suddenly thin and tall. My daughter, who hadn’t quite mastered addition and subtraction, would now be driving a car in another month. Getting back with them was critical, but, as my wife had explained the first night in the hospital when my youngest son held back, we both needed time.
Other adjustments followed as I resumed my life at home after three weeks as an in-patient at the hospital. My first shock was the master bathroom off the bedroom. Though the matter seems trivial in retrospect, it served to make me aware of how my absence had affected my wife’s personality and how it had grown and become strengthened from necessity during those years. When I left, this had been my bathroom. When I returned, I simply pushed all her things aside and made room for mine. Then Pat walked in.
“This is my bathroom,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, “It’s my bathroom!”
“No,” she said, “you’ve been gone.”
That scene was repeated innumerable times. I came home no less bullheaded and ready to take charge than when I’d left. But now I had a wife who’d been in charge and done rather well at it, too. We faced several more months of family counseling, both in Portsmouth and at my next duty station, through the Navy’s help. Adjustments, merely to each other’s presence would, again, take time. My adjustment to food, however, was a bit more instantaneous. That took about half a second. If a man can eat pumpkin soup, cabbage soup, or grass soup for seven years, he can eat steak.
One of the most drastic adjustments we had to make, and quickly, was to the “modern” times themselves. Like Rip van Winkles, we suddenly faced a world in which all things had changed: cars, clothes, technology, even attitudes towards sex. Some I liked; some I didn’t. The long hair on men bothered me. The clothes off women didn’t.
I made the classic mistake my first day in the car. Driving down the boulevard in Portsmouth, I caught sight of a beautiful blonde, long hair flowing in the breeze. My interest was piqued, so I slowed a little as I passed. When I got close enough to see “her” profile, I noticed the big, black cigar sticking out of hismouth. My hand had been out ready to wave. Instead, I suddenly developed a severe itch behind my right ear.
In June I addressed an evening class at Princess Anne High School and lamented having missed the mini and micro-mini skins. When we were shot down they hadn’t been in Style yet. Now they were going out. We’d missed the whole show! The class roared. Later, a teacher commented that one of the students had wanted to meet me, but she was working as a go-go dancer. That astounded me. The girl was only a high school junior.
This new, sudden sophistication among young people shocked me even in my own family. Driving down Virginia Beach Boulevard with my boys one day, we passed the Princess Theater, once used by the Catholic Church for Sunday meetings. Now its marquee shouted “Come Huddle with the Cheerleaders, Rated X.” My older son, John, a man of the world at age 12, uttered in his most disinterested voice, “Aw, another X-rated movie.”
This blasé attitude toward sex and nudity surprised me even in the hospital. A big part of our spare time in the evenings had been spent reviewing newsreels and movies we’d missed in our years away. The Navy provided these for us under a special program entitled “Project Update,” produced by a private corporation and dealing primarily with non-military subjects.
One evening Mike Christian, a lieutenant commander who’d been shot down in May 1967, chose “Cabaret.” Our wives and all the kids were there. I walked in on a scene in which the male star was sitting on the bed next to Liza Minnelli with his hand over her breast. I’d never seen anything like this on the screen. But what shocked me most was the reaction of my kids. They didn’t even blink.
Project Update was a marvel of synthetic creativity. Where else could you find seven years in one roomful of films) The room at the end of the hallway was open to us at all times, even at 0400 when I suddenly had the desire to catch up on all those football, baseball, and basketball games I’d missed. I pulled out “Sports Year 1971.” In 30 minutes I saw everything: Joe Namath throwing a pass, Wilt Chamberlain dunking the ball, and Johnny Bench hitting one out of the ballpark. Flash, flash, flash. The year was over.
We all knew that there simply wasn’t enough time to catch up with what we’d missed. We were doing all we could to keep up with what was going on now, and Operation Homecoming was doing its best to help POWs from all branches of service. During this period, the help concentrated on our mental and physical rehabilitation. It did not focus on our careers. While Navy personnel were ready to discuss this with us, they weren’t sure we were ready. Results of our psychiatric, psychological, and physical examinations were still being evaluated to determine what we could do.
It wasn’t until my final examination, the week before I left the hospital, that my medical team discovered I had essential hypertension. This would eliminate any future as a first line combat pilot. While this judgment would have shattered me seven years earlier, it did not bother me now. My goals had changed. Though I’d never lose my love of aviation, the frantic, hectic pace of a carrier-based pilot no longer appealed to me. My desire now was for a more relaxed tour, one in which I could learn about the Navy at my own pace. In prison I’d dreamed about the Naval Academy. I wanted to return there and watch football and baseball and all the sports I loved. Maybe I could be most productive there. The Academy became my first choice of duty.
That spring I had my first opportunity to return to Annapolis since I graduated in 1956. The Brigade of Midshipmen wanted to march in honor of those prisoners who were Academy graduates. Knowing the “fondness” midshipmen have for parades, I was particularly touched by their gesture. I was glad to be back. I was proud, yet humble at the same time. This is where I got it, I thought as the 4,000 young men saluted us. This is where I got the help to become an aviator. The faith and loyalty I had in my country grew here. So did the strength to uphold those ideals in a foreign land. To highlight the day, in a celebration which forecast things to come, I was made an honorary lifetime member of the Naval Academy Athletic Association. I resolved that day to return for duty.
During the summer, my family and I had our first vacation together in over seven years. We drove home from Orlando Beach, Florida, suntanned, happy, healthy. My thoughts kept drifting back to the Academy. All summer long, since I’d been there in the spring, I’d tried to get back there. I had been back in the house one hour on 14 August when the phone rang.
“Jack?” It was Commander Paul Skarlatos, my detailer from the Bureau. “If you want to go to the Naval Academy, you can.”
It was the best news I’d heard since “Feet wet” some five months earlier. It meant I was really home, rehabilitated and ready to go, because now I had a future.
Operation Homecoming had done its job.
Commander Fellowes graduated from The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in 1951 and then enlisted in the Navy. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1956 and received his wings as a naval aviator the following year. He has been in attack squadrons his entire flying career, serving in VA-85, VA- 42, VA-45, VA-65 on board the USS Forrestal (CVA-59) and Constellation (CVA-64 ). After six and one-half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam , he was repatriated on 4 March 1973. He (was then) attached to the Naval Academy as Special Assistant to the Athletic Director. Commander Fellowes is married to the former Patricia Watkins of Baltimore, and they have four children: Cathy, Sharon, John, and Thomas. Earlier this year, he was selected for promotion to captain.
Lisa Hillman earned her bachelor of arts degree in English in 1968 and her masters degree in education in 1969 from Goucher College in Towson , Maryland . She has been a teacher , vocational rehabilitation counselor, and staff writer for Urgo Associates in Annapolis, Maryland. Her articles are published monthly in Annapolitan and Bay Country Living magazines. She lives with her husband Richard, an attorney, and daughter Heidi in Annapolis where she is active in community affairs