West Roxbury, Mass.-- As Catholic Memorial School junior Kevin Pumphret held the letter in his hands and read the words of Navy captain Bill Franke, his mind returned to a discussion from his American War in Vietnam course – the experience of prisoners of war.
Bill Franke, a Vietnam War veteran and prisoner of war, penned the letter as a response to Kevin’s great-grandmother. With the discovery of the letter, Kevin learned that his great-grandmother frequently sent letters to American POWs and Bill had written back.
“I was obviously very interested in [the letter] due to the fact I’m in the Vietnam class and also because my grandfather is a veteran of Vietnam,” said Kevin.
Having recently discussed the POW experience in class, the humanity of Bill Franke’s words moved Kevin.
“It was very heartwarming to know that he was scared about how the country might have changed when he got back, but he was then reassured that the majority of people had not changed and the American attitude was alive and well,” he said.
After reading the letter, Kevin knew he had to share his discovery with his teacher Mr. Vincent Bradley. Kevin quickly sent Mr. Bradley an email with a picture of the letter. When Mr. Bradley read Bill’s letter, he could not believe the words he read.
“Bill Franke’s letter was very personal. He was answering to someone who had written to him. Part of me was like, ‘Wow, you got out after all those years in prison.’ Some people wouldn’t bother to return a letter like that. But Bill did, and he showed a great sense of optimism in that,” said Mr. Bradley.
Mr. Bradley, who often uses primary sources and accounts in his courses, asked Kevin’s permission to share the letter with the class. Then, after receiving Kevin’s permission, Mr. Bradley dug into Bill’s story and learned that Bill spent 2,730 days in captivity after being forced to eject from his aircraft over North Vietnam in 1965. He returned home in 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming.
Learning about Bill’s story, Mr. Bradley saw an opportunity. The students in his course had already heard from Margot Carlson Delogne, who founded the 2 Sides Project, a non-profit that connects sons and daughters whose fathers were killed on opposite sides of the Vietnam War. In addition, students served as pallbearers at the funeral mass of Vietnam era veteran Joseph O’Connor as part of the school’s service initiative to celebrate Masses for veterans with no known next of kin. Hearing the account of a POW would be a powerful experience and complete the students’ study of the Vietnam conflict, Mr. Bradley thought. So, he set out to make that happen.
During his research, Mr. Bradley discovered an article about Bill written by Doug Bohs and published in the USS Midway Veterans Association newsletter. Mr. Bradley contacted Doug, told him about Kevin’s letter, and asked Doug if he could put him in touch with Bill. Doug informed Mr. Bradley that the 93-old-year old Bill was living in Florida and flying his own private plane. However, Doug thought Bill would be unavailable for the call, so Doug connected Mr. Bradley with Rob Doremus, a friend of Bill’s and a fellow POW.
Rob agreed to speak with Mr. Bradley’s class and, earlier this month, the 87-year-old Rob joined the class via Zoom. In an hour-long meeting, Rob spoke about aircraft, the US Navy, the war, and his POW experience before taking questions. After detailing his journey into the military and Vietnam, Rob shared details of his plane’s downing and his immediate capture as the 20th POW in North Vietnam.
Rob, a radar intercept officer, flew with Bill Franke when they were shot down in the same aircraft in 1965. Bill was piloting an F4 Phantom on a combat mission over North Vietnam with Rob serving as the radar intercept officer. Their plane was hit by a SAM (surface to air) missile and set afire. They were forced to eject and captured almost immediately after parachuting to the ground.
Rob spent part of his almost eight years as POWs as cellmates with Bill at the Hỏa Lò Prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs. Rob discussed the poor living conditions of the prison and being forced to participate in the Hanoi March. Rob told the students that the connection with the other POWs gave him the hope he needed to persist.
“Every week on Sunday, when we had our meal, the senior officer present would whistle the code for victory and then we would all say the Lord’s prayer,” said Rob.
Rob’s powerful storytelling and recollection of even minor details of his experience had a profound impact on the students.
Rob’s story, along with other POWs, is chronicled in Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War Vietnam POW in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973. Written by Stuart Rochester and Frederick Kiley, the book is considered the definitive account of the American POW experience.
For his service, Rob Doremus was the recipient of two Silver Stars, one for his work as a radar intercept officer and one for his valor as a prisoner of war. The citation for the second Silver Star noted, in part, Rob’s “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity while interned as a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam... By his determination, courage, resourcefulness, and devotion, Commander Doremus reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Naval Service and the United States Armed Forces.
“I found it fascinating that someone who had experienced so much throughout life had no problem recalling anything. To hear from someone with first-hand experience about the war who was a POW is absolutely a fascinating experience,” said Kevin.
Rob’s connection to the class started with Kevin’s discovery of a family heirloom. With his instincts as a historian, Kevin brought this powerful experience to his classmates.