PURCELL, BENJAMIN HARRISON
RIP April 2, 2013
Name: Benjamin H. Purcell
Other Personnel in Incident: Lenker, Michael, returnee; Rose, Joseph,
Source: Compiled by P.O.W. NETWORK from one or more of the following: raw
REMARKS: 03/27/73 Released by PRG
The 101st Airborne Division had a new battalion just outside of Quang
Tri City. "Charlie" was everywhere around the city. Radio contact was
yet to be established with logistics. A single band radio needed to be
delivered there ASAP. Colonel Pen Purcell was the executive commander of
the 80th General Support Group and deputy commander of the Dan Nang
Sub-Area Command. Purcell decided to hand carry the radio on their way
to Dong Ha to check on other troops.
Warrant Officer Joe Rose was flying the UH-1 "Huey" and Warrant Officer
Dick Ziegler was his copilot. The crew chief was SP/4 Robert Chenoweth,
and SP/4 Mike Lenker was the door gunner. Pfc. James E. George, a
refrigeration mechanic from Purcell's command, sat in the jump seat.
Purcell handed the radio he had come to deliver to Capt Drake. Private
George, the refrigeration mechanic, hurried over to repair the disabled
reefer truck, which was his mission on this trip.
Captain Drake and his commo sergeant got in their jeep and drove off. As
Purcell started back toward the helicopter, he saw that the two pilots
and Chenoweth had a panel raised and were looking at something.
One of the radios was out and they could not fly back up through the
overcast skies without it. They had to cancel the rest of the trip up to
Rose turned the helicopter toward the southeast and headed toward the
coast. They were flying about three hundred feet or so above the
ground - not high enough to be out of range of small-arms fire.
Suddenly Warrant Officer Ziegler turned toward Purcell and shouted,
"We're being fired on!" His next message was, "We're on fire!"
The helicopter gave a sudden lurch and then the inside flared brightly
with an orange light. Only seconds after the first round hit, the fire
was already hot just forward of the transmission housing in the center
of the passenger compartment of the helicopter. Private George and
Col. Purcell were sitting on the outside seats as far away from the heat
as it was possible to be.
The helicopter made a sweeping turn to the right and toward the ground
trailing fire and smoke. Rose fought to control the helicopter and to
land it as quickly as possible.
The helicopter hit hard and the tips of the rotor blades dug into the
ground and broke as they struck a large granite monument. The helicopter
was ripped to shreds by the ground impact and the flailing rotor blades.
George, Chenoweth, Lenker, and Purcell loosened their seat belts and
jumped out, but the pilot and copilot couldn't get out through their
respective doors. They were trapped in their seats by the "chicken
plates," as the aircrews humorously called the armor shields installed
between them and their doors. The door gunner ran to the front doors and
slid the panels back so Rose and Mr. Ziegler could get out. By the
time he opened their doors, though, the pilots had already butted their
way through the windshield.
Ziegler was hit in the leg. George ran back to the ship to recover his
M-14 rifle, which was lying on the floor between the pilots' seats.
He drove right into the middle of the flames and the fire engulfed him
instantly. Lenker and Purcell had to reach in and drag him out. Flames
had licked at George's hands and face, and his skin there was hanging in
Lenker and Purcell had a hold of George and they half-carried and
halfdragged the badly burned young soldier away from the burning
helicopter. Ziegler was limping badly, his leg was bleeding, and George
was in great pain and groaning softly.
Soon after, the crew was surrounded by twelve Viet Cong. Realizing they
had no chance to fight with few weapons and ammunition, the crew
As the VC forced them to move, the injured George asked Ben Purcell to
pray. The VC soon put an end to the prayers -- Purcell was forced to
move off and a shot was heard. James E. George was believed executed
that day. His remains have never been found.
More than five years later on March 27, 1973, Col. Ben Purcell was among
the thirty-two Americans released that day. In his five years (1874
days) of captivity, he was moved through three camps, escaped twice, was
held in solitary for 58 months, and endured starvation and torture.
Ben's family -- his wife Anne and their five children, were active in
the National League of Families while he was held. Anne was a founding
member of the organization - traveling later to Paris to meet with the
North Vietnamese. It wasn't until 1969 that Ben's status was changed
from MIA to POW.
Col. Pen Purcell served with the United States Army for more than 30
years. He retired from active duty in 1980. His many decorations and
awards include the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Silver
Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Purple Heart.
The Purcells have been married 49 years (as of 2000). They have raised
five children and have two grandchildren. They live in Georgia where
they operate a Christmas Tree farm and lecture extensively on their
experiences. In 1992, they wrote a love story entitled "LOVE & DUTY" --
the remarkable story of a courageous MIA family and the victory they won
with their faith. This short biography was written with information from
their book. Ben has previously been elected a Georgia State Legislator.
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
UPDATE - 09/95 by the P.O.W. NETWORK, Skidmore, MO
BENJAMIN H. PURCELL
Colonel - United States Army
Captured: February 8, 1968
Released: March 27, 1973
Upon graduating from North Georgia College, Dahlonega, Georgia in 1950, I
received my commission in the United States Army and was the senior ranking
Army POW released from Southeast Asia. After the helicopter on which I was a
passenger was shot down southeast of Quong Tri City, South Viet Nam, I was
captured by the Viet Cong and taken to North Viet Nam where I was detained for
more than five years; 58 months of which were spent in solitary confinement.
