A former Prisoner of War addressed more than 150 Sailors, Marines and civilians at Naval Weapons Station (WPNSTA) Yorktown, Sept. 26, as part of the installation's POW/MIA Recognition Day program.
Cmdr. Paul Galanti was shot down over Southeast Asia in June 1966 and was a prisoner for more than seven years at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" until his release in 1973.
"Today we pay solemn tribute to the service members who bore the wars tragic costs as prisoners of war and to those missing in action," said Capt. Lowell Crow, commanding officer, WPNSTA Yorktown. "As a nation we must reaffirm our most sacred obligation that we must never forget the men and women who did not come home," he added.
At the end of the Vietnam War, more than 2,646 American service members were unaccounted for. Through government efforts, in joint cooperation with the government of the People's Republic of Vietnam, that numbers has been reduced to 1,660.
Galanti recounted his capture June 17, 1966 when he was shot down while performing close air support for Soldiers and Marines on the ground in Vietnam.
"It all came to an end in a 45 degree dive when there was a huge explosion behind my head, all the red lights came on in the cockpit, black smoke came pouring in and the plane started to roll down," Galanti said. "With about 20 seconds left before hitting the ground, I decided it was time for me to join the 'Hanoi Skydiving Club' and ejected out of the airplane going almost 600 miles per hour," he continued. "I got shot twice coming down in the parachute and landed right in the middle of a bunch of folks who weren't happy about me being in their country."
His journey to Hanoi took about 12 days. He watched airplanes flying overhead, from time-to-time, and came to realize they were looking for him when a couple of those pilots were shot down and joined him on the road to Hanoi. Once he got to Hanoi, the experience went from bad to worse.
"The first two-and-a-half years were miserable," Galanti said. "There was a torture session about once a quarter for everybody. They would go around the room and pick guys out, like they were getting their professional qualifications in torture."
Since they were kept in solitary confinement, Galanti passed the time by keeping his mind engaged on everything from physics problems.
"I went back and re-derived every formula I ever learned in physics, math ... anything. I relearned French, even though I hated it. My memory had gotten so clear from just thinking about stuff without distractions," he said.
One of the great revelations he discovered during his capture was that Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon, something he discovered from the image on sugar packet.
"We (the prisoners) knew all of the astronauts," Galanti explained. "Somebody in the room, either Air Force or Navy, knew one of the astronauts in the space program. So, printed on the outside of a sugar packet that somebody got was a picture of Buzz Aldrin standing next to the American flag on the moon. It was dated July 20, 1969."
Galanti was released Feb. 12, 1973. Since then, he continued to serve his nation as the commanding officer, Navy Recruiting District Richmond and in the Office of the Commandant at the U.S. Naval Academy. He was medically retired from active duty in 1983. He has served as an executive in various organizations for the state of Virginia. In 2012, he was appointed by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell as commissioner of Veterans Services for the Commonwealth of Virginia.
"I can't believe it was forty years ago when we got out of there. It seems so vivid, just like it was yesterday," Galanti said. "But out of that came some of the best friends I ever had in my life and we're still very, very close."
The one thing he reflects on every day is something he once said that is now inscribed on the wall of a veteran's education center in Richmond. Someone once asked him what was the most positive thing you learned from your time as a POW.
He said, "there's no such thing as a bad day when you've got a doorknob on the inside. The biggest freedom we have is freedom."
Article by Mark O. Piggott, Naval Weapons Station Yorktown Public Affairs