Photo: Don MacPhail, Frances MacPhail and their son Ian
Photo: Clark AFB Hospital March 17, 1973
Don is seen here with the group of POW’s he was released with. He's third in from the left sitting on the floor. The Clark AFB Hospital staff left up their Valentine’s Day decorations until the last of the POW groups were released at the end of March 1973
For over a decade I wore a POW bracelet in Sgt. Don MacPhail's honor and memory. This is the story of Sgt. Don MacPhail and our unique history in pictures, words, video links and newspaper files.
Photos: Sgt. Don MacPhail’s POW bracelet I have owned for 48 years - Vietnam War POW Sgt. Don MacPhail on 3/16/1973 being released after 4 years of captivity - Irene Pfeffer Scherer and Mark Maloy in 1974
For my 16th birthday on August 16, 1971, Irene Pfeffer gave me the bracelet she had worn during that year honoring Vietnam War POW, Sgt.Don MacPhail. Irene was my older sister’s college roommate and lived with us during that summer’s college break. These sorts of bracelets were new at the time and the group providing them had begun their unique program in the fall of 1970. Irene had no details about Don except he was a POW. She was aware I wanted the bracelet and she gave it to me after I swore to wear it until Don came home.
I did my best to keep that promise .
In 1972, I wrote a government agency trying to get information on Don MacPhail. I later received a short reply that stated he was in the Army, he was from Ohio, his status was MIA and presumed killed in action. I continued to wear the bracelet to honor the fallen hero. When the POW’s were freed in 1973, I didn’t find his name on the initial list of prisoners to be released. 46 years ago, there were limited ways to get information like this. For the next 27 years I would assume Don was dead. I stopped wearing the bracelet in the early 1980’s and put it away with other cherished memorabilia.
After a difficult effort evading the VC, Don was captured 4 days after the attack on Team C trying to get to a Special Forces Camp. He was shot two more times in the leg and was hit with grenade shrapnel.
From the very beginning of the war, North Vietnam’s stated position was that American prisoners captured in North Vietnam were “war criminals” who had committed crimes against the North Vietnamese people in the course of an illegal war of aggression.
This meant North Vietnam denied American prisoners the privileges and rights granted to prisoners of war under the terms of the Geneva Convention.
Don received no medical treatment after capture and was taken unconscious to a POW camp in Cambodia. His next memory was being hung over a tree branch with an empty grave below him. His interrogators said it would be his grave if he didn’t tell them what they wanted to know. They then tortured him for 4 hours putting metal rods through his bullet wounds and whipping his back.
He carried no identification on him when he was taken prisoner. He assumed the identity of a dead friend, which had been suggested in his training if captured.
That helped confuse his captors with the misinformation he could offer. Unfortunately, it might have also caused the confusion the Army had about his actual status. For years it was presumed he'd perished. His family was told he was dead.
This initial torture would be the beginning of much more to come during his 1,498 days in captivity. 38 months of that imprisonment held in solitary confinement, usually with his legs in shackles.
Photos: ASHF President Mark Maloy doing a presentation to WWII Army Air Force B-29 veterans and their families in 2017 at Wichita, KS.
Sgt. Don MacPhail on 3/16/1973 walking to freedom as he leaves Hanoi.
In the fall of 2000, I was watching a Vietnam POW Veteran on a PBS documentary talking about his captivity, I noticed he was wearing a POW bracelet. It inspired me to try and discover what I could find out about Don. Perhaps I would learn the details of his death and try to connect with his family. I could give them my bracelet. The fairly new Internet was making such searches possible. Instead, my searching on the Internet led me to discover Don was alive and living in Massachusetts!
After many calls to anyone named MacPhail in Massachusetts, I found him.
Overwhelmed hearing his voice on the phone, I offered a very tearful, “I thought you were dead!” He laughed and said, “you and everyone else!” He was in the last group of POW's to be released. He wasn't on the initial lists offered to the media.
That first conversation was the start of a very special relationship. Knowing Don was pivotal in my life. He helped create a passion for honoring veterans. Don's story would help inspire this Foundation being created 12 years later.
