4 American POWs Who Defied the Odds to Stay Alive

American POWs
Army veteran William H. Funchess is a survivor. A survivor of war, and a former war prisoner. That’s why he’s called “The Unbreakable Tiger”. Credit: Clemson.

American POWs have some of the most powerful and important stories to share.

War takes lives, but it can also take prisoners; becoming a POW, or Prisoner of War, has been a terrible reality for many of our veterans.  They speak of horrors that most people – thankfully – will never know.

These brave warriors showed unquestionable strength, even when their service took a turn for the worse. They embody the unbreakable American spirit; and, as they become fewer and fewer, it’s even more critical to talk about what they went through.

One such man was Senator John McCain, who suffered at the hands of his captors in Hanoi, Vietnam for over five years. McCain served honorably and went on to become a significant political figure and even ran for president in 2008. 

Here are four more American POWs, each with their own unique story of survival.

 

1. Ben Skardon 

Col. Skardon survived the Bataan Death March in World War II. This infamous march took place after the three-month Battle of Bataan in the Philippines; Japanese Imperial Forces forced thousands of Filipino and American soldiers to march for 81 miles. 

The march was interspersed with beatings and murders, resulting in a high number of fatalities. It was later labeled a Japanese war crime. 

After Skardon reached Camp O’Donnell – somehow still alive – he was imprisoned in Japanese POW camps for 1,255 days. He became violently ill with malaria, beriberi and an eye infection. 

“I owe my life to Henry Leitner and Otis Morgan,” said Skardon in a USA Today article

The two men were fellow Clemson students, and cared for Skardon through his illnesses. Neither survived the war. 

Once, desperately hungry, Skardon traded his Clemson class ring for food. After his release he would go on to become an English professor at Clemson. Today he is 102 years old, and whenever he hears the national anthem he is overcome with memories. 


American POWs
Retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Skardon completes his 10th memorial walk for the Bataan Death March; he also got another class ring. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ken Scar).

2. Dewey Waddell 

Col. Waddell was shot down in his plane over North Vietnam in July of 1967, and subsequently listed as MIA (Missing In Action) by the Air Force. Because his parachute hadn’t fully deployed, he feared that his friends and family would think he was dead. 

“One of the first thoughts I had when I was sitting on the ground was, Everybody I see from now on may be wanting to kill me. That focuses your attention. But conveniently they didn’t try to kill me. They just wanted to capture me,” Waddell said in an interview by TIME.

Held in the “Hanoi Hilton” with many other American POWs, Waddell was played war crime confessions from his fellow soldiers. Then he was dressed in his soiled flight suit and led to a rice field, where he was forced to march as a camera followed him. 

The cameraman was part of an East German team creating a docuseries called Pilots in Pajamas. It led to this infamous picture of Waddell, tied at the wrists and guarded by a Vietnamese militawoman. 


American POWs
Maj. Dewey “Wayne” Waddell in a Vietnamese rice field, 1967. (Photo by Billhardt/ullstein bild via Getty Images).

It was also the reason his family learned he was alive. Though he was ordered to keep his gaze on the ground, Waddell’s eyes flickered to the camera when he neared it, hoping someone from home would miraculously recognize him. And it worked. In 1968 the Air Force changed his status to POW. 

In March 1973, Waddell was released. The picture of him in the rice field has made it onto a magazine and book cover. Now in his eighties, he’s retired and living in Marietta, GA. He’s since visited Hanoi again and toured his former prison. 

 

3. Robert Wideman

LCdr Wideman is a Vietnam POW and Navy pilot. He was flying off the coast of North Vietnam when he lost control of his A-4 Skyhawk and was forced to eject. After he washed ashore he came upon a Vietnamese soldier and a group of villagers watching him. 

They stripped him down and marched him to a hut where he silently hoped for rescue. But no rescue came. Instead, he walked for miles and was loaded into a truck before being taken into a dark room and interrogated. 

In this article from KUNC, Wideman recounts his interrogation: 

The interrogator says, “What’s your name?”

I says, “Robert Wideman.”

He says, “How old are you?”

I says, “23.”

And he says, “What city are you from?”

I says, “I can’t answer that question.”

He says, “Well, if you don’t answer I’m going to have my guards take you out and shoot you.”

When Wideman didn’t give in, the interrogator pulled his ropes so tightly around his wrists that his arms started turning purple. They said he would lose his arms if he didn’t start talking. So, he told them. And the interrogations – along with the torture – would continue. 

Wideman’s story is as real as it gets, and many American POWs can relate to his raw recollection of torture in Vietnam. You can read more about it in his book, Unexpected Prisoner.

He was imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton along with many others, including Waddell and Sen. McCain. Rescue came six years later with the end of the war. In fact, their rescue was filmed, and Wideman watched it back years later. The date was March 4, 1973. He was shown walking up and shaking the hand of an American officer. Then he boarded a plane. 

“Boy, the plane took off and the wheels came in and I started crying,” Wideman said.

After he returned home, Wideman became a lawyer. It was decades later in the mid-’90s that he started teaching pilots to fly through simulators. Now, he’s retired and living in Fort Collins, CO. He has six grandchildren. 


Robert Wideman
Wideman holds a photo of himself as a young Navy pilot, and a telegram they sent his father when we went missing. Credit: KUNC.

2. Bill Funchess

1st Lt. Funchess is one of few American POWs who spent over 1,000 days as a prisoner of the North Korean Army. His entire platoon was captured or killed. 

In Pyoktong, North Korea, he was forced to move the bodies of other American soldiers. He said this of the burials:

“We could not sing a hymn or say any words. We could not read any scripture. There had to be total silence.”

Funchess was later labeled a war criminal for speaking out against communist propaganda and defending American troops. 34 months after his capture, he was set free. Now he is 91 and still talks about his experiences.


Bill Funchess
Bill Funchess reunites with his wife for the first time since his release. Credit: Clemson.

As a POW, one of his saving graces was a Bible he kept with him; he would read Psalm 23 to other men to keep their spirits up. Whenever it was confiscated, he would always find it again (and still has it today). It reads, in part:

“Even though I walk 

through the darkest valley,

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;”

“Surely your goodness and love will follow me

all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord

forever.”

 

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