COLLINS, THOMAS E. III
Name: Thomas E. Collins III Rank/Branch: United States Air Force/O3 Unit: 68TFS 8 TFW Date of Birth: 27 December 1937 Home City of Record: Utica MS Date of Loss: 18 October 1965 Country of Loss: North Vietnam Loss Coordinates: 180500 North 1054800 East Status (in 1973): Returnee Category: Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: F4C Missions: 35 Other Personnel in Incident: Ed Brudno, releasee (now deceased) Refno:
Source: Compiled by P.O.W. NETWORK from one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews and with material provided by the Honorable Thomas Collins. Updated 2000.
REMARKS: 730212 RELEASED BY DRV
==================================== SOURCE: WE CAME HOME copyright 1977 Captain and Mrs. Frederic A Wyatt (USNR Ret), Barbara Powers Wyatt, Editor P.O.W. Publications, 10250 Moorpark St., Toluca Lake, CA 91602 Text is reproduced as found in the original publication (including date and spelling errors).
THOMAS E. COLLINS III Major - United States Air Force Shot Down: October 18, 1965 Released: February 12, 1973
I was with the 68 Tactical Fighter Squad; 8TFW on my 35th mission on a sunny afternoon in the "pan handle" of North Vietnam on 18 October 1965. I was interdicting a supply route leading to the "Ho Chi Minh" trail when a "golden B-B" from an enemy machine gun sent my F-4C "Phantom II" out of control. With seconds to spare I ejected from the aircraft successfully but received a back injury on impact with the ground. All my vertabre were compressed and I suffered a sprained ankle. Within minutes a local militia unit was upon me from where I was marched, dragged, boated, bounced in trucks and even a train on a long trip to Hanoi to spend 7 1/2 years in many North Vietnamese prison camps. I was beaten severely in the first weeks, lost my hearing and got infections. I was subjected to the "ropes", arm and leg irons at various camps as I was moved through 12 camps, visiting all but Alcatraz. I spent time at Son Tay, and even the "Half Way" House, half way to Hanoi. Beri-beri was my most serious health problem.
This certainly interrupted my life as a jet fighter pilot conceived early in my life as I grew up on my father's cattle farm near Utica, Mississippi and accomplished after my graduation from Mississippi State University in 1959 and USAF pilot training in 1961.
It was the happiest day in my 35 years when I returned to my lovely wife, Donnie and two wonderful sons, Marty (10) and Teddy (7), born after I was shot down - also my parents, two brothers, one sister and many friends to again enjoy life with them in this wonderful country. The concern for my plight demonstrated in so many ways by them, the people and government of the United States has overwhelmed me.
MESSAGE: Books could, and probably will, be written about the negative aspects of such a long grueling ordeal, but I prefer to recall the few positive aspects. True, I feel that most of the time and trials endured were a waste to me personally but there were benefits from such an experience. For the first time in my life I had the time and was under the pressure required to take a deep, all revealing look at myself, our country and the world as I knew it. I re-lived all my past mistakes, found the limits of my physical and mental strength and discovered just what I was "made of." From this I saw I could improve myself to better serve my family, country and mankind. I learned to truly appreciate the many things we enjoy as Americans but so often take for granted, ranging from lesser things like our high standard of living to the great individual freedom we possess.
Hope, sustained by faith in God, my fellow Americans, our leaders, and a burning desire to return with honor to the country I loved and missed enabled me to survive the ordeal. It was inevitable that my faith would be shaken at times only to return stronger than ever, but even on the blackest day with the realization that I might never return, there was always hope. Faith was eventually rewarded by my return to the country where a man is free.
Thomas Collins III retired from the United States Air Force in 1980 as a Lt. Col. Among his awards and decorations are 2 Silver Stars, Merit Service Medal, Bronze Star, 2 Purple Hearts and eight other medals. He was a Republican nominee for Congress in 1988 from Mississippi and went on to be appointeed Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor in the Bush Administration. He and his wife Donnie now reside in Mississippi.
On August 24, 1999 Tommy and Donnie lost their youngest son to an sudden illness. He is survived by an older brother, and mom and dad. Our very deepest sympathies to the family are extended.
======================== Senate Select Committee for POW/MIA Affairs December 3, 1992
Testimony of Mrs. Donnie Collins - Husband Tom Collins
Senator Kerry: Mrs. Collins, let me just comment that we'd like to recognize, that Leutinant Colonel Tom Collins, who was in prison for seven plus years, US Air Force Fighter Pilot, over North Vietnam and I would just like you to standup so that people can identify your here and we're glad you are and we appreciate that fact. Mrs. Collins...