In His Own Words
During a phone conversation 17 years ago, Don told me he had done several interviews with a local paper during 1973 and 1974. A couple years ago, through an Internet newspaper archive, I found a lengthy candid interview he provided the Lowell Sun newspaper. It was published over 5 days in full page installments. In it he covers his capture, captivity and observations on the conduct of the war.
The files can be accessed using the link below. You can download them for reading on a PC monitor or laptop. They need a screen larger than a smartphone and once downloaded can be enlarged for easier reading. The print will require some patience.
On February 1, 1969, Company K (Ranger) of the 75th Army Infantry was activated. Later known as the “Highland Rangers” (covering the Vietnam Central Highlands) their mission was to provide long range reconnaissance, surveillance, harassment and target acquisition.
On the evening of that activation, Company K's Team C was dropped by parachute inserting them to monitor enemy activity around a jungle river valley in Pleiku Province. The recon team consisted of Sgt. Kenneth Hess, Sgt. Don MacPhail, Pfc. Nathaniel Irving and a Montagnard Scout (Central Highland native familiar with the area) named Ju Hmok.
Patrol leader Sgt. Hess radioed on the second day there was nothing to report but he was feeling ill. He declined the team being extracted early. Sgt. MacPhail took over as team leader. The 4-man patrol later reported again that everything was normal and they were waiting at the pick-up zone. No further contact was received. Shortly after that, Team C was surrounded by Viet Cong and the battle began.
Battling what is now recognized as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
The video link below is a three and half minute NBC TV news report from July 4, 1973. I recently discovered it through a news archive. It covers some of Don’s struggles acclimating to life after his years as a POW. It features an interview with his wife Charlotte. His daughters Barbara and Lisa Marie are seen.
Charlotte lived with Don’s parents during his captivity. She was a VA nurse. After his return, Don and Charlotte would have two more daughters, Laura and Dawn. Sadly, their marriage would not survive. Don would later have a second marriage that failed as well. He then met Frances O’Rourke when they took classes together. They would marry and have a son, Ian.
Frances answered that memorable call from me searching for Don in 2000. I could hear little Ian crying in the background as she called Don to the phone. 18 years later we were reunited through Facebook.
Requiring multiple medical treatments, Don was immediately flown to Valley Forge Hospital in Pennsylvania where he would be reunited with his family. Here he is seen running to his mother Fran MacPhail’s loving arms and later having a look of puzzlement at the length of his brother’s hair.
Don would spend much of the spring and summer of 1973 at Valley Forge getting treated for the physical and emotional traumas he endured.
Click below directly on "Don MacPhail release" to open video
Don and I never met in person. He wasn’t one for e mail, so our relationship was through phone calls and occasional letters. I wasn’t the only one who wore a bracelet in his memory during the war and after! They are still for sale. I planned a few trips to meet Don, but we could never synch our schedules. Don’s full-time job involved a lot of travel.
After his return, he stayed in the Army until 1977. He then worked for the railroad. A growing family transitioned him to police work for many years. He then became Dean of Students for Turners Falls High School. While all that was going on, he managed to get a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in public administration! When I talked to him on that first call in 2000, I asked what he was doing for a living. He gave me a run down of his careers and then proudly said he’d gone back to what he’d loved the most. He was an Amtrak train engineer.
Don's POW Journey
Team C was ringed by what appeared to Don to be 15 or 20 Viet Cong heavily armed with .50 caliber machine guns and AK-47’s. As the firing commenced, Pfc. Irving was the first killed from a massive head wound while trying to find cover.
Sgt. Hess, Don and Ju Hmok were trapped. A 25-minute firefight followed.
The three were effective using M-60 machine guns, as well as fragmentation and phosphorous grenades. However, their best escape route soon became impassable when the VC lit the dry elephant grass in that area on fire. The combat became hand to hand. Don was able to shoot a VC attacking Sgt. Hess but Don was then hit with a bullet to his leg.
By the time Don could focus again, Sgt. Hess had been killed. Ju Hmok saw Don go down and Don's memory was that Ju assumed he was dead as well. Ju broke free and was last seen by Don running to safety. Firing as best he could, Don then ran directly through the burning grass and attacking Viet Cong. He killed two VC as he broke through to the cover of a ravine and was able to make his escape from the deadly encirclement.
