An interview with General Charles G. Boyd. At 77, the only Vietnam POW four-star still has the spirit he had in his combat missions.
U.S. Air Force video // Andrew Arthur Breese
Retired Gen. Charles G. Boyd reached into his left pocket and pulled out two silver dollars, which were tied to a superstition he habitually practiced as a fighter pilot in Vietnam.
“There they are,” he said. “I can’t tell you why I did that, but I never went anywhere, particularly on a mission, without those two silver dollars.”
Boyd lost them when he was shot down on his 105th F-105 Thunderchief mission. He was subsequently captured by the North Vietnamese and remained a prisoner of war for 2,488 days, but he replaced the silver dollars soon after he was finally released in 1973.
Although his days of flying combat missions are long gone, Boyd, the owner of three Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts, still has the fighter pilot’s heart for adventure, just like the silver dollars in his pocket. At the age of 77, he loves to ride one of his BMW motorcycles or fly his T-34 Mentor — the same plane he flew in pilot training — from the small airport near his home in Virginia. The pride of being an Airman never left Boyd, the only POW in Vietnam who became a four-star general.
“It’s part of my soul. It’s who I am,” Boyd said. “I could always imagine the freedom, the release of gravity to fly like a bird, even though I hadn’t actually flown an airplane myself until I got into Air Force pilot training. But somehow that picture emerged and developed in my mind before I actually flew an airplane.
“When I did fly, it pretty much reinforced what I had imagined, except it had a greater reality to it. There was a sense of power, freedom, maneuvering and liberty. To this day, I have found nothing else in life that scratches that particular itch.”
Six months into his combat tour, Boyd was shot down on April 22, 1966, over Laos. He spent seven years as a POW at the Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton. After his release during Operation Homecoming in 1973, Boyd declined to discuss his experiences for years because he was interested in looking forward, not back to the small cell in Hanoi.
“I made a significant effort in my life, and I think fairly successfully, to put that all behind me,” Boyd said. “I said, and I meant, when I was released and came home in 1973, that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life as a returned POW and nothing more. I’d lost about a fifth of my life at that point, and I didn’t want to waste anymore feeling sorry for myself or fussing over what otherwise might have been.”
Instead, he focused his energy on a new direction for his life. During his captivity, he’d learned much of the Spanish language through the tap code that was the communication lifeline for POWs in Vietnam. So he decided to build on what he learned and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Kansas, both in Latin American studies. He also progressed in his Air Force career, with assignments as 8th Air Force commander at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana; Air University commander at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama; and deputy commander in chief of the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart-Vaihingen, Germany. Boyd was promoted to four-star general on Dec. 1, 1992, and retired after 36 years in 1995.
Three years later, Boyd served as executive director of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century. Today, he’s chairman of the Center for the National Interest, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C.
Boyd credits his competitive spirit for his survival of seven years in captivity. Just as he still carries those two silver dollars, that spirit has never left him.
“Fighter pilots are competitive guys, and they don’t like to be defeated, and that goes beyond just flying airplanes,” Boyd said when his alma mater, the University of Kansas College of Liberal Arts and Sciences gave him the 2013-14 Distinguished Alumni Award. “To let the enemy get the best of you was not in our psychological makeup, I think, and fighter pilots do business alone. So I think you can handle solitary confinement, for example, better than some.”