Mrs. Collins: Mr. Chairman and distinguished members, it is an honor to appear before your Committee to share my knowledge and experiences on certain aspects of the Vietnam POW/MIA saga. I appreciate your keen interest and the hard work in making every effort to resolve the questions of servicemen missing in action in Vietnam, as well as World War II and Korea. I've submitted a lengthy written statement to the Committee which I believe is, in itself a concise synopsis of the background and history of the Vietnam War POW/ MIA situation, as I lived and saw it over the past 27 years.
For the sake of valuable but limited time before this committee, I will only mention a few of the highlights, skip most of the background and history and encourage you to read the statement entirely because it is important to gain an understanding of the POW/MIA situation and the families of MIA's today and see what we might do in these waning years for the MIA's. And what we might do to assure that American POW/MIA families never again have to go to the streets, the government and even other nations to plead that our missing not be forgotten in the hands of a cruel and cunning enemy.
One day in 1965 I was happy wife of a dashing handsome fighter pilot. You all can see that for yourself. The next day he was missing. I was prepared if he'd been killed, we'd experienced the death of many friends in this hazardous occupation several times, even at our young ages. I was not prepared for a missing husband and neither was the government nor military services. My statement today will emphasize this and attempt to guide us to never again be so unprepared. This unpreparedness of casuality assist ance policy and procedures and the veil of secrecy, early in the Vietnam War which included the Missing in Action also goes far in explaining why the families of the MIA's today, mistrust and find it so difficult to understand the actions of our government.
My husband, Thomas E. Collins III, most commonly referred to as Tom, was a fighter pilot in Southeast Asia and captured in North Vietnam in October of 1965. And I want to just add a little foot note here because I was listening very carefully to what was said here earlier and Tom leaned over and whispered to me and said. Hey, I already knew [what he was going to say], Tom doesn't talk about the War he says and what went on there. He says that you cannot change the past and so there's no need to dwell on it. You might as well get on with your life. But he did tell me that he went down just short of the target which was the bridge. The airplane was rolling at 1,000 ft. when he went out of it. He got his back seater out. But he was almost, the plane was almost upside down when he went out, which basically ejected him into the ground. It broke his back. He crawled off under a bush and waited. The townspeople came out, not too happy to see him but maybe thrilled to because they beat him, severly. After they beat him severly, he was taken into the village and questioned. Okay. When the villagers, when he ejected was number one time that he could possibly have not made it to Hanoi. Number two time, was when the villagers decided to beat him unmercifully. The third time is when he was taken in a questioned and refused to give any information. He was then taken out. He was beaten. That's the next time he was taken out and put in front of the firing squad. He was then taken back in. At this time he was deaf. They had beaten him until they burst his ear drums. He was one total raw piece of meat from head to toe. Unable to walk, unable to move, unable to hear. They again questioned him when he refused to answer anything except what he was supposed to answer. He was taken out and lined up in front of the firing squad. Now this isn't enough. Okay. He survived all that. Two weeks later, they put him in a truck to take him to Hanoi. And on the way there the truck was bombed twice by our troops. Both times he said that had they had a direct hit, there was gasoline in the back of the truck where they were hauling barrels. He could have not made it both times. Then, that wasn't enough, the truck fell through the bridge dumping him into the river, with his hands and feet tied. And just before he drew his last breath, they found him in the deep river in the dark of night and pulled him out, after fishing for him. He finally made it to Hanoi. Okay. During all this period of time, they did take his picture with the village bully standing over him with a big stick. He was nearly beaten to death. Okay. They showed how the yankee air pilot had been brought down and captured by the lowly villager. So there is that picture to be reconned with some where in their files, Senator Kerry. If it is not there, you do not have everything. But during all this period of time, Tom could have been on the ground alive and never made it to Hanoi and never made it to the prison system, never made it into the name list. That was brought out by Doug Hegdahl, who was allowed and given permission to come home and that needs to be put in the record, Doug was sent out with the names. Even though he came home early, he was sent out. But during all this period of time he could have not made it to Hanoi to even be in the system. Once he was in Hanoi and caused trouble, he was moved from Camp to Camp. He was not really in the big system there. He was in every camp they ever had. They took him out and put him there because he was a good communicator and set up communications. So they never wanted him to be anywhere so they just kept moving him from place to place. And he was at one time or another, in all 12 camps. And also in a cave, he was kept many times in a cave of one steppers. And those of you who've been in Vietnam know what one-steppers are which meant he was just one step from death when in the cave.
