Called to Serve: Vietnam Veteran and UF Alumnus Recalls Experiences During, After War
For Chaplain Col. Keith H. Lewis, USAF (RET), it was the little, yet profound things that kept him alive while he was a POW during the Vietnam War. For instance, a clock tower in Hanoi that chimed on the hour reminded him of Mount Vernon, Ohio, where he grew up. The predictability of the chimes “was a sanity saver,” he said, something that he could always count on.
Chaplain Lewis, a retired chaplain who graduated from Findlay College in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in humanities, recently recounted his wartime ordeal in recognition of the upcoming Veterans Day holiday. The 25-year resident of Jasper, Alabama, now lives peacefully with his wife, but as a career military man, his wartime service is never very far from his mind.
After college, in the fall of 1963, Chaplain Lewis enlisted in the U.S. Air Force at the height of the draft, reasoning, “If you’re going to be in the military, then why not do the most exciting thing – be a fighter pilot?” On Oct. 5, 1972 he was leading a flight of four F-4s with the 335th Tactical Fighter Squadron, with a four-ship MiG escort of F-4s, when he was shot down in the middle of the afternoon over North Vietnam and taken as a Prisoner of War. There had been radio warning that enemy MiGs were approaching. Before he knew it, Chaplain Lewis’ aircraft had been hit, had caught fire and was going down, and his aircraft’s telepanel lights indicating systems conditions “was going up and down like a pinball machine,” he said.
When he ejected, he was leaning over to see if he had adequately pulled the lower ejection seat handle, which resulted in permanent back injuries. Bullets whizzed by him as his parachute carried him to the hard ground. “As they say, it was like shooting fish in a barrel,” he said. “This is one fish who didn’t get hit.” As American planes flew overhead looking for him and other survivors, Chaplain Lewis tried covering himself with leaves and sticks to hide from the enemy, but he was found by North Vietnamese who stripped him down to his shorts and marched him to the nearest village. At one point, when he was led through a pile of bamboo heaped in a village street, he thought he was going to be burned alive.
Chaplain Lewis was imprisoned at Hao Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton, and at Nga Tu So, which Americans nicknamed the “Zoo.” He endured multiple interrogations, lengthy restraining with rope, beatings, and assaults with rocks and cigarette ash. Frequent bombing raids by American forces to halt a massive invasion of South Vietnam by the north also put prisoner lives in jeopardy. Prisoners were fed yeasty bread, garbage and hot water with sugar occasionally added. Beds consisted of wooden planks.
Chaplain Lewis said he spent 177 days, 2 hours and 15 minutes in captivity, some of it in solitary confinement in a small cell.
Praying was a constant in Chaplain Lewis life. From the age of 10, when his father was injured and had told him of visions from God, he was taken with the idea of dedicating his life to religious-oriented service, he said. In his cell, he paced while praying, developing blisters. When Christmas Eve arrived, he led a prayer service for Hanoi Hilton inmates.
By the time the Paris Peace Accords were signed, Chaplain Lewis said he was “in bad shape,” using crutches of differing lengths, and suffering from multiple injuries.
Chaplain Lewis’ Bronze Star Medal with Valor citation reads: “With complete disregard for his own safety and personal welfare in a period of severe enemy harassment, this officer took complete care of a seriously wounded fellow prisoner without assistance from the Vietnamese. By his courageous actions and humanitarian regard for his fellow man in an environment of heavy enemy pressure and brutal treatment, he has reflected great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.” The citation is referencing Chaplain Lewis’ care of navigator, “backseater” John, who nearly died from injuries and hepatitis.
After recovering stateside, his next battle involved entering seminary to become a military chaplain. It wasn’t easy – a few POWs who had returned to the states with him had committed suicide, which prompted the military to perform intense medical and psychology evaluations on Chaplain Lewis and other POWs. Chaplain Lewis was initially deemed “full of anxiety,” which, as a POW survivor, was entirely understandable. To become a chaplain, candidates must also undergo psychological evaluations and other screenings to ensure they have the mental fortitude to counsel others. Eventually, he was able to find others who could pull some strings on his behalf, vouch for his character and mental stability, and encourage the military to let him pursue his dream.
Chaplain Lewis explained he decided to remain in the military because it provided a solid career with which to raise a family; by the time he returned from the war, he and his wife had two children.
Over the years of his chaplaincy, Chaplain Lewis said he was able to do “so many things” – “A lot of baptisms. Some marriages. I was able to take the eucharist to a bunch of people. Three people I know of, came in to see me on their way out the gate to commit suicide, and didn’t after we talked,” he said. “I got as far as most chaplains could get. I retired as a colonel.”
These days, Chaplain Lewis still performs Sunday services at his home; about 10 years ago he switched denominations, moving from the Episcopal Church to the Anglican Church in North America. He has also volunteered for the Red Cross, worked for the Department of Mental Health and Human Resources Oversight Committee, volunteered with the Walker County Commission on Child Abuse, and participated in organizations such as Rotary. He also volunteers for a court mentoring program (Veterans Treatment Court) that pairs veterans with vets who have committed crimes to help the latter recover from their missteps, and he reads to pre-K children.
In October, he returned to the University of Findlay for Homecoming and Family Weekend.