Col. Murphy "Neal" Jones told his story during a "Chat with A Hero" at the AMC Museum
Capt. Murphy “Neal” Jones knew he was in trouble when the 105mm anti-aircraft round smashed into his F-105D aircraft over Hanoi, North Vietnam. The blast ripped the floor from the heavily-built Thunderchief, giving the 28-year-old Air Force officer a fleeting view of the ground rushing by only 300 feet below.
Years of training and practice kicked in. As the aircraft started to roll onto its side, Jones yanked the yellow handles that would jettison its canopy and kick him away from the disintegrating aircraft.
Calmly Jones again pulled the handles, squeezing its trigger grips. This time the system worked, although unexpectedly punching him through the still-attached canopy and shooting his body and seat into the air while traveling more than 620 mph.
The high-velocity ejection and rough landing -- he estimates he bounced at least 15 feet into the air -- broke his left arm, dislocated his shoulder, cracked six vertebrae and severely damaged his knees. He landed with his right leg full of shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shell.
Jones immediately was surrounded by dozens of rifle-toting Vietnamese soldiers, seemingly eager to execute him on the spot.
It was June 29, 1966, and Jones was about to spend the next 2,421 days of his life as a prisoner of war.
The Hanoi Hilton
Now 80 years old and a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, Jones recently spoke at the Air Mobility Command Museum about his time in North Vietnamese POW camps, including the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” It was more than six-and-a-half years of torture, humiliation, utter boredom and sudden terror.
A Louisiana native who attended Tulane University on a football scholarship, Jones and his family were stationed in Japan when he was ordered to fly the first bombing mission directly over Hanoi. His was one of 24 aircraft assigned to attack a huge petroleum storage area near the city, a mission personally approved by President Lyndon Johnson.
Jones had a disquieting feeling about this mission, he said. The night before, he wrote a letter to his wife, Glenda, saying he would not be coming back. His roommate dismissed his worries.
Another omen appeared when a chaplain blessed the two dozen departing aircraft. The priest, he noticed, paid particular attention to his Thunderchief.
“I wondered, why is that guy giving me the sign of the cross. He didn’t do it to the other airplanes,” Jones said. “Well, I found out shortly afterward.”
Upon landing, with his left arm dangling uselessly at his side, Jones used his right arm to draw and cock his .45 caliber pistol, aiming it at the advancing soldiers.
The men dropped to the ground and leveled their AK-47 rifles at him.
“I decided I was no John Wayne,” he admitted and surrendered the weapon.
Another soldier grabbed his broken left arm and put it in a hammerlock.
“That was the first time I really felt any pain,” Jones said. “I guess the adrenaline was pumping.”
Jones’ reaction was instantaneous.
“I spun around and I hit this guy harder than I’ve ever hit anybody,” he said. “I hit him square in the nose. I think I killed him.”
He expected to be shot, but instead, the soldiers put a rope around his neck and cut away his clothing, leaving him only in his underwear and powder-blue socks.
But the worst was to come.
Jones was interrogated, tied up and beaten for more than two hours. One soldier put a rifle to the back of his head and pulled the trigger.
The hammer fell on an empty chamber.
“What do you think when you think you’re going to die?” Jones said. “I really didn’t care at that time. I would have welcomed the bullet.”
Dressed in a nondescript flying suit, Jones was given a piece of gauze for use as a sling and driven through the streets of Hanoi in the back of an army truck. Put in front of an international corps of reporters, Jones was shown off as a war trophy.
“I kept thinking, don’t do anything stupid, don’t cower, don’t show any indication of defeat. I hope I did that,” he said.
Walking into the room, Jones stood as tall as he could and snapped off a sharp salute.
“People have asked me, who were you saluting, and I say, ‘My country.’” His captors were not pleased with his gesture and tortured him again.
He didn’t know it at the time, but the truck ride and news conference were filmed by a Japanese crew; Glenda saw the footage on television two days afterward, her first indication her husband was alive. He discovered the film years after his release and showed it during his talk at the Museum.
Over the years, the torture turned into mind-numbing boredom. Jones and the others kept their sanity by developing a numeric code they used to tap out clandestine messages to each other. Guards would mete out severe beatings if anyone was caught, he said.
Chained to a cement bed, sometimes for days on end, Jones mentally revisited and relearned his college Spanish lessons.
Return to Vietnam
After his release on Feb. 12, 1973, Jones returned to active duty. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions and later the Silver Star and Legion of Merit for his resistance to the North Vietnamese torture tactics.
In October 1998, Jones returned to Vietnam for two weeks with Glenda, visiting three of his former prisons. The sight of their old cells and the smells inside the prisons brought back many memories he and 13 other former POWs shared with their wives.
“I wanted her to see where we had been,” he said. It was eerie, sitting around a Hanoi bar 30 years later relating those stories, Jones said.
“We would laugh at the things that had happened to us because you had to keep your humor,” he said.
Glenda was mother and father to the couple’s two children while he was a captive. She moved them back to Louisiana, bought a home and earned a degree in elementary education.
“I guess as a parent, you take one day at a time and you do the best you can do,” she said. She had a lot of support from her nearby family and neighbors to help through difficult times, Glenda said.
Several years after his Air Force retirement, Jones was named the director of development for athletics at his alma mater, Tulane. He retired in 2000 and has been inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame.
The couple recently left their longtime home in Louisiana and now live in Magnolia.