main story image for facebook sharing

Focus on Service

Call Sign: Fingers

Navy Pilot Chronicles his POW Experiences

August 25, 1972 dawned hot and muggy in Vietnam. Pilots of Fighter Squadron 161, stationed aboard USS Midway (CV 41), readied their aircraft and went over the day's flight plan. Their mission was an early evening MiG combat air patrol over North Vietnam. Lt. John “Jack” Ensch would serve as a radar intercept officer in an F-4B Phantom.


He wasn't worried. After 284 combat missions, and after shooting down two MiGs in a dogfight a few months earlier, he thought he was “bulletproof. ... It's always the other guy. ... You don't think it's going to happen to you.”

But as Ensch and his pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Doyle, soared over the beach south of Haiphong, they were greeted by a series of surface-to-air missiles (SAM). They turned and bobbed and weaved, trying desperately to escape the unescapable.

“All of a sudden,” Ensch remembered, “there was this huge explosion. One of the SAMs went off right over the cockpit.” There was blood everywhere. Shrapnel had nearly severed his left thumb. “Oh my God,” he said aloud.

He frantically tried to talk to Doyle, and then realized the pilot “wasn't flying the airplane anymore.”

Ensch ejected them both at about 450 mph, somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 feet. The force dislocated both of his elbows. People on the ground were shooting at him; bullets were hitting the silk of his parachute.

“This is it,” he thought.

Later that night, some 7,700 miles and a 15-hour time difference away in Miramar, California, Cathy Ensch was relaxing in front of the television, snacking on chocolate-covered peanuts, a treat she saved for Ensch's frequent absences. A black car pulled up in front of her house. She immediately knew that something had gone horribly, tragically wrong. Her husband was missing in action (MIA). (Doyle was also classified as MIA, and would remain so until 1985.)

“One minute, you're thinking, 'I'll never see him again. What am I going to do with my life? What's the future? What am I going to do with these children?'” Cathy remembered. “And then the next minute, I was thinking, 'Oh, no, he'll make it. I know he's going to make it.' ... I finally said to myself ... 'As far as I'm concerned, Jack is alive until the Navy tells me he's dead.' ... We were used to Dad not being there. So it was easier to handle it that way and that's exactly what I did. I just managed to go on as if he was alive and do what I thought he wanted me to do.”

Ensch was indeed alive, as she would learn two days before Christmas. He had landed in a rice paddy, and had been taken prisoner immediately. After a local woman bound his dangling thumb to the palm of his hand with some gauze, Ensch was turned over to uniformed military personnel. They blindfolded him, threw him in the back of a truck, covered him with a tarpaulin and drove all night.

Ensch ended up in Hanoi at the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” He soon found himself in an interrogation room, asked repeatedly for details about his ship and his squadron. It went on for days while he begged for medical care. No, the interrogators said. Not until he cooperated.

“All kinds of things go through your mind,” said Ensch. “I know the code of conduct ... but I'm looking at myself and both arms are bad. They started discoloring from lack of circulation. I don't know what's underneath that bloody gauze. ... After that session on the third day or so, I had a little meeting of the minds — my mind against my own mind — and said, 'What are you going to do? Are you just going to go ahead and die?' I thought of Cathy and my three girls at home. I formed a plan. I said, 'OK, next time they come in I'm going to start answering some questions if they're of no value. And if it looks like they might be of value, I'll just lie about it.'”

His plan worked. His captors did indeed take him to a hospital. Doctors then amputated the remains of his thumb and snapped his arms back into place — all without anesthesia.

“Bad bedside manner, I would say,” he joked.

Ensch spent about 30 days in solitary confinement, before eventually being placed in a cell with other POWs, who nursed him back to health.

“We called ourselves the 4th Allied POW Wing. ... We figured there were POWs in World War I, World War II, Korea and we were Vietnam. ... Our motto was 'return with honor,' which we think we did,” he said.

At this point in the war, prisoners were organized into work details, and allowed to put on church services each Sunday. They also ran “Hanoi University.”

“A guy might have some expertise, like one in my group ... spoke fluent French. He would get some guys over in a corner and he taught conversational French,” Ensch explained. “Some other guy was a history buff and was very into the Civil War, and guys would sit over and he would maybe talk about the battles of the Civil War, what happened at Bull Run.”

At the North Vietnamese's discretion, prisoners sometimes received letters from home. Some were even allowed to have Red Cross care packages. Their captors, Ensch said, hoped the POWs would squabble and fight over the contents.

“It didn't work. ... One of the guys in my group received a package and he got a package of M&Ms. ... He cut them up in halves and distributed them. I think there were 30 in my group, and everybody got an equal portion of a package of M&Ms,” he said. The generosity stood in stark contrast to the POW's daily diet of pumpkin or greens soup, rice, and the occasional piece of pig fat or mystery meat. “It was all for one and one for all.”

Ensch himself wasn't allowed to write home until after the war ended, and even then his captors didn't send it. A POW who was in one of the first groups to go home saw it lying around, smuggled it out and got it to Cathy.

POWs returned home in three separate groups, in order of shoot down date. Ensch was in the final segment to be repatriated via Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, Mar. 29, 1973.

“You start thinking about, are we going to be used as pawns in this chess game of diplomatic nonsense, or are we really going to go home?” he remembered. “Thoughts like that go through your mind when you're waiting. ... We just sat around for two months wondering, is this really going to happen? And it finally did.”

While the men waited to board an Air Force C-141C at the Hanoi airport, their erstwhile tormenters treated them to bananas and Hanoi beer. “The whole atmosphere changed,” Ensch remembered. “They were being very gracious and nice to us. We sat there for a while wondering what the hell was going on. ... We lined up in formation. Then you marched up and you stood and there were big tables with the Vietnamese at one and the Americans at the other and ... they'd check your name off. ... After we all loaded, they closed up the doors, cranked the engines up and off we went.”

Ensch flew from Hanoi to Clark to Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, to Travis Air Force Base in California, then home to Miramar. He and his fellow prisoners were greeted by cheering crowds everywhere they went. And there, in Miramar, were his wife and daughters right out front, all decked out in new dresses, his baby girl now a toddler.

“The girls just couldn't get enough,” Cathy said. “They were crawling all over Daddy's legs. ... I'm sure we were all in tears. It was very emotional.”

Her husband worried, Cathy remembered, that his career was over, that with only one thumb he would never fly again. “He was afraid he was going to be considered a cripple, that I wouldn't accept him back as a whole person. I could tell ... he was going to have a rough time when he got home, but it was all positive. We were just happy he was coming home.”

Ensch spent about nine months in physical therapy at Balboa Naval Hospital, all the while thinking his career as a pilot really was over. A friend and former wingman was the new commanding officer at Top Gun, however, and he came to the rescue. Ensch eventually became his executive officer, and later commanded his own squadron of F-14s. He would retire from the Navy as a captain.

Ensch returned to Vietnam several years ago, even meeting one of the pilots he had fought against in a dogfight. No one had any hard feelings.

“The Vietnamese people are a wonderful people,” said Ensch. “It was the government and the administration that were the problem. Fighter pilots the world over — we're pretty much the same. We want to fly and fight.”