Photo: March 20, 1973
Free at last on March 16, 1973
Below is a two-minute compilation video from press corps film with Don’s release at Gai Lam Airport outside of Hanoi and arrival at Clark Air Force Base. After I found the film, which ran nearly two hours, I had a hard time recognizing Don among the prisoners in his brief footage. Weighing barely 100 pounds, you will notice how stiff his walking is from bullet wounds to his legs and years of torture. Getting off the plane at Clark AFB, he's clearly enjoying the chewing gum that was handed out on his flight.
Photo: In front of the “Hanoi Hilton” Don is standing 4th in on the far right.
Don was moved to several POW camps during the next four years. He watched his fellow prisoners killed in front of him or die from torture, disease and starvation. He would attempt multiple unsuccessful escapes, which caused the ongoing tortures to be even more severe. Certain methods of tortures he survived are too shocking to elaborate on here.
He went from 190 pounds to barely 100 in a very short time. He lived on rancid soups made from rotted squash or pumpkins, ate rice infested with maggots and was rationed barely enough water to survive on.
There were periods when the meager camp food supply was unavailable due to the chemical defoliation going on by U.S. Forces. At one point, he stealthily developed a way to raise rats for food. He endured intestinal parasites, beriberi, jungle rot, respiratory infections, and more. Amazingly, he found ways to do daily exercises!
When freed, he’d require parts of his nose, cheekbones, jaw and ribs rebuilt with plastic bone inserts. His fingernails had all been routinely pulled out. He needed large areas of scars from beatings on his back treated. The emotional damage from years of torture, isolation, terror, hopelessness and illness would take its toll.
Sgt. Don MacPhail
By: ASHF President, Mark G. Maloy
Photos: Sgt. Kenneth Hess and Pfc. Nathaniel Irving
Ten days later, two companies of the 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry reached the firefight area where they found the bodies of Sgt. Hess and Pfc. Irving.
Infantrymen mistook Team C Scout Ju Hmok for “a wounded but armed NVA soldier” and killed him at a distance. He apparently had hidden successfully after the assault and was running towards the soldiers for rescue. (Source: "Rangers At War, LRRPs in Vietnam")
23-year-old Sgt. Kenneth Hess was only weeks away from his tour ending. While in Vietnam, his wife had given birth to a son he would never see. History repeated itself - Sgt. Hess’s father had died in WWII before Kenneth was born.
21-year-old Pfc. Nathaniel Irving appears to have had the nickname “Dobie Jones” according to Don MacPhail’s recollection of the team and attack. Pfc. Nathaniel Irving would have a daughter born to him 6 months after he was killed.
Click below directly on "NBC News Report" to open video
My bracelet is in a display box with the photo of Don being reunited with his brother. It sits on a shelf at our A Square Heroes Foundation “office” in my Concord, CA condo. Next to it are books about Vietnam and a few of them offer stories about Don.
Some of these books came out around the time I found Don and I sent him a copy of “Glory Denied”. It’s author, Tom Philpott, had interviewed Don extensively in the mid 1980’s for it. The book wasn’t published until 2001. Don’s Company K story is featured in “Rangers at War”. He also gets a mention in “Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia 1961-1973”.
Don passed away in September 2011 at home of cancer, he was only 63. I didn’t know he was ill when I wrote him in early 2011 telling him about the research I was doing on my late Uncle Bob Maloy’s WWII service. Research, and the relationships formed from it, that would become our A Square Heroes Foundation. I did tell him that wearing his bracelet and my later search for him gave me the inspiration to find out everything I could about my beloved Uncle.
As long as I live, I will regret not having met Don in person and thanking him. He will always be a part of the work we do for vets. I owe a debt of gratitude as well to Irene Pfeffer Scherer who gave me his bracelet in 1971. Irene, I didn’t let you down!
It is my hope to someday give my bracelet to Don’s son, Ian MacPhail.
Photos: Sgt. Don MacPhail circa 1976 and his son Ian MacPhail in 2018