At the time the Peace Agreement was signed, he was not in Hanoi. He was up on the border and had to be brought back. So that I would tell you that, um, every story is different and everyone has a story to tell. But I wanted to bring out those points to you. At one point, when an American Congressman suggested to General Giap, that the best thing to do was to put an American in every city in Vietnam, so that they would not bomb Vietnam. They took that to heart just literally and fasten Tom and a few of the other POWs to the power plant to make sure Americans didn't bomb that. And he hung there until he nearly died with the french handcuffs cutting into his wrists. When he was at the point of death, from starvation, they took him down and moved him in. He came very close, at that moment, as he did everyday of his life to not surviving. Tom only survived because he is the toughest human being inside, I've ever known. If I had to go to hell today and had only one person I could choose to take with me, I would take Tom and go gladly, I feel that way about him.
I believe my remarks represent the typical experience of a family if there is such a thing, during that very untypical War. My concern is for the POW families and maybe even more, the families of those missing whose lives were to terribly disrupted and in some cases, we see it here today, completely torn apart. Perhaps more importantly in the long term, I'm concerned about the families of the missing men and women in future conflicts. That they not fall victim to such things as a silent government. An ideo logical division within their own country and an array of false prophets preying on their legitimate emotions and concerns. And looking back, the greatest problems I faced as a POW/MIA wife, was the silence of the politically secret war and the difficulties caused by the anit-war activists In 1965 to 68, it was politically correct to belittle, deny or ignore the Vietnam War since politicians do not want to deal with, or take responsibility for it. President Johnson was gradually esculating the war effort in secrecy, seemingly in desperate hope that each esculation would win the war. This was an urgent political need s ince the n ation, fueled by the anti-war element was becoming more aware and concerning about the war. I, as a MIA wife, was frustrated by knowing little, being left out of the loop. It seemed at times, being treated as the enemy. More feared by the Administration, Military Intelligence than the North Vietnamese, who we should have been unified against. This was typical of the attitude of the government in those years. I was even asked to SPY and REPORT on other wives and activities which I distainfully declined. They were more fearful that someone might embarass them then they were about dealing with the enemy and the problems of the MIAs. I think the silent secret war empacted on me was from three phenomona. First the instinctive and ingrained paracholism of the intelligence community, to jealously keep their methods and what they knew or did not know to themselves, with little concern for what worthwhile p urpose their information could serve outside their circles. I fully appreciate, and am the first the defend the need to protect sources, avoid speculation and adhere to the need to know rule. But at the same time, to be the first to point out that the families of MIA's, come under the ladder intelligence rule. Second, the old clique that wives and families should be told nothing and should know nothing was and I presumed to some degree, is still the rule. This is an over reaction to legitiment security needs and it probably resulted in more inadvertent leaks through ignorance, than if the spouses and families had been brought into the network in matters that concerned them. Third, and I think the most prevalent reason for the closed door attitude was political. As mentioned above, it was politically undesirable for anything, including POW and MIA's in their (?) treatment, to call public attention to the fact that we were involved in a bitter and tough esculating war in Vietnam. Such attitudes as the above, obviously led to an atmosphere of alienation, mistrust and even adversity, between the two parties which should have been closely united, the government and the families of the missing servicemen. Familes should have been included in the network, while still meeting necessary and attainable security requirements. We should have been together in pointing our finger at the enemy, those abusers of our POWs, North Vietnam. Not each other, which occurred only too often. I always pointed at North Vietnam, advocated this to others and think that we should be following this practice, even today on the MIA issue. Is it any wonder that after 27 years we still have alienation and mistrust hampering our efforts to account for our MIA's? I'm concerned that over these 27 years, we have and still confuse two very seperate issues. Are we dealing with a history lession in blame placing? Are we interested in finding and repatriating live POW's, if there are any? I see the families as well as responsible officials caught up in this nonproductive confusion.
By way of constructive criticism, the Hearing and many activities of this Committee has done little to sort and seperate these issues which for the most part are not relevant to each other, rather they're counterproductive. We will neverreally know due to incomplete, veiled and interpretive information, the answers to such questions as, Who knew what, when about the POW's? Who did not get them or not get them out or find them? For the most part, the answers are very controversial, are just a matter of opinion or interpretation of some ambiguous circumstantial out-of-context and incomplete information. My opinions and conclusions are contained in my written statement. But do the answers to such questions really matter? Why not just deal with the important issue of live Americans and credible information on the missing in action? I am convinced to this day that without this organized concerned and action of the families, the POW's would have fallen through the cracks rather than become a focal point in ending the war. If, beginning in 1969, I and many other family members had not taken the matter of POW's/MIA's and their forgotten plight and their brutal mistreatment a t the hands of the North Vietnamese, to the people of this country, to our government and even to the world - NONE would have returned alive from Vietnam.
