Returned with Honor

Col. Bernard Leo “Bunny” Talley, Jr. (U.S. Air Force, retired), a native of Baltimore, Md., entered the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in June 1962 after graduating from Mount Saint Mary’s University with a bachelor’s degree in economics. In May 1965, he was awarded his pilot wings and began flying F-4C Phantom jets. Less than a year later, this 26-year-old 1st Lt. volunteered for deployment to Vietnam.

On the night of September 10, 1966, while flying his 76th mission, his plane was shot down. He became the 125th American captured, along with Capt. Douglas “Pete” Peterson. Their parachutes landed east of Hanoi, near An Doai village, a site Col. Talley revisited in 1999. Severely injured, Capt. Peterson was captured immediately, while Lt. Talley evaded capture for 26 hours. Once captured, he would remain a prisoner of war (POW) in unsanitary, infested conditions with little food or medical attention for the next 2,369 days. It would be three years before his parents learned he was still alive and reclassified as a POW, based on information obtained by a Swedish diplomat.

During his initial hours of capture, Lt. Talley experienced three brushes with death. First, a threatened beheading by a machete and, next, after a heated interrogation, he was placed in front of a firing squad, blindfolded and bound. After eventually arriving at the Hoa Lo indoctrination prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton,” the camp commander warned punishment would result from talking, reading, writing, exercising or refusing to respectfully bow to any Vietnamese. His initial interrogation session, beating and torture, concluded with a death sentence for his non-compliance. Lt. Talley says, by this time “God had intervened” so often since his capture that he believed he was safe in God’s hands.

Ultimately, he was placed in a filthy five-foot by seven-foot solitary confinement cell that became his home for the next six months, almost exclusively laden in leg irons and hand manacles. Interrogations focused on military-related information, but soon evolved into demanding propaganda, including asking him to write anti-war letters and confessions of war crimes. These demands always resulted in severe and prolonged torture because of Lt. Talley and his fellow POWs’ resistance.  

Lt. Talley reflected on his first Christmas in captivity. “It was the longest night of my life, but it turned out to be one of the most memorable I had ever experienced.” In solitary confinement, alone, shackled and emotionally beat down, he focused on memories of Christmases past, remembering the joyous holiday spirit, the nativity scene, midnight mass, the decorated tree, gifts and family.

Time passed slowly, but he soon learned the “tap code” method of communication between cells, generally ending in GBU, which meant “God bless you.” It was a source for optimism, connection and sanity among the POWs in their committed resistance to their captors. POWs utilized other methods, such as talking under a blanket into a cup against the cell wall or hand signals to communicate between buildings. The frustrated Vietnamese were never able to stop the communication, in spite of the punishment administered.

Eventually, Lt. Talley was assigned a cellmate, Capt. Robert “Percy” Purcell, who was ending his 17 months in solitary confinement. During their three years together, Lt. Talley learned many life lessons, including how communication was crucial to work through differences of opinion that come up between people. Not surprisingly, the two became lifelong friends.

Senior-ranking POWs required all prisoners maintain discipline and unity by performing many tasks to keep their minds and bodies active. Each man performed three mandatory activities. Every Sunday, they would stand and recite the Lord’s Prayer, then, the Pledge of Allegiance and they had to exercise daily. He remembered it was uplifting to know that, although separated by cells on Sunday, everybody in camp was saying the prayer and pledge.

Prison conditions improved in 1970 with the death of North Vietnam’s president, Ho Chi Minh, and after a failed U.S. rescue attempt on the Son Tay prison camp. The near success of the rescue attempt caused most POWs held in less secure prisons to be moved into the now overcrowded Hanoi Hilton. POWs were housed in groups of 20 to 50, in large, open rooms. Maj. Talley and the others passed time teaching each other anything they had knowledge of. He taught economics, while others taught languages, engineering, dairy farming, wine tasting and various other subjects, all from memory. Using stolen contraband, they created chessboards and figures, playing cards, poker chips, writing instruments and other objects. Maj. Talley was asked to be his cell’s chaplain, based on his years of Catholic education and Jesuit training. This all contributed to some quality of life for the prisoners.

Following a January 1973 cease-fire, the Vietnam conflict ended. Operation Homecoming POW repatriation flights began February 12, with the first 125 POWs released based on health and time in captivity. On March 4, 1973, weighing 50 pounds lighter, Maj. Talley was returned to freedom. After initial stops in the Philippines and Hawaii, for medical evaluations and care, they continued to the U.S. mainland. The C-141 aircraft did several 360-degree turns over the Golden Gate Bridge to ensure all the airmen saw this iconic sight representing “freedom and home” to them.

In March 1973, Maj. Talley joined the USAF Reserve. He became a pilot and flight academy instructor with American Airlines for a 26-year career. His military reserve duty included serving as commander of the 78th Air Refueling Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base in La. This was followed by a promotion to colonel and the position of vice commander of the 452nd Air Refueling Wing at March Air Force Base in Calif., from 1984 until Col. Talley’s military retirement in October 1988.

During his military service, Col. Talley was awarded two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit with a bronze oak leaf cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Bronze Stars with Valor, two Purple Hearts, a POW medal and numerous others.

Col. Talley’s home office is filled with the memorabilia of a distinguished Air Force career. There is a glass jar with more than 400 copper and silver POW bracelets, each with a “Maj. Bernard Talley 9-10-66” inscription. Americans wore bracelets to remember and draw national attention to the American POWs plight while in captivity. He still receives bracelets each year to add to his collection. “It meant so much to know people were thinking of us. Each bracelet is a part of someone’s heart,” says Col. Talley.

Almost every Veterans Day, for the past nine years, Col. Talley has spoken to classrooms of local elementary school students. This past year, Col. Talley addressed more than 900 students, teachers and parents at Allen ISD’s Lindsey Elementary.

After retiring from American Airlines in 1999, Col. Talley and his wife, Devon, moved to Frisco and built the home he had designed in his mind while a POW. One of his proudest moments came last year with the birth of his first grandchild. His daughter, Emily Rose, and her husband, Dikran, named their son “Leo” after his grandfather.

Col. Talley and the other 590 POW “returnees” exemplified faith, duty and an indomitable spirit in the face of incredible adversity. These extraordinary men returned with honor — something their captors never took from them.