BY ANDREA SNARR
FARMINGTON — “You’re the emblem of, the land I love, the home of the free and the brave.”
On Nov. 7, Knowlton Elementary’s gymnasium rang with the sound of children’s voices singing “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “This Land is My Land.” The 4th, 5th and 6th grade students gathered for a patriotic assembly in preparation for Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
A Davis County American hero, Col. Jay Hess, a Vietnam POW was there to address them.
Principal Grace Larson presented a PowerPoint explaining Veterans Day, which briefly outlined some of the wars America has fought: World War I(1914-1918); World War II (1939-1945); Korean War (1950-1953); Vietnam War (1955-1975); Gulf War (1990-1991); and the War on Terror (2001Сpresent). Larson has a unique connection to the Gulf War, as she and her husband lived and worked in Saudi Arabia at the time, where she taught 5th grade.
“Children are childrenСthey are the same all over the world,” Larson explained. She told the children that war is bad and that there have been many sacrifices in so many wars, but she wanted the students to feel safe at Knowlton. “Don’t be frightened about what we are talking about today. You are safe here in the United States of America,” she said.
Hess, a small-framed and very fit and young-looking 82-year-old, then took the microphone.
“I am glad Mrs. Larson wanted you to know about Veterans Day; otherwise, you might think Halloween is all we need,” Hess quipped.
He then used different hats to explain the branches of the military. “Thank God for the Marines. When there is a tough job, they get it,” he lauded. He also explained that his heroes are Navy wives because when the boat leaves the dock, it doesn’t come back home at night.
As for Hess, he was a pilot in the Air Force, graduating in 1955 from flight training. He flew an F-105 that carried bombs and could move fast. He was drafted into the war and received a mission to drop a bomb onto some railroad tracks that carried supplies from China into Vietnam.
His airplane was shot and burst into flames. Hess bailed out by ejecting, where an explosion blows the seat out of the airplane. He survived only to be captured and become a POW in North Vietnam at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” from 1967-1973. He shared a small prison cell with Capt. Konrad Trautman and Lt. Gerald Gernt.
“The Vietnamese policy was to capture, not kill, prisoners because we could be used for propaganda,” said Hess. “I was told that I was to answer all questions and do what I was told. They told us that we were to write letters to our pilots telling them that they were bad criminals and to protest the government. But you aren’t going to write the letters because you are loyal to (America) and you have made promises not to aid the enemy.” When the pilots refused, their captors kicked or beat them.
One time, Hess was allowed to write a small note home on a postcard-sized piece of paper. After a month, a commander approved the letter, and his family finally knew he was alive. Up to that point, they only knew he was missing-in-action.
Five-and-a-half years slowly inched by, and finally, he was released on March 14, 1973, flying from Hanoi to the Philippines. He had spent over 2,000 days in captivity.
“I was so excited and happy to get out of Vietnam,” Hess said with some emotion. On the trip home, his friend received a letter from a fellow American who had worn a bracelet with his name on it since he went missing. It was inscribed with his name and the date he was shot down. Hess showed the students the bracelet he wore, with his name and the date of August 24, 1967 inscribed. “People who care about those who serveСthat makes the difference for servicemen,” Hess said.
Sixth-grade student Jordan Muelberger enjoyed hearing from the veteran. “I like to hear all the things he has to say about his experience and it inspires me to do good things,” she said. Her classmate, Damon Koford, agreed: “I liked it a lot. Col, Hess was so brave, and I’m glad he served our country.”
When asked what Hess hoped the students would take away from the assembly, he replied, “I hope they remember. There are people who are willing to interrupt their lives and risk their lives. That is the reason we are free.”
To learn more about Hess’s experiences and the Vietnam War, you can visit an exhibit at Hill Aerospace Museum, located off Interstate 15, exit 338 in Roy. It is open seven days a week from 9 a.m.. until 4:30 p.m.