I wish we could have done more to have obtained an early and full accounting for the MIA's but as you know, the leverage to obtain a full accounting provided for in the Peace Agreements was removed when the President and his emmisaries, following the withdrawal and repatriation of the known POW's, when Congress cut off funding and prohibited further military operations in Southeast Asia. The North Vietnamese only reacted to strength and force which was now gone. Anti-war activists finally won at this point. We never know for certain that all POW's were returned and have experienced over 20 years of foot dragging in accounting for our missing.
Families have been victimized and preyed upon by many scams, cons and hoaxes, ranging from bums who solicit money on the streets in the name of helping POWs and MIAs, to political leaders, including US Senators who are duped and victimized themselves into making irresponsible statements - implying "We're on the verge of finding and repatriating large numbers of live Americans, with little more basis than unfounded rumor. Most of us, at some point have been tempted to participate in some form of POW rescue b ased on nothing more that questionnable and circumstancial information, at best, such as unverified photos, live-sightings, ananonomous reports. If is sounds hoaky and mystic, it probably is. And it almost always plays a very cruel hoax on the families by raised false hopes. Will we never learn to first investigate the source before we investigate the rumor?
I think those who have deliberately committed fraud for personal gain in the form of money, status or just their ego, should be prosecuted. I'm very pleased that this committee will take up this issue and problems in the near future and hope this will eliminate, once and for all, the con artists and clear the way for those who are credible and knowledgeable to resolve the long standing tradgedy of our MIA's.
The closed door attitude of the government which started and became ingrainedin the early war years, has contributed greatly towards making the families vunerable and prey for the anti-war activists on the left and the con artists and mystics on the right. If thegovernment was silent to their questions, then where were they to go for information and help? Some elements of both groups meant well but their impact has been cruel to the families. Between our own intelligence community and the detailed information possessed by the North Vietnamese, almost all facts on what happened to most missing in action are known. I hope that you will continue to pressure these two groups to make these facts available and assure credible and complete disclosure - so that all, especially the families will know, finally.
It's a National shame that our own political leaders and military authorities, on intimidating recommendations of our own intelligence communities, have withheld vital information to families in the name of security....when NO SUCH SECURITY INTEREST existed. Of course, we do no want the enemy to know what we know but the families could have been provided meaningful information without jeopardizing this rule. Protecting intelligence and maintaining security are vital, but this has been carried to the point of being paranoid in the Vietnam War which has been self- defeating. Form who were the secrets kept? It was primarily the families because no one else cared. And unforunately Gentlemen, the enemy already knew. This situation just opened the doors for the con artists I mentioned earlier. It all goes back to the politically secret war which I was thrust into back in 1965.
Much information has recently been released to families, and files, after 20 plus years, but the element of mistrust that grew over these years are still there. Maybe full disclosure in time will heal the wounds.
The information North Vietnam is currently releasing is part of what they've held hostage all these long years. Now an even greater element of mistrust should exist. It they withheld this much information this long, how much longer will they withhold yet more information?
Tom has told me that the North Vietnamese were meticulous record keepers in the finest bureaucratic fashion, inspite of not having state-of-the-art clerical tools. I hope we're now, after 20 years, seeing some of these records. I'm pleased with the new information and do not want to imply that we can get when we get it but I feel we should not over react to getting what we knew they had, and should have provided years ago. We need to continue to point to the North Vietnamese for abuses of our POWs and their failure to account as the agreed to.
I hope that never again will families of the missing have to literally take to the streets. This is an additional burden on them in a time of grief and hardship, which should not be necessary. The MIA families have had to keep up this effort, even until today. Their mistrust of government began even before may involvement in 1965 cannot be corrected for the families of the MIA's in Vietnam. All we can do now is make a record of this mistrust, how to curb the impact it's had and vow that we will never allow it to happen again. The families of the prisioners and missing have been cruelly abused, extorted and used by not only the enemy but elements within our own country More than any war in our history, these families, wives, children and parents have stood up amazingly well during this ordeal. I have see true class and courage in these families. Senators, wives do not get military medals but I know many who should for their loyalty, dedication and hard work for these prisoners and missing.
For those of you who still have a family members missing, God Bless You. May you find factual and comforting information that will give you peace. I would never tell you to give up your search and your hopes. Thank you. =========================