Lewis decided to enlist rather than being drafted, knowing his college degree could mean an officer position. Although the Marines, Army and Navy weren’t looking for officer candidates at the time, the Air Force was and the recruiter asked what he wanted to do.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m going into the Air Force, so why not fly?’” Lewis said.
After extensive training, Lewis was sent to Vietnam for his first tour of duty and returned in late 1966 after getting time knocked off his tour for the number of missions flown into the war zone. He was sent to other assignments and training before being sent back to Vietnam in 1972 for a second tour of duty.
A few months into Lewis’ second deployment, on October 5, 1972, he was assigned a routine bombing run into Vietnam.
The mission started badly, after Lewis had to unboard three separate planes because of issues. Finally, they were on their way to a target about 70 miles west of Hanoi.
“When we were getting ready to make our turn up into Vietnam, we got a call that the MiGs were up and wanted to mix it up,” Lewis remembers.
According to Lewis, that was always something you watched for in the air, but it wasn’t standard for most of his missions into Vietnam.
When the missile struck Lewis’ plane, he and his navigator were forced to eject at a very high rate of speed.
“I was going so fast that I shouldn’t be alive,” Lewis said. “They were shooting at me as I was coming down. I knew I was going to land in a plowed field, so I thought it was going to be soft, but no, it had been plowed many months before and it was almost like concrete. I hit that hard and I was paralyzed on my left side. I couldn’t run anywhere so I crawled up this hill.”
Once up the hill, he covered himself with leaves and sticks in an attempt to hide from the search party he knew the Vietnamese would send out.
“The search party passed me three times before they even caught me,” Lewis said. “They got me probably about an hour after I got shot down.”
The search party got Lewis out of the crash and took his clothes, although he says they didn’t treat him that poorly at that time. Because of his injuries from the ejection landing, Lewis said the search party had to help him walk and even gave him his socks and boots back so he could put them on for the walk.
“So, while I’m bent over trying to get them back on, I look up, I don’t know why but I did, and see a man coming at me with a big banana knife,” Lewis said.
One of his guards also saw the man and moved quickly to prevent the attack that would have likely been fatal. Lewis said that the man was upset that they had been bombing in the area.
“I was just one of the enemy at that point,” Lewis said. “He was a short little old man. I can still see his face.”
Lewis and his captors kept walking and eventually they were picked up by a Jeep and while traveling towards the destination, Lewis remembers them pulling over under the cover of trees to avoid being seen by the U.S. Air Force patrols in the area. They also stopped along the way to display their prisoner and allow local villagers to harass him.
At one stop, the guards forced him to his knees and Lewis, who was beginning to regain feeling from the fall, fought back a little. At that point, the guard began kicking him. This attack would do enough damage to force Lewis onto crutches and his leg would eventually require surgery after he returned to the U.S.
After this incident, Lewis would be reunited with his navigator, who had also been captured. They also blindfolded and roped the two men and displayed them to the crowd. Each man took shifts on the mat, allowing the crowd to hit them, throw rocks at them and pull hair.
The prisoners were given their clothes, pajama-like outfits that they were required to wear for interrogation and indoctrination. They were also questioned about themselves and their base location.
Eventually Lewis was taken to Hoa Lo Prison, most infamously known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Upon arrival, the guard tied Lewis and forced him into an unusual position, designed to cause pain and damage to the prisoner. The damage to his shoulders and chest is the only thing from the captivity that he says still bothers him.
“That is what hurts me still to this day,” Lewis said.
Lewis would spend more than five months, split between the camp in Hanoi and another camp they called “The Zoo,” before finally being released on March 29, 1973. His was one of the last groups of POWs to leave Vietnam.
Upon release, Lewis returned to the U.S. and, after much fanfare, was eventually able to fulfill his dreams of attending seminary. That line of work eventually led him to Jasper, where he has spent the last 18 years.