From my journalism archives: Former Air Force pilot POW takes Finis Flight

Working at the Randolph Wingspread on Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio, I had the immense privilege of meeting some of the most wonderful people. You know, people who are far more deserving than to be stuck living life here on earth.

Such a person was Colonel Albert Burer (his surname rhymes with pure), who after being shot down over North Vietnam as a combat pilot spent seven years as a prisoner of war. Amazing man, and I received the honor of interviewing him at his home for this article. He attended POW/MIA Remembrance Day services at Randolph in 2002, and I wrote this article to tell his story. Colonel Bure (as a sign of respect, I prefer to refer to even retired military officers by their rank) struck me as an incredibly-resilient man, loving his country and his faith in God never wavering despite the unspeakable treatment he must’ve received.

Again, such is the man that the world is completely unworthy of.

 

Retired colonel reflects on time spent as POW

Attaining a greater respect for freedom

God, Family and Country credited with helping former pow survive nearly seven years in captivity

By Richard Zowie

Wingspread staff writer

(Originally published in the Randolph Wingspread in 2002; reprinted with permission)

Bases across San Antonio will hold Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Recognition Day ceremonies today to honor those who’ve served as prisoners of war and to memorialize those listed as missing in action.

Retired Colonel Arthur Burer, a former POW who spent nearly seven years imprisoned in North Vietnam, will attend a POW/MIA remembrance service at Lackland Air Force Base’s Air Intelligence Agency today.

During the Vietnam War, Colonel Burer’s mission was to fly RF-101 aircraft on reconnaissance missions into high-threat areas in North Vietnam.

“Our primary mission was to get pre-strike reconnaissance and then fly back and get bomb damage assessment after our combat airplanes struck the targets,” explained Colonel Burer. “Our job was to help prevent the enemy from moving equipment to their forces.”

The colonel would take pictures of the targets before and after the strike using cameras mounted onto the reconnaissance airplanes.

During his 40th mission, March 21, 1966, his aircraft was struck by ground fire. He suffered burn injuries and ejected from the aircraft.

Once on land, he immediately saw several North Vietnamese soldiers running toward him. They chased him into the water and caught him about 300 feet from the shore.

“The further out I went, the deeper it got and the harder it became to move in the water,” Colonel Burer recalled. “When they caught me, it was terrifying.”

The colonel was initially placed in solitary confinement, where he spent two total years during his incarceration. He was moved a few weeks later into a prison camp.

The North Vietnamese interrogated Colonel Burer several times to try to obtain information and tried to brainwash him and other POWs into communist thinking.

“We gave only our name, rank and serial number, in accordance with the Code of Conduct,” the colonel explained.

Colonel Burer recalled that when the mental games didn’t work, the North Vietnamese resorted to physical torture. Although North Vietnam had signed the Geneva Convention, he noted, they considered it inapplicable toward American POWs.

“The North Vietnamese considered us criminal air pirates who’d flown into their country illegally,” Colonel Burer explained. “They felt they could treat us anyway they wanted and wouldn’t be held accountable.”

At first, Colonel Burer and the others resisted the torture but eventually gave what the captors thought was “useful” information.

“We didn’t have much tactical information after that length of time since we didn’t know what else our units were doing,” he explained. “We gave them lies when they tortured us severely enough, saying things like, ‘Major Bugs Bunny will conduct a bridge bombing.’”

Fortunately, the North Vietnameses’ lack of knowledge about American culture made these stories seem believable.

Despite all the hardships, Colonel Burer never doubted that he and the other prisoners would be released.

“I was the biggest optimist in the camp,” he explained. “I had faith in God, in my country and my family.”

Finally, on Feb. 12, 1973, Colonel Burer and the other POWs were released from prison. After spending time at Andrews AFB, Md., for medical treatment, he was reunited with his wife and four children.

“Being a POW gave me a greater respect for freedom and its value,” the colonel explained. “I feel that people should respect our flag and our country, since we live in the best country in the world.”

After a vacation with his family, Colonel Burer requalified on the T-38 aircraft at Randolph. He also took his “finis” flight at Randolph with the 560th Flying Training Squadron. Finally, in 1983 after 32 years of service, Colonel Burer retired.

Through the years since, he has spoken openly about his experiences as a former POW to various organizations.

“I have no problem talking about my experiences,” the colonel explained. “My wife and kids know how I stand and about what happened. I wasn’t bothered by post-traumatic syndrome. I put the war behind me. I did what I was supposed to do and took beatings and woundings for it. But that was what my country was worth to me.”

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