ALLENTOWN, Pa. - When dawn broke on February 11, 1965, Robert Shumaker was on top of the world.
The graduate of the United States Naval Academy was an F-8D pilot assigned to VF-154 on board the carrier USS Coral Sea. He was a handsome young pilot with a beautiful wife and a newborn son.
But February 11 was not Shumaker's day, not by a long shot. His plane was ambushed and shot down by 37 mm anti-aircraft cannon fire.
"You could be riding high and some tragedy falls on you," Shumaker told a standing-room crowd Thursday night at the Lehigh Valley Active Life Center in Allentown as part of the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project.
Shumaker's day was about to get much, much worse.
When he ejected from the plane his parachute didn't open. He finally got the secondary parachute to open - 35 feet above the ground. When he hit the ground, his back was literally broken.
"Just before I left [for Vietnam], an insurance salesman had visited us. I sent him away," he recalled.
Lying on the ground, he recalled thinking, "Damn, I should have bought more life insurance."
It was too late for that, and with a broken back his prospects were not favorable. He was a sitting duck for the North Vietnamese. The Viet Cong were in no mood to provide sympathy. The took out their vengeance on Shumaker who became the second navy aviator prisoner of war of the Vietnam conflict.
To introduce Shumaker to what was in store, the troops blindfolded him and placed him in a Jeep, where he was driven 200 miles to Hanoi. He was taken before a firing squad. He was paraded through towns to serve as Communist propaganda, where he was hit with sticks and rocks by angry townspeople.
As for the broken back, Shumaker never got so much as an aspirin. Eventually, the back healed in about six months.
He was placed in various prisoner of war camps. He would spend the next eight years in captivity. Shumaker decided the most important thing he could do was preserve his honor and his integrity.
That thought was put to the test at the infamous Hoa Lo Prison. You might know it by its nickname, the "Hanoi Hilton." Shumaker said he was the man who crafted the nickname.
There was a lot torture at the Hanoi Hilton, a lot of punishment, especially for a man who refused to help the Viet Cong advance their propaganda.
Shumaker said his legs were placed in irons for 16 hours a day for three years. Then, there was the time he was forced to stay in a cell for the winter with no heat and no blankets. The cell was four feet by nine feet.
He was forced to kneel at one point for a week straight. He was relegated to kneeling on broom handles with boards on his shoulders, and isolated for months on end in near darkness. There was also a rope trick that was particularly cruel.
"I couldn't sit up straight for a year," Shumaker recalled.
The meals weren't all that fabulous either.
"Cabbage soup," he recalls. "Every day, for six months."
Out of all of this, Shumaker said it was important for people to remember one thing.
"Never give up," he said.
Shumaker never gave up. The Communists could take his life, but they would never take his soul.
While in POW camps, he created a tap code which became a common system of communication with POWs in Vietnam. He spent a lot of time communicating with another prisoner named James Stockdale.
In 1992, Stockdale ran for vice president of the United States. He developed another friendship with a prisoner, who went on to become an elected federal official in the federal.
"My friend, John McCain," Shumaker said of the U.S. senator from Arizona and the 2008 Republican presidential candidate.
He said there was something else during those eight years. Jokes. Fun.
"It's important that you don't lose your sense of humor," he told the crowd.
Shumaker was released in Operation Homecoming on February 12, 1973. He was promoted to the rank of commander.
"It was a real joy the day I was released," he recalled.
There was no bitterness in Shumaker on Thursday. He just reported what happened. An 84-year old man telling stories.
"Am I over my time," he asked the crowd at one point.
"We'll listen to you talk all night," one audience member replied.
After captivity, Shumaker attended U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He earned a master's degree and a Ph.D., both in electrical engineering. Schumaker went on to serve as project manager for smart missiles with the Naval Air Systems Command.
He later became superintendent of the Naval Postgraduate School. His final assignment in the Navy was at the Pentagon. Schumaker retired in 1988 at the rank of rear admiral. He later became assistant dean at George Washington University and later an associate dean in the Center of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota.
Among his combat awards are the Distinguished Service Medal, two Silver Stars, four Legion of Merit awards, Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and the Navy Commendation Medal.
He provided the crowd with a few thoughts to keep in mind. This topped the list.
"We are so privileged to be American citizens," he said.
Prior to his speech, which included a slide show of pictures and drawings of his captivity, Shumaker was introduced by Mike Sewards, who had the formidable task of introducing him. Instead of a lengthy introduction, Sewards introduced Shumaker with just five words.
"Please welcome an American hero," Sewards said.
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