This Veterans Day, Major Joe Crecca — a former prisoner of war — is working on a project close to his heart.
Maj. Crecca is one of five veterans who are dedicating their time to Project Welcome Home, an effort to restore a Vietnam War-era Boeing B-52 aircraft at Paine Field in Everett, Washington. It isn’t just a side project for Maj. Crecca – this specific aircraft was one of a fleet of bombers that saved his life more than 40 years ago.
Maj. Crecca joined Ron and Don on KIRO Radio to talk about his experience and the importance of Project Welcome Home.
A 26-year-old lieutenant at the time, Crecca was piloting an F4 fighter-bomber in the fall of 1966 when he was shot down. Decades later, he can remember nearly every detail of the ordeal.
“The lead (pilot) had some navigation problems, and so he gave the lead to Scotty Wilson and I,” Maj. Crecca told KIRO Radio. “Two first lieutenants leading a downtown strike to Hanoi. And about 20 seconds after we took the lead, we got hit from behind by Russian surface to air missile.”
Crecca and the rest of his unit had entered a heavily-defended area while on a strike mission. Once struck, Crecca’s plane caught fire and he was forced to eject over enemy territory in North Vietnam.
“Scotty yelled, ‘get out’ and he was gone, and less than two seconds later I was gone. Unfortunately… looking in the opposite direction (after my parachute opened) I saw Scotty, but he was limp in his shoot.”
Enemy combatants had fired another missile from a different direction, which detonated near Wilson, killing him. Still falling to land in his own parachute, Crecca saluted his fallen friend.
Once he landed, he was surrounded by nearly 300 villagers and some militia, and assaulted. He remembers a feeling of calm coming over him, though doctors later explained that his body was going into shock.
“(They) stood me up after they cut all of my clothes off of me… and all I had on now was my T-shirt and my underwear,” Crecca recalled. “Blood was running down my face… and they walked me over to a little hootch and kept me there for five hours, and at 5-o’clock they threw me blindfolded and bound up into a truck and drove me to Hanoi, where the interrogation began.”
Prisoner of War
Crecca was brought to Hanoi, the capitol city of Vietnam, where he was interrogated by a Việt Cộng soldier. A freezing Crecca – he was still mostly undressed and in a near-empty room in November – was told to sit on a stool and asked about his squadron and target. Crecca’s response to every question was simply his name, rank, serial number and date of birth – the only information soldiers were told to offer.
“He looked at me with these dead eyes and said, ‘Crecca, you will die in Vietnam.”
Afterward, Crecca was tortured by several men, who tied ropes around his arms behind his back just above the elbows so tightly that he couldn’t feel his fingers. His body was lifted and painfully dropped to the ground over and over again for what felt like an hour. Still, Crecca refused to give them any real information.
Crecca was placed into solitary confinement for 228 days. After that, he and other prisoners were relocated into five-man cells.
Crecca told KIRO Radio it was faith that allowed him to endure. That, and a good sense of humor.
“It was faith in God, faith in country, faith in family, and faith itself,” he said. “One thing that really helped was to have a good sense of humor. Because if you could have a laugh once in a while, you could take the rough edges off of everything.”
In 1970, four years later, U.S. Air Force pilots raided the Sơn Tây prison camp 20 miles outside of Hanoi. While the raid failed to free Crecca and the other prisoners of war, it inadvertently resulted in better conditions of their capture.
“The (Viet Cong) were so rattled by the audacity and boldness of this American attack, that they emptied all the prison camps that weren’t right in the middle of the city (and) brought us all back into Hỏa Lò, the old French prison. Now, we had 45 and 50 guys in one cell, it was about 70 feet long by 35 feet wide.”
The prisoners started having classes.
“We had college classes, we had a dean,” Crecca said, “I taught math, physics, classical music… and I was a student of higher math and the Russian language. So things got a whole lot better after that raid, even though the raid failed to find any POWs.”
Operation Linebacker II and Crecca’s release
Operation Linebacker II was an 11-day bombing campaign that started Dec 18, 1972. By the close of the operation on Dec 29, North Vietnamese communists agreed to come to the negotiating table and ultimately released the 591 U.S. prisoners of War in early 1973.
The B-52 aircraft currently being restored through Project Welcome Home is a Boeing B-52G Stratofortress 59-2584 called the Midnight Express. It was one of the planes flown by U.S. forces on the first night of Operation Linebacker II. Through the work of veterans, the aircraft will eventually be relocated to the Museum of Flight in Tukwila.
“That’s why I’m on this project,” Maj. Crecca said. “I owe everything to the B-52 crews, and to the tactical air crews that supported them, and all the guys back at the landbases and the carrier bases that made Operation Linebacker II work. If it wasn’t for them, my bones would be in Hanoi…
“My very existence is as a result of that airplane and the crews that flew those missions. Had it not been for them, I would not be here. I would never have come home. None of the POW’s would have.”