Dateline: May 7, 1972, North Vietnam.
Joseph Eugene “Joe” Kernan, a 26-year-old naval flight officer, takes off from the deck of aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk on a reconnaissance mission.
“We had no weapons, but we had an escort,” he recounted at his Wednesday, May 25, presentation at Calvary United Methodist in Syracuse.
“We were at 4,500 feet altitude at 650 mph and got hit,” he told the more than 120 attendees of the second installment of the Calvary Community Series, “Captivity.”
With the radio and mic out, the pilot “made a left turn to head over water when the nose pointed down.
“The altimeter was going to 3,200 feet so I ejected,” said Kernan, now 70. “I experienced 23 Gs when ejecting so I blacked out coming down.
“I landed in the middle of a little village close to the water,” he said. “When I woke up I was getting beaten up pretty badly.”
Then Kernan made the first of several remarks in a talk laced with understanding, forgiveness and gratitude: “You couldn’t blame them.”
He was blindfolded, tied up and thrown into a dungeon. He spent a month at the Hanoi Hilton before he was taken to a prison dubbed “The Zoo” by American forces.
A couple days later he experienced “the worst day of my life” when another prisoner told him, “Your escort lost you guys and you are presumed dead.”
During his 10 months at The Zoo, Kernan maintained an optimism sustained by his Catholic faith. “We called our cell the Sunshine Suite. Our goal was to stay happy for as long as we could.
“The best part was the new guys coming in with information from outside the gates, so we were able to keep in step.”
Some of Kernan’s friends from Notre Dame “were coming out when I was going over.” His “best day” in captivity came when he received a package from home. “I had to open it in front of the guards,” he said.
The package contained three handkerchiefs. “Printed in blue ink on each was ‘Compliments of Notre Dame.’ That told me the family knew I was okay.”
“Finally we got word the war was over,” said Kernan. “We were ecstatic.”
He came back and married Maggie, with whom he revisited North Vietnam “about seven years ago.”
“The people were nice,” he said. “We got a great reception.”
He visited the Hanoi Hilton, now a museum, and found the village where he landed.
“A little guy gave me a picture (dated May 8, 1972) of our aircraft after it was shot down.”
“A young woman said, ‘My parents got you away from the mob and onto the porch,’” said Kernan. “That act probably saved my life.”
Kernan returned to Vietnam a couple months ago. “The people there are fabulous,” he said. “They work hard and they love their children and take care of them. They’re really good people at heart. You can’t blame them for all the things that happened during that terrible time.”
Kernan said he was “grateful to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. It is an experience I really kind of treasure because it taught me an awful lot.”
Joe Kernan is truly a free man — inside and out.