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POW/MIA recognition day honoring warriors of the past

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MCLB-ALBANY — Logistics Base-Albany conducted its annual POW/MIA Recognition Day breakfast ceremony Friday to honor all comrades-in-arms who were held as prisoners of war by an enemy or who remain missing in action and unaccounted for.

The guest speaker for Friday’s ceremony was retired Army Col. Quin Herlik, who was shot down and captured while commanding an aviation company in Vietnam.

“Today is a day that we, as a grateful nation, come together to honor and recognize America’s prisoners of war, those still missing in action and their families,” MCLB Executive Director Kent Morrison said. “I do not possess the capability to put into words what today means to those of us who live under the flag of a free people. We can only pray that all of America will meet the future challenges and threats with the same courage, commitment and spiritual determination that warriors like Col. Herlik did.

“What we must all try to do, however, is through ceremonies such as these, put into action what we feel for those who stand here today as survivors and acknowledge, honor, remember and say thank you to those that believed in selflessness and simple obedience to duty.”

Herlik entered the U.S. Army as a 2nd lieutenant of field artillery in 1955. He served as chief of staff on the Joint Task Force in Alaska, as operations chief on the President’s 747 Airborne Command Post and commanded an Artillery Battery and Group in Germany.

Herlik flew more than 4,000 hours in 19 different types of Army aircraft and helicopters, including 912 hours under combat conditions during 478 missions over South Vietnam. It was during one of these missions in 1969 that Herlik was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese Army.

“I am both honored and privileged to be here,” Herlik said. “I find it disconcerting to be introduced as a distinguished guest and ex-POW. It is a dubious distinction at best. None of us ex-POWs feel distinguished. Nor do we feel that we are entitled to any accolades as a result of our imprisonment.

“We really didn’t do anything that any professional serviceman or woman wouldn’t do under the same circumstances. We were fighting for our country, our democratic way of life, our freedom and the freedom of others.”

Herlik was denied that freedom for more than a month after the fixed-wing reconnaissance aircraft he was flying was shot down by enemy gunfire.

“I saw the elephant,” said Herlik, referring to an old combat saying shared by soldiers who have seen action. “I was one of the lucky ones. I was very fortunate because I was only held prisoner for a relatively short time in the middle of the Vietnam War. On the day of my capture, I was commanding an aviation company of about 250 guys and about 50 pilots, most of them warrant officers.

“Our mission was radio intercept. When the Viet Cong, or the North Vietnamese, would broadcast, we would intercept those signals and then send this classified information by secure FM radio back to the ground, alerting the troops, and then the troops would go out and investigate it, sometimes getting the hell banged out of them. We were able to keep track of where these units were moving from day to day. Our unit was that good.”

For Herlik, the war took a literal nosedive on that February day when he and four comrades took heavy 37mm canon fire and their aircraft crashed in the jungle.

“In my particular airplane that day, because I had to write efficiency reports, I was flying a single-engine Otter, a high-wing thing that would hold 14 people in a passenger configuration,” he said. “There were four of us on board. One of the guys was a linguist who turned out to be my real ace in the hole, because he knew Vietnamese. It was Feb. 12, 1969, and we were close to the Cambodian border. Thirty-five hundred feet was the normal altitude.

“Anyway, the day I was shot down, the Otter got hit dead center in the engine. I felt the bird shutter, and all at once things got real quiet up there. You could see the prop start to slow down in a hurry, so I put the nose down and yelled at the co-pilots to call May-Day, because we were going in. I spotted a dried-up rice patty about half a mile inside of Cambodia, which I didn’t know at the time. There was a dike approaching, so I bounced hard on the main gear. I bounced it hard and we floated up over the dike and stood it on its nose, but we got it stopped.”

When they emerged from the aircraft, the crew saw troops from both the northwest and the southwest.

“We thought we were in the middle of a firefight,” he said. “It turned out we were in the middle of a battalion of Viet Cong inside of Cambodia. They took their time, but they came into us on four sides. All we had were two M-16s that the enlisted were assigned, and the officers, we had our .38 pistols. They came across the open ground, and it didn’t take long before the airplane started taking hits. We took up positions on each side of the plane, and you could see they were walking in mortars and RPGs. I crawled on my hands and knees over to the woodline, and called for the others, but they wouldn’t come because the ground started lighting up around us with .30-caliber (fire).

“I made it to a treeline. About the time I got in there, a couple of F-100s were coming off a mission and had heard our May-Day. They made two low passes — and I mean low. When they made their low passes, the Viet Cong scattered and started coming into the treeline to hide in there, too. One came right on top of me, and I got him with my .38. It turned out the treeline was just a little island of trees, and when I got to the other side, another one came at me and I got him. He had an AK-47, but I didn’t have the guts to go out in the open to pick it up. I went back in the treeline again, hiding in the bushes and for some reason I knew they were going to get me. So, I ripped my major’s rank off, I took my dog tags off, took my wallet out, all forms of ID, and buried it. Sure enough, four of them came down a trail. The first one got within about 15 feet of me before he spotted me. I had that pistol on him and I knew, at best, I could get him and maybe the guy behind him, but not the other two. I only had six rounds left. So, when he pointed that AK-47 at me, he didn’t pull the trigger and I didn’t either. I threw the pistol away and surrendered.”

Herlik and his comrades spent the next month in makeshift holding cells, which were literally holes in the ground. They were interrogated, beaten and marched for days to different locations in North Vietnam.

“They kept us bound, and we walked and walked,” said Herlick. “We came across the South Vietnamese one time, and they got in a firefight with us. Once we came across a farmhouse, and the lady thought we were South Vietnamese troops and she said, ‘Saigon, Saigon.’ That was the wrong thing to say. They killed her and her two kids in front of us and burned the farm.”

While in captivity, Herlik said he endured immense physical and mental abuse. The American soldiers were confined to a hole in the ground during the day and interrogated at night.

“They would get us out individually and ask us questions,” Herlik said. “There was a Viet Cong major that tried to interrogate me. I stuck to name rank and serial number, which is all that is required by the Geneva Convention. He would take a revolver, load a single round, spin the chamber, put the gun to my head and ask questions. Each time he would pull the trigger.”

After weeks of torment, Herlik and his comrades were given over to the Cambodians, who released them to the Australian Army.

“I heard later on that President Nixon had given the Cambodians four bulldozers,” Herlik said. “I don’t know if that was true or not. Some of the Navy river rats said they saw them going up river on a barge. Anyway, the Cambodians eventually turned us over to the Australians, who wined and dined us. The next morning they put us on a Burmese C-47, and we flew from Phnom Penh to Bangkok.”

Herlik retired from the Army after 30 years, receiving the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Joint Service Commendation Medal, 25 Air Medals and the Army Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster. He has received numerous service and campaign medals and is the holder of the Master Army Aviation Wings and the Joint Chief of Staff Identification Badge.

Inspired by his experience, Herlik remains active in Veterans Affairs, is a past commander of the American Ex-Prisoners of War in Georgia, and is currently the commander of the Greater Augusta Chapter of American Ex-POW’s.

Herlik resides in Augusta with his wife and has three children.

 

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(c)2016 The Albany Herald, Ga. — www.albanyherald.com

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