National Vietnam War Veterans Day

CAPT Kay Russell

March 29 is National Vietnam War Veterans Day. Two years ago, we were fortunate to receive a donation from the son of CAPT Kay Russell, a naval aviator who served time in a North Vietnamese POW (prisoner of war) camp. When I first saw the shirt he wore as a POW and the letters he wrote home to his family, I was touched by the deeply personal nature of this collection, and I knew that we had to share it with our visitors.

Kay Russell was born in 1934 in Stephenville, Texas. He earned his commission through the NROTC program at Rice University in 1956. Russell graduated from flight training in 1958 and flew F4D Skyrays with VF(AW)-3 at NAS North Island, California. The following year he switched to the FJ-3 Fury and then again to the F-8 Crusader, ultimately taking an assignment with VU-7 at NAAS Brown Field, California. After a number of intermediate assignments, he joined VF-211 at NAS Miramar and was deployed to Vietnam aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31) in January 1966. On May 19, 1967, LCDR Russell’s section of four aircraft was engaged by a MiG-17 while flying over North Vietnam. As the American aircraft began to maneuver, Russell’s wingman reported seeing an explosion followed by falling metal fragments. Thankfully, he also spotted a parachute on the ground soon after. As Russell jokingly told an audience years later, he managed to evade capture “for fully thirty seconds” before enemy soldiers found him.

POW uniform worn by LCDR Russell
Naval War College Museum Collection
(click to enlarge)
Letter written by LCDR Russell to his family in 1970
Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College

Upon his arrival in Hanoi, Russell’s captors gave him a striped uniform to wear complete with an identification number. This marked the beginning of 2,117 days - nearly five and a half years - spent in captivity. To pass the time, Russell composed songs that he sang in hushed tones with the other prisoners in his cell. He quickly learned the tap code that POWs used to communicate between cells and even led church services in the afternoons. Like his fellow prisoners, Russell endured periodic beatings and torture at the hands of his guards. Holidays were an especially difficult time for the POWs. Fortunately for them, the Red Cross was occasionally allowed access to their camps and delivered letters from home whenever possible. Russell took advantage of their visits to send letters to his family and let them know that he was thinking of them. Interestingly, the Navy also used the opportunity to look for clues about conditions inside the camps based on Russell’s letters. Analysts studied his handwriting and noted the tone of his letters. From this, they determined that his physical condition was weak, though not dangerously so, and that he was standing up well to the mental stress of captivity.

(click to enlarge)
Analysis of LCDR Russell's Letter
Naval Historical Collection, U.S. Naval War College
CDR Russell and his fellow POWs were finally released as part of Operation Homecoming on March 4, 1973. Following recovery from his injuries, Russell returned to active status with the Navy. He joined the faculty of the Naval War College in 1976 where he served as the head of the Strategy & Policy division for correspondence courses and taught in the Department of Strategy. CAPT Russell passed away on active duty in 1979. His awards include the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star with Valor, and the Purple Heart.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum


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