Vietnam POW Naval Aviator Gaither 'Stood Tall' In Captivity
by Naval Air Station Pensacola Public Affairs
August 9, 2019
Dozens attended a funeral service at Barrancas National Cemetery (BNC) onboard Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola on May 16, 2019 for retired Cmdr. Ralph Ellis Gaither Jr., a heroic naval aviator well-known in the Pensacola community as a Vietnam veteran and Prisoner of War (POW) who had exemplified defiance while in enemy hands.
Gaither, 77, was a resident of Gulf Breeze, Florida. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, he passed away May 7, 2019 in the company of his loved ones. NAS Pensacola squadron VT-86 provided a flyover at the service with two T-45C aircraft, one of which peeled off in a missing-man salute to the decorated pilot.
Retired Lt. Cmdr. Mike Louy presents a flag to Barbara Gaither following an interment for her husband, retired Cmdr. Ralph Gaither (left), at Barrancas National Cemetery on May 16, 2019 onboard Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola. On October 17, 1965, Gaither was forced to eject over North Vietnam and taken as Prisoner of War where he spent the next 2,675 days in captivity. He was released during Operation Homecoming on February 12, 1973. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Navy photo by Jason Bortz, Naval Air Station Pensacola Public Affairs Officer and U.S. Navy courtesy photo of Ralph Gaither in uniform.)
Gaither enlisted in the U.S. Navy in September 1962. During boot camp he was asked to consider the Navy Aviation Cadet Program, and since he held a flying license – acquired at age 17 – he soon found himself in flight training in Pensacola.
Preflight and cadet training followed; flights in the Beechcraft T-34 Mentor and later in the North American T-28 at NAS Whiting Field, that he soon mastered. Moving on to Carrier Qualification Squadron VT-5, he completed training aboard the USS Lexington (CVA 16) in May 1964. Jet schooling followed at Chase Field in Texas where Gaither flew the Grumman F-9 Cougar and F-11 Tiger; he was designated a naval aviator Oct. 16, 1964.
In San Diego, California, as part of Replacement Air Group VF-121, Gaither qualified in the F-4B Phantom II and reported to VF-84, the Jolly Rogers, for combat assignment.
He flew his first combat mission – ground support – over South Vietnam from the deck of the USS Independence (CV 62) in July 1965. In his biography, “With God in a POW Camp,” Gaither wrote, “that kind of assignment gave me a good feeling, knowing that my efforts got ground troops out of bad jams, often to turn the tide of battle.” Missions against North Vietnam soon followed.
On Oct. 17, 1965, Gaither’s F-4 was part of an “alpha strike,” a large coordinated mission involving multiple targets. The primary target was a railroad bridge on the Red River; Gaither’s job was to protect the bombers from North Vietnamese MiG fighter aircraft and to destroy anti-aircraft installations.
The American aircraft took fire on the way in, with one of his squadron pilots hit and aborting the mission. Another aircraft suddenly burst into flames and hit a mountainside; they saw no one eject.
Gaither struck his target– a well-camouflaged flak site – but another hidden gun hit his aircraft on the starboard side, setting it on fire. The fire rapidly spread and smoke filled the cockpit.
“The Navy considers two indications of fire in an aircraft sufficient reason to eject,” Gaither recalled in his book. “I had seven indications - four fire warning lights, two gauge indicators and smoke in the cockpit. I could not wait any longer.” Giving the word to his “backseater,” radar operator Lt.j.g. Rodney Allen Knutson, the men ejected from the stricken aircraft.
As Gaither descended in his parachute, the enemy poured streams of machine gun fire at the helpless man. One bullet grazed the right side of his neck, and upon landing, he immediately took cover in some dense foliage. Unfortunately, Gaither had come down near a populated area and he was shortly discovered. Knutson also was captured and the two fliers were soon transported to Hoa Lo – the French-built prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
Interrogations – and later, beatings and torture – followed. Gaither stuck to the stock answers: name, rank, birthday and serial number. He knew he was in for an ordeal, but drew upon his strong religious convictions to give him strength – which they did over the next eight years.
Gaither was moved from prison to prison during his captivity. Communication was forbidden, but the POWs developed and used a “tap code,” similar to Morse code to communicate. When caught communicating, beatings and mistreatment followed. Subjected to communist propaganda, the POWs were harangued and coerced to sign documents against their will. Loudspeakers blared “Hanoi Hanna,” with special programming aimed at destroying the prisoner’s morale. The men fought back with every tactic at their disposal, frequently paying a price for doing so.
At one of the worst points in Gaither’s story, the men were taken for a march through the streets of Hanoi. The march was filmed for propaganda purposes, and the prisoners were attacked by mobs of angry North Vietnamese. Cursed, spat upon, struck with thrown rocks and garbage, the men were forced at bayonet point along the route. They were ordered by a communist officer to march with their heads bowed. Then Gaither heard a voice speak up in their ranks. “Stand tall, you’re an American.” They repeated the phrase to each other.
“But we were not contrite,” Gaither wrote, “and we would not bow our heads. Guards, who were much shorter than us, grabbed our hair and jerked our heads down. We raised them up again. We were determined. We were Americans.”
Gaither spent 2,675 days in captivity, returning home with other POWs after his release in Operation Homecoming in February 1973. He retired from the Navy in 1986 and went on to a career in teaching, retiring in 2001. His decorations include two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit with Combat V, the Distinguished Flying Cross, four Bronze Stars with Combat V, six Air Medals, Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon, two Purple Hearts, Navy Commendation Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, 16 Vietnam Service Medals, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and the POW Medal.
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