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Bayou Icon | American Soldier

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Icon
Jul 1st, 2024
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ARTICLE BY GEORGIANN POTTS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK

Retired Air Force Colonel Bruce Seeber recently spoke about his amazing life – one that is an inspiration to us all, and which should be read by those who have little concept of the depth of sacrifice men and women have made to keep this country free and safe. Colonel Seeber was asked to describe his life overall, and he replied, “Lucky. I was lucky.” Not many who were held captive in Vietnamese prison camps would answer that way. This month we celebrate our nation’s birthday and honor all who have made our freedoms possible. It is fitting that Colonel Seeber is our July Bayou Icon. We thank him for his service.

Retired Air Force Colonel Bruce Seeber is a spry fellow at 91. Although he fusses some about occasional hearing aid malfunctions, and accepts (reluctantly, perhaps) the need for a cane at times, Bruce is clear-minded and does not show the residue of his rare life experience that would have defeated many.

Bruce’s life changed forever when he was a 32-year-old jet fighter pilot. Bruce was flying a bombing mission about 30 miles northeast of Hanoi, Vietnam, to bomb a railroad bridge. He estimates that it was likely his 50th mission, although he can’t be sure. (He had flown several missions into Laos, but those were not officially counted later on.) Bruce scored his hit and was pulling his F-86 fighter jet up to altitude when ground fire hit his aircraft. The plane immediately burst into flames making all controls inoperable. Bruce had only one choice — he pulled the ejection lever to free himself. Together the man and his jet fell to the earth, right in the midst of the enemy. 

Bruce’s military adventure is only one chapter in his remarkable life. To understand how he had the strength of character and will to survive being a POW for 7 years and then transition back into freedom again, one must look at more than those years in captivity. Only then does it become obvious how he has reached his 91st year remarkably fit, smart, and well-loved by his family and friends. 

MIDWESTERN ROOTS
Bruce was born in Atchison, Kansas, in 1933. His parents were from Kansas and Missouri, and both were teachers. His dad, Oscar, was a farmer, while his mom, Ione, was a homemaker after they married. The two had 5 children, with Bruce the youngest. There was a 15-year difference between the oldest and youngest child which meant that Bruce, the youngest, really didn’t get to be with his older siblings much. Several were already out of the house when he came along. When asked if he were spoiled being the baby, Bruce answers, “Probably.”

Before Bruce was born, the family had a pavilion around Sugar Lake. Missouri. In 1929, two tragedies struck: the pavilion was completely destroyed by fire, and the Great Depression began. The family moved first to Kansas City, Missouri, and later to a small town near Peoria, Illinois, where Bruce’s dad found work with Caterpillar. He worked there for 20 years. The family lived in the country where Bruce enjoyed growing up. 

AN ACCIDENTAL CAREER
In 1950 at age 17, Bruce enrolled at Illinois State Normal (now Illinois State University) and was studying to become a teacher when his two housemates devised a plan for a different career path. The Korean War was over in 1953, but the young men were concerned about the possibility of being called up for service. Bruce’s friends thought they should all get deferment letters to avoid serving. Bruce refused. “I just didn’t believe in doing that,” he says.

As an option, the boys decided to take the test for Aviation Cadet School with the U.S. Air Force. All three took the test, but only Bruce passed it. Suddenly, a new door opened for the young man. He had never even been in an airplane — let alone flown one — but he was eager!

Bruce spent his first several months in flight school learning to fly in a P-18 – a Piper Cub, an excellent plane for beginners. Next Bruce transferred to the T-6 – a North American Aviation trainer plane that was used by the Air Force for advanced pilot training. The next step was the T-28 – another North American Aviation trainer aircraft. With his T-28 Bruce practiced aerobatics including spins, stalls, loops, and rolls (his personal favorite). 

After about 9 months of flight training, Bruce began training in a Lockheed T-33, an American subsonic jet trainer. This first experience flying jets was exciting. “You had to be even more careful with speed and altitude while flying those jets,” Bruce explains. “They were very responsive.”

With one year of flight training and flying experience, Bruce was assigned to Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada. Nellis AFB is a fighter training base where Bruce took  advanced combat flight training in the F-86 – a transonic jet fighter aircraft. After 3 months, Bruce was assigned to England Air Force Base in Rapides Parish, Louisiana. This was his first trip to Louisiana.

LOVE, LUCK AND LOUISIANA
Bruce’s first assignment after flight school was to be one of love, luck, and opportunity. The usual time assigned to a base is relatively brief – usually about 3 years. Things were different for Bruce, because things were different in the world. He ended up being stationed at England AFB for 10 years.

