Back in 1964, Navy aviator Charles Klusmann was shot down in Laos during a reconnaissance mission and was captured by the communist Pathet Lao guerrillas. He was the first U.S. pilot to become an enemy prisoner during the Vietnam War, and amazingly, after three months of captivity, also became the first to escape from a POW camp and make it back home.
“I was very fortunate,” Klusmann, who today is dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, recalled in a 2014 interview. He felt compelled to escape, he recalled, because he feared that his captors “would send me to North Vietnam, and from there maybe to Russia.”
But Klusmann’s life and career path was altered by the experience, according to his wife, Ellen Ammons Klusmann. Though he regained the 30 or 40 pounds that he lost in captivity, he spent more than a decade struggling with various mysterious ailments that may have been the result of exposure to unfamiliar infectious diseases from southeast Asia. “There were times when he would zone out and break out in a sweat and not know where he was,” his wife recalled.
And although Klusmann remained in the Navy for another decade and a half before retiring as a captain in 1980, she believes that he was passed over for combat command opportunities because of his history of being a POW. “I guess they were trying to protect him,” Mrs. Klusmann says.
Nevertheless, Klusmann served his country in other ways. As a result of insights that he provided during his debriefing, for example, the U.S. Navy made numerous changes in its pilots’ survival preparations, from equipping them with better maps to outfitting them with flight boots with grooved soles instead of smooth ones, so they would have better traction if they had to evade capture on the ground. Eventually, the service opened a jungle survival school for pilots in the Philippines, where the training was influenced by Klusmann’s account of his ordeal, according to his wife.
Klusmann also frequently traveled around the country, speaking to local civic groups about his wartime experiences, and serving as a liaison between the Navy and families of service members. “He’d take the time to speak to anybody who wanted to hear his story,” Mrs. Klusmann recalls.
After the war ended, Klusmann became an executive officer on the U.S.S. Lexington, where he helped train new pilots learning the difficult feat of landing on a ship at sea.
After leaving the Navy in 1980, Klusmann worked nine years for aircraft manufacturer Lockheed in Atlanta as an aeronautical engineer, and then put in another five years at Northrup Grumman in the Baltimore area. In the mid-1990s, he retired for good, and he and Mrs. Klusmann moved to Pensacola, a Naval aviation center that’s home to many other retirees from the service. It’s also home to the National Naval Aviation Museum, which in 2014 unveiled an exhibit about Klusmann’s ordeal and escape.
Even in retirement, Klusmann began experiencing new problems related to his captivity. He began having nightmares from post-traumatic stress disorder, and began taking antidepressants to cope with them. He also needed to be hospitalized for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which his wife believes was caused at least in part by exposure to smoke from fires in prison camp.
Then, about four years ago, Klusmann began experiencing memory problems. Doctors diagnosed him as suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. The progressive disorder has left the once-resourceful pilot increasingly dependent upon his wife for assistance.
But even though Alzheimer’s has eroded some of Klusmann’s recollections, he still vividly remembers one of the things he did after returning from captivity. While serving a tour of duty in Texas, he organized a food and clothing drive to assist needy children in the country where he had been a prisoner. “We ended up gathering two-and-a-half tons of food, canned milk, and clothing,” he recalls in a brief phone conversation. “I got the Navy to fly it to San Diego, and they got it onto a ship to Thailand, and then to Laos.” One small part of the shipment, he recalls, was a blanket contributed by his own young daughter.
The experience of being a prisoner, Klusmann explains, left him with a heightened sense of compassion. “You can’t go through something like that without being heavily influenced,” he says. “Seeing all the people over there, you just wanted to do something to help them.”