During that period I never received a letter or package from my home, nor did
my wife, who resided in Columbus, Georgia, receive any word from me.
Apr 21 1998
Former POW gives Fort Hood soldiers food for thought
by Lisa Beth Snyder
FORT HOOD, Texas (Army News Service, April 20, 1998) -- The retired colonel
grasps a hand in a firm, long handshake to compensate for the years when he
had no human touch.
"In a literal twinkling of an eye, my lifestyle changed from a person of
some consequence to one in which food, shelter, and life itself were
uncertain," retired Col. Benjamin H. Purcell said to members of 13th Corps
Support Command who were gathered for a prayer breakfast recently at Fort
In that twinkling in February 1968, a helicopter in which he was a passenger
during the Vietnam War was forced to crash land. While he and five other
soldiers on that aircraft attempted to get out of the area, only one was
able to evade being encircled by the Viet Cong soldiers armed with automatic
weapons. As the senior soldier, Purcell made the difficult decision to
surrender in order to have a chance to survive.
He and three other soldiers were tied up and forced to march barefoot
through the jungle. The fifth soldier's face and hands were burned in the
crash and the Viet Cong did not bind his hands. When they briefly traveled
by boat, Purcell said he took this opportunity to pray, and this gave him
faith to endure the humiliations of being a prisoner of war.
When they resumed marching, he heard a shot. He suspected that the Viet Cong
had killed the burned soldier, Pfc. James E. George of Burlington, Texas,
because he was never seen again. Twenty-nine years later, Purcell showed
Col. Terry Tucker of Joint Task Force Full Accounting, the probable location
of the shooting on a map. A body was recovered at the site and it is being
identified at the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.
After six days as a prisoner of war, Purcell and his group were finally
interrogated. He only answered the questions required by the Geneva
Convention and gave his wife's address so that she could be notified of his
whereabouts. She was not notified until he was freed five years later.
"I was cold, I was hungry, I was hurting from broken ribs from the crash
when I realized it was my 40th birthday," he said. His captors noticed it
was his birthday, also, and followed their custom by honoring his special
birthday and temporarily suspended the interrogation and gave him some food.
He became so weak that he was carried on a litter to a camp where they
stayed for 30 days. Then they began marching again and sores from leech
bites made it difficult to walk. He was afraid he was going to stumble on
the night walk and be killed, so he said he prayed for light. The soldier in
front of him turned on a flashlight soon after.
When he reached the next camp, he was put in solitary confinement and
interrogated. During the interrogation he was told he was not a prisoner of
war, but a criminal of war and he would be tried if he did not rethink his
ways. Purcell insisted he was a prisoner of war and prayed for the strength
to endure the experience.
"We survived by faith, courage, and our devotion to duty, and on very rare
occasions our sense of humor," said Purcell, the Army's most senior prisoner
of war in Vietnam.
He said his prayers led him to politely argue with his captors to keep his
mind alert and to begin planning his escape. He fashioned tools for his
escape from metal fasteners in his cell and with handles made from bread
He also went on two hunger strikes to protest his solitary confinement that
prevented him from being with the soldiers he felt responsible for.
Purcell spent 58 months in solitary confinement, excluding the few precious
hours he had during two escapes.
"A man who cannot live with himself cannot live with his fellow man,"
Purcell said. "I learned to live with myself." He said he also developed a
greater love for his fellow humans from this experience.
To keep busy he made three versions of his wedding band, one from a plastic
toothbrush handle, one from an aluminum toothpaste tube, and the third from
bamboo; a communion set from various materials; and a salt and pepper shaker
set. He never got to use the salt and pepper set because he was not given
the condiments because of his escape attempts.
"The physical body has needs -- food, shelter, life -- but life is not worth
living without a spirit to feed," he emphasized. It was his faith in God and
country that allowed him to experience 1,874 sunsets after awakening each of
those mornings to a feeling that this would be the morning he would go home.
On Jan. 27, 1973, the prisoners were told the war was over and were moved to
the Hanoi Hilton. Two months later on March 27, 1973, he was released.
He said his experience showed him that in addition to faith and family,
three things are important to him. "Human life is the most precious thing,"
he said. "Secondly, freedom. Without freedom life is an existence, not true
living. And communications, because of the time spent in solitary
In introducing Purcell, Col. Christopher A. Rockwell, 13th Corps Support
Command chief of staff, said that Purcell would "delve into the spiritual,
moral, and ethical aspects of our profession."
Members of the audience indeed got food for thought to go with their bacon
and eggs that morning.
Colonel Purcell, pictured with the love of his life, Anne, has reported to his final Duty Station.
Memorial Service is set for
Saturday, 4/6/13, at 1400 hrs. at Bethlehem Baptist Church,
Clarkesville, GA .
CLARKESVILLE – Funeral arrangements for Col. Benjamin Harris (Ben) Purcell, 85, of Clarkesville are incomplete.
Col. Purcell died Tuesday, April 2.
Commissioned in the U.S. Army through the Army ROTC program at North Georgia College, he was captured in South Vietnam on Feb. 8, 1968,
and remained in captivity until March 27, 1973.
He was the highest-ranking POW in Vietnam, and also was a former state representative.
Hillside Memorial Chapel, Clarkesville, confirmed it will be announcing the arrangements.