During his time there, Bruce spent periods of time (usually 6 months each) assigned out of the country. The world was experiencing tensions and the U.S. Air Force was often on nuclear alert status. Bruce was deployed to Italy three times, to Germany once, and to Turkey once. His first deployment was to Italy in 1955 when he was 22 years old. “I enjoyed Italy. Our base was close to Cortina, the site of the 1956 Winter Olympics, and the food was excellent!” Bruce remembers. 

While Bruce was at England AFB, he often did night flying. He and another flyer went out to eat an early dinner at LeRoy’s Steak House before flying one evening in July 1959. Walking ahead of them into the restaurant was a young lady carrying an umbrella. The two friends settled in for dinner and watched as the young lady began playing piano for the club. “I think I fell in love the moment I saw her,” Bruce says.

There was an immediate attraction on both sides, and the two began dating. Several months later, Jane Wallace and Bruce were married. That marriage was a true love match, and they remained happily married for nearly 60 years until her death. Jane was from West Monroe, a connection that would prove invaluable later in their marriage when Bruce was shot down and held captive for so many years.

The couple had two children, daughters Suzy and Sally. Both were born at St. Francis Hospital in Monroe, and were a delight to their parents. When asked if becoming a husband and father changed him any, Bruce replied: “My priorities changed. Flying had been #1 in my life until then. After that, flying had to take a second seat.” When asked if he became a bit more careful in his flying afterward, he said, “There’s no such thing as not being careful when flying a fighter jet. Whether you are a husband and father or not, you always have to be careful in those!”

OVERSEAS DUTY WITH THE FAMILY 
After a decade at England AFB, Bruce was deployed to Japan’s Yokota AFB near Tokyo. Bruce went first, and Jane followed with their girls when Bruce had their housing arranged. 

The family settled into life on the base. According to Bruce, most amenities are located on the base itself – housing, shopping, dining, entertainment, etc. This meant that those based there didn’t have to leave the base unless they wanted to see something of the country that they were in. The Japanese language proved to be a hindrance for much sight-seeing. “The language was so difficult. We had difficulty understanding or speaking it, and road signs weren’t useful at all,” Bruce says.

In 1964, the North Vietnamese fired upon two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. That marked a major change in the U.S. military presence in Indochina. It was then, according to Bruce, that he realized that he was going to war.

Bruce was deployed three times to Korat, Thailand. His was the first squadron there. The differences brought about by the Gulf of Tonkin incident were immediate. “We had live bombs and ammunitions all around us there,” Bruce remembers. 

Bruce also remembers the frustrations that grew over time with the way the conflict was being managed. The Air Force plan was to bomb the Hanoi airfield. The order to do so didn’t come for 7 years. “The politicians handled everything,” Bruce says. “The generals had no say. The Secretary of Defense called all the shots.”

THE POW EXPERIENCE
Bruce was on his 3rd deployment in Thailand when his life took a dramatic turn. As Bruce and his flaming jet fell to earth, he felt the heat from the fire. His parachute was hanging nearby. Bruce quickly assessed his situation. He heard voices from two directions and saw several huts in the third. Grabbing his survival kit, Bruce went in the only direction available – up a steep hill. 

Bruce remained free for a little over a day before he was captured. He initially suffered a deep cut under his chin that bled profusely. Only later did he realize that he had also injured his back during his seat ejection. “You can take 25 G’s when you’re ejected. It creates some problems,” Bruce says.

Bruce’s first prisoner experience was six months in solitary confinement. He was not bothered much early on because of his rank. There were others shot down holding a higher rank than his (he was a captain at the time). The Viet Cong expected more valuable information to come from the upper ranks so they attracted the earliest attention. Although Bruce had experienced two previous “hairy” moments flying, he never really gave being taken prisoner much thought. “I always thought that that happened to someone else,” Bruce says.

On the day that Bruce went down, his wife and daughters were in Japan at the base. In an instant, two little girls who had just turned 4 and 5 the month before and their mother found themselves in a new life. As quickly as possible, Jane and the girls returned to the States to await Bruce’s homecoming. They made Jane’s hometown of West Monroe home base and began adjusting to their situation. Jane worked teaching private music lessons and earned her Master’s in music while the girls attended grade school. It would be 7 years before they would see Bruce again – 7 years that they could never recover as a family.

LIFE AS A POW
After the first 6 months in captivity, Bruce began undergoing interrogations. His captors insisted that he give them his biography – where he lived? What he did? “I could never understand why they wanted that. As with this and with other requests for information such as letters to our representatives and senators, just about everything we gave them was lies. I was trained never to give out actual facts, and I didn’t,” Bruce explained. 

