Wednesday, November 25, 2020
POW Bracelet Leads to Friendship Years Later
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Richard and Pat Bruder moved from Chicago to Sun Valley.
   
Monday, November 9, 2020
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

William Spencer’s world turned upside down as he felt his F-4 Phantom hit by a heat-seeking missile fired from an MiG-21 that had come up underneath him. In a split second it began cartwheeling its fiery way to the ground, its tail section and left wing missing.

The 29-year-old Air Force pilot pulled a handle, allowing his fellow crew man to eject. Three-quarters of a second later, he ejected, pulling the strings on his parachute as he descended 15,000 feet into enemy territory.

As he drifted down over North Vietnam, he saw two of the three F-4s he’d been flying with circling above. He reached for his survival radio, hoping to let his family know he was okay: “This is Bass Zero Two Alpha. I’m in a chute. I’m A-OK. See you after the war.”

 
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Pat Bruder learned that she and Ret. Lt. Col. William Spencer have a love of fishing in common when she recently connected with her POW.
 

Captured moments later, he became a Prisoner of War imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. And with that, Spencer became the unknowing acquaintance of a high school sophomore named Pat Bruder who would wear a POW bracelet with his name emblazoned on it until the end of the war.

The story didn’t end there, however.

Forty-five years later, while sorting through boxes of old photos and books as she prepared to move from Chicago to Sun Valley, Bruner found the bracelet. Curious, she set out to find the pilot whose bracelet she’d worn for nine months.

“I thought, no way am I going to find this guy, but I googled and learned that he lived in Utah. I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me. He lives—in Utah—so close. I called and I said, ‘I think you’re my William Spencer. I do a lot of volunteer work with military groups like Ride2Recovery and Higher Ground. So, if you don’t want to meet me, I understand.”

Spencer suggested they meet over flyfishing at Henrys Fork where he vacations every year. And slowly a picture emerged for the former high school girl of what he and his fellow prisoners had endured.

“I learned of the unfathomable hardships at the hands of the Viet Cong. And I was inspired by the man who rose from these hardships to live a full life, a man who has a deep love of God and country, a man living a selfless life and a man giving back and caring for others,” she said.

Bruder attended a high school in Chicago when she and her sister made a couple donations in return for their stainless steel POW bracelets. Their father had served in the Army during World War II and their mother was an Army nurse.

“The war was my first exposure to how we can hurt one another. And I couldn’t fathom how horrible it would be to be taken captive and not to have anyone think of you.”

Her sister’s POW never returned. But Bruder learned that the POW she’d held in her thoughts all these months was released as the war neared its end. She put a blue adhesive star on the bracelet to indicate he’d been released. Then, as she graduated from high school, she put the bracelet away and never thought of it again.

A native of Brownsville, Texas, Spencer had just graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American  when he voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. He had a high draft number and volunteering allowed him to train as a pilot at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.

He flew for three years in the Philippines, then went to Thailand where he escorted gunships at night and destroyed trucks moving equipment to South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He had been bombing missile sites in North Vietnam for six months when he was shot down on July 5, 1972.

“As I landed, I tried to get to the shelter of the jungle,” he said. “But there was nothing but rice paddies. They caught me quickly, blindfolded me and I spend the night on a truck to Hanoi.”

Spencer spent most of his nine months in captivity at Hanoi Hilton, a concrete prison built by the French whose most famous captive was the late Sen. John McCain. Its high windows offered little light and no opportunity to see out. The only heat was from lightbulbs that were turned off at night. It was cold in winter and hot in summer. Spencer slept on the concrete floor at first; then, on bed boards that looked like doors.

He and the others ate stale bread that the weevils hadn’t eaten and a little weak tea. On occasion, they were treated to pumpkin soup made with boiled rinds of pumpkin and kohlrabi soup with sides of  kohlrabi.

“Once in awhile they fed us pig rind—stuff they didn’t want to eat. It still had hair on it, but we ate it because we wanted the protein,” said Spencer, who drew on his faith in God to get him through.

The prisoners refused to work, he said, as it would have broken the code of conduct against aiding the enemy. He did learn French from fellow prisoners but not enough to warrant a trip to Paris.

He was released on March 29, 1973.

“I was quite elated,” he said. “Being imprisoned is not a wonderful thing. You don’t know what’s going on in the world around you. Not know what’s going on outside—that’s the hardest thing. Especially not knowing how my family was doing, them not knowing how I was doing.”

Spencer flew from Hanoi to the Phillippines where he had been stationed, then to Hawaii and San Antonio where he underwent a three-day physical.

“I was pasty white. I’d lost weight. I hadn’t had much exercise,” he recounted. “And my mind was empty of events—political events, sporting events.”

A few weeks after his release, Spencer and his fellow POWs were invited to a steak dinner on the lawn of the White House where they were entertained by John Wayne, Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart. The White House brought in helicopters to dry out the law ahead of the dinner, and the POWs were allowed to wander through the White House where Spencer bumped into President Nixon fixing his tie.

“I thanked him for bringing us home with honor,” he said.

After practically starving, Spencer had no capacity for eating.

“In prison I’d craved a big steak, chocolate malt, ice cream with chocolate syrup—any homemade food. I’d lost 27 pounds, and I was in good condition when I was shot down so I didn’t have any weight to lose. But it took awhile to stretch my stomach so I could eat again.”

 

 

After marrying, Bruder and her husband Richard volunteered with the USO, serving on the board, serving Thanksgiving dinners at the Great Lakes Naval Base and welcoming home soldiers returning from Afghanistan.

They volunteered with Ride2Recovery, teaching veterans who have lost limbs or suffered traumatic brain injuries or PTSD to ride specially made bikes.

And, when they moved from to Sun Valley, Bruder began volunteering with Higher Ground, earning her Level 1 classification so she could teach “never evers”—those who have never skied before—on Dollar Mountain.

“It’s so rewarding. I don’t know who cries more when the week’s over,” she said.

Spencer said he thought it very interesting that Bruder felt it important to contact him after all these years.

“I did not know that there were people out there wearing a bracelet with my name on it while I was a prissosner. I found that out after I came home. I had more than a hundred mailed to me,” said Spencer, who had a seat cover business upon returning home.

“The fact that Pat was the last to return my bracelet made hers unique. And she’s such a vivacious women—so patriotic. That meant a lot to me. I was honored that she took the time to seek me out.”

Bruder called it a miracle that she found him.

“And it was so inspiring to learn how he never cried through his whole ordeal until he went to the White House and Irving Berlin sang ‘God Bless America.’ It was in that moment that he felt he was truly home at last.”

Spencer, who was awarded several medals for his 92 combat missions, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and the Meritorious Service Medal, noted how he had just finished reading a book about George Washington. And, he said, he was struck learning how God helped Washington and the Founding Fathers establish the United States of America.

“There’s no greater way to understand how wonderful our nation is then to be without freedom for any period of time. To not see a flag there, to not hear the ‘Star Spangled Banner’…when you don’t have freedom, you really come to understand how wonderful our nation is.”

 

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