Vietnam airman held captive nearly 8 years to be honored on Fourth of July
June 26, 2015
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — There were times I thought the end was coming.
That's how Arthur Neil Black described his captivity after the helicopter he was aboard was shot down over North Vietnam on Sept. 20, 1965, while on a rescue mission for the U.S. Air Force.
"It was a very scary situation," he recalled. "You don't know if you are going to live or die. You start to pray. You don't have anywhere else to turn. That becomes a saving grace."
Black, a then-20-year-old Airman 3rd Class, became a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and was held for 2,703 days, making him the longest-held enlisted American POW in history.
Over those seven years of imprisonment, he recalled the conditions being "hellish" at times, spending up to eight months in solitary confinement, living in cells as small as 6-by-9 feet, and being harassed — sometimes leading to torture.
Black was released from captivity during Operation Homecoming on Feb. 12, 1973, after the Paris Peace Accords was signed a month earlier ending direct U.S. military combat in the Vietnam War.
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When the agreement announcement was made, Black and other prisoners responded with a "hush show of exuberance," so as not to provide the North Vietnamese propaganda footage, he said.
"We all sat quietly and reflected over the last … years and just had a desire to move on," Black said.
Upon his release, he received battlefield promotions and continued his armed services career as a pilot before retiring from the U.S. Air Force in February 1987 with the rank of major.
For his 24 years of service, Black has received several awards, including the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit and Air Force Cross.
This week, he will receive another honor — this time in the form of a special tribute to him during Incline Village and Crystal Bay's Red, White and Tahoe Blue annual Fourth of July celebration.
"I'm very humbled and honored to have my name recognized in that manner," he said. "That is really something."
Black, who lives in Carlsbad, Calif., will be present for the tribute, which will take place during the Reno Philharmonic and Fireworks event the evening of Saturday, July 4.
"You can say we have a lot of heroes in our community, whether it's (through) community service, or serving the country, and each year we want to celebrate as many of them as we can," said Jim Smith, chairman of RWTB.
Of the 22 scheduled events planned over the three-day celebration (July 2 to July 4), five are specifically geared toward veterans, including a veterans pancake breakfast and a special tribute to veterans.
For the parachute and rescue on the lake event, which immediately follows the veterans tribute at Incline Beach, the National Guard will again perform a simulated rescue exercise, after a two-year absence due to a federal government sequestration, Smith said.
Veterans will also have a presence at other RWTB events such as the flag retirement ceremony at Hyatt Beach (July 2) and "Tahoe Salutes Our Heroes" parade along Tahoe Boulevard (July 3).
Bob Wheeler, a RWTB board member who coordinates veterans activities and a retired Chief Master Sgt. of the U.S. Air Force, said he hopes those attending RWTB events take away the following: "A greater appreciation and understanding (that) freedom is not free and that for those who have fought for it, freedom has a flavor that the protected will never know."
The RWTB celebration centers on July 4, which marks the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, declaring the United States' independence from Great Britain.
"The reason that we are able to celebrate Fourth (of) July is because of the service personnel such as Major Black and the many others (who) have sacrificed for this nation," Wheeler said. " …Our society must continue to support the military 365 days a year."
Visit redwhitetahoeblue.org to learn more and to view the scheduled events for Red, White and Tahoe Blue.