When Bruce wouldn’t give them information, his captors began torturing him through food deprivation. “If you could call the food that they gave us ‘food’,” Bruce says. “It was ‘Sewer Green Soup’ made from boiling weeds they pulled from the ditches. Occasionally we would find a small bit of pig skin – with hair still attached – floating in there. We got this twice a day with a bowl of rice.” Bruce estimates that he lost 30 – 35 pounds while a POW. 

The captors added other forms of torture including forcing the men to kneel on their knees on concrete floors for hours. They had other forms of torture, all designed to break their prisoners’ wills. “The more senior officers had it worse,” Bruce says. “I think that personality played a part in all of that. If you were aggressive, they were more aggressive.”

The tortures came at intervals. There were “rest periods” that might last a week —  or a year — between sessions. The men were not allowed to speak aloud which made confinement even more stressful. To compensate, Bruce explained that the men used a “tap code” to communicate. By using finger taps on the walls and an ingenious alphabet-based code, the men could carry on conversations. “That tap code was a lifesaver,” Bruce says. “The Viet Cong were so anxious to break it, they would sit outside the walls with stethoscopes listening.”

Of all of his POW experiences, having to participate in the infamous Hanoi March in July 1966 was the one Bruce hated the most. Bruce and 50 other men were handcuffed in pairs, blindfolded, and driven from the camps to Hanoi. There they were paraded barefoot through the streets. Many were hit by thrown objects and fists, kicked, and spat upon. “That day was more frightening than all of the rest of my confinement,” Bruce says. “I was lucky to live through it.”

In 1969, prison conditions began changing. There was more and better food (pumpkin soup and a daily loaf of bread were welcome additions!). Bruce was in a camp made up of small huts near the Chinese border. One day the huts were opened simultaneously – something that hadn’t happened before. About a week later, the men were loaded on trucks – without blindfolds — and driven to Hanoi where they were put in the Hoa Lo Prison (nicknamed “Hanoi Hilton” by the POWs). They stayed there until release.

In 1973 Bruce was flown to a hospital at Clark AFB in the Philippines where his general health was evaluated. He was there for several days, during which he walked to the PX to do some shopping. There he faced the first shock of his reentry into freedom. “The women were in short shorts and the men were wearing pants of all colors! The world had changed,” Bruce admits. Indeed, it had.

A FAMILY REUNITED
The Air Force then moved Bruce to a hospital at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi. Jane and the girls went there to reunite with him. Daughter Sally remembers that moment clearly. “We were given a ‘host family’ to help us. The wife in this family had watched several reunions and found them a bit overwhelming and chaotic when the entire family rushed at the returning POW. She had Mom go up first and held Suzy and me back,” Sally remembers. “I guess the reality of what was happening had not truly sunk in because I remember turning to the host mom and excitedly saying in disbelief ‘There’s Daddy’ several times when he got off the plane. After my parents had had a few minutes together, Suzy and I were sent forward and got a big hug. For me, there was no real transition. Daddy was home where he was supposed to be and everything went back to normal.”

Bruce was determined to use the extended leave of several months he was given to reconnect with his family. They stayed in West Monroe and took several family trips together – one to Disney World, and one out West. These were healing times for them all.

Bruce’s next deployment was to Langley AFB in Virginia. He spent the next 2.5 years there working in operations support. This was his final assignment because his confinement had prevented him from getting any command experience or attending any advanced schools. His military career was basically over when his plane went down. Bruce retired as a Colonel.

LIFE BEYOND THE AIR FORCE
When asked if he wanted to fly once he was no longer a prisoner, Bruce said that he did get checked out in a T-39 but stopped when he realized that others on the base needed to be gaining T-39 flying time for pay raises and he didn’t. Besides, the world of flying had changed, too. “I don’t recognize the cockpit now. There are no longer a series of round instruments that give information,” he explains. “Now there are 3 computer screens that give out probably 100 times more information!”

Bruce moved on, seeking a new career. He spent a year working in a bank, but hated being in an office all day. He then took the position of plant manager for Shield Pack in West Monroe. He worked there for 8 years and loved the experience. Then Bruce retired again, this time to devote his time to doing things that he enjoyed and that he considered important. He attended several POW reunions when they were nearby. There about 500 POW’s met together for a special fellowship among friends who shared a rare common experience. “I really know about 50 of them well,” Bruce says, “but enjoyed being with them all. The life lesson we share: Being a POW shows you what you can stand, what you can do. You learn about yourself,” Bruce says.

Bruce says that there is nothing left on his “bucket list” because he is old enough now to know better than to do too much. Looking back over his life, is there anything that Bruce would change? “I’d change that spot in the air where I got shot!”