In 2016, the Naval Historical Foundation is celebrating its 90th year as a non-profit institution. We are highlighting stories that honor our commitment to preserve, educate, and commemorate naval history. Retired Navy Captain and former Vietnam POW Ken L. Coskey remains a central figure in the storied history of this Foundation. This onth marks the 43rd anniversary of the return of Captain Coskey and the other of the Vietnam POWs to the United States from their long captivity.
On 6 September 1968, then-Commander Coskey was shot down in his A-6A Intruder over North Vietnam during a night reconnaissance mission near the city of Vinh. After being captured by the North Vietnamese Captain Coskey spent four and a half years imprisoned in Hanoi. He was released alongside 590 other Americans during Operation Homecoming in the spring of 1973.
Captain Coskey (1929-2013) served in leadership roles at the Naval History and Heritage Command (then Naval Historical Center) from 1979 to 1982 and as Executive Director of the Naval Historical Foundation from 1987 to 1999. He was a strong supporter of National History Day held each year for thousands of middle and high school students at the University of Maryland in College Park. As a testament to his steadfast commitment to history, the Naval Historical Foundation helped establish the Captain Ken Coskey Naval History Prize to recognize outstanding achievement in the field of naval history to aspiring young scholars. Mrs. Rosemary Coskey, his wife of 27 years, remains an active participant in the event each year.
Mrs. Coskey recently returned from a “Back to Vietnam” trip in January of this year. She has graciously agreed to share her experiences of traveling to Vietnam to honor her late husband and reflect on his incredible life story.By Rosemary Coskey
Vietnam is a very popular destination right now. When I was in Croatia in October our local guide said that was where she had picked for her vacation in January. Many friends have recently gone there or have plans to visit in the near future.
Because my late husband spent 4.5 years there as a POW, I had been curious. We had never talked of going there together although many POW families have since been back. I do wish I could have gone with him but it did not work out that way.
Two years ago my neighbors told me about the recent tour they had just taken with a group of returning veterans. The trip was such a success they all got together and rented a house on the Outer Banks the following summer to have a reunion. What bonding! With such high praise, I decided to take a look at the specifics.
At first I had grave doubts. Would there be too much emphasis on the war in the the south? That really wasn’t my main interest. The big negative was that Hanoi was not included on the itinerary. How could I go to Vietnam and miss Hanoi? No way. I decided it would not be the trip I needed to take.
Fast forward two years. I was in my exercise class talking with a friend about our travels. She had been on the 2014 trip with my neighbors and casually remarked it had been the best trip of her life! Wow. I went home and got in contact with the tour leader to ask about plans for the 2016 trip. Yes, there was space for one more. I knew that was my opportunity for an amazing experience. My doubts receded. After a couple of weeks in Vietnam with the group, I decided I’d have built up the necessary confidence to proceed to Hanoi on my own. So, I signed on. And that’s how I ended up in Pleiku on January 18, on what would’ve been our 30th wedding anniversary.
The group I joined was so gracious and accepting of me. I didn’t quite fit in but I was wearing my husband’s POW bracelet so they quickly understood. My fellow travelers were mainly GIs with experiences confined to the war in the south and who had little interest in Navy’s role up north. There was one former Marine and one Navy corpsman, but the rest were Army. One man was the son of a pilot whose plane crashed into the side of a mountain in bad weather in 1967. Sixty years old, he was on the mission of a lifetime to visit the actual crash site, which he did. It was very moving for him, of course. He shared his deep emotions with us, as well as some poems he had written describing how it was for a son to lose his father years before. He now volunteers at the Wall in Washington and is active in the organization Sons and Daughters in Touch.
The tour ended in Nha Trang where the group split up and people went their separate ways. There were lots of photos and hugs all around. We had become a big family. I headed Cam Ranh, the large former U S Army air base now in civilian use. It was now time to begin my personal journey.My days in Hanoi went without a hitch. A personal guide had been hired for airport transfers and a full day of touring major sights. He was a 40-old Vietnamese man, husband and father of two young sons, who spoke quite good English. His father had been a career Army officer serving on the “other” side. He was kind and showed no animosity toward me, wife of one of the “air pirates”. I learned that the Vietnamese have great respect for their elders so he was constantly looking out for me. A very kind soul. I saw most everything on that one day, including the Hoa Lo Prison. It was a bit overwhelming, even though just a shadow of its former self. A new hotel towers over it, taking most of the land it formerly occupied. I naturally wanted to photograph everything and so my phone battery died midway through. My faithful guide offered to take whatever additional pictures I wanted on his phone and email them later. So thoughtful!
After visiting the famous Halong Bay the following day, I still had one more free day to walk around the city alone. That allowed time for one more visit to the prison where I could spend as much time as I needed to really try to take it all in.
It’s hard to describe the feeling you get visiting the cells and seeing the displays. The prison was built in 1896 by the French and most of the focus is on Vietnamese prisoners and their treatment. But eventually the visitor comes to the spaces devoted to prisoners held during the “American” War. I had read about and was prepared for the communist propaganda that describes how well the POWs were treated and how content they were—able to practice their religion freely, attend church services, celebrate Christmas, decorate a Christmas tree, receive gifts from home, play chess and basketball, etc. Indeed, there were photographs and a video playing on a flat screen TV, backing back up their claims. Of course, we know better but it is their museum after all, not ours. Visitors should prepare themselves, but that’s another subject.
I was able to walk into dark, dank cells with concrete slabs for “beds” and try to imagine what it must’ve been like to face the heavy door, bolted shut, and those 4 walls for days, months, or years. The weather was unseasonably wet and cold that day and I was bundled up. But the prisoners were issued pajamas and rubber sandals. It made my heart ache for them. It was quite interesting to overhear comments of other visitors, mostly Americans. At times I felt the urge to say “My husband was one of them.” But I didn’t want to interfere with their visit or distract from my own purpose.
What I missed most, of course, was the company of my husband. It would have meant so much to hear his personal recollections. On my own, however, the visit was certainly the best it could be and well worth the trip.