By Fred Koenig, Special Contributor…
COLUMBIA, Mo.—You never know where a mission trip will lead. For the youth group at one Missouri Conference church, it led to them booking the largest arena within 100 miles and bringing in a speaker from across the country for a free event for their community.
Last summer a group of 10 youth from Midway Locust Grove United Methodist Church in Columbia went on a mission trip to an Appalachian region of North Carolina, led by lay member Tim Rost. There they helped repair the homes of people who were not able to make the repairs themselves.
Throughout the week they found themselves working alongside, and then befriending, a volunteer from Georgia. His name was Jim, and as he got to know the youth, he started sharing with them some of his story.
The volunteer was Brigadier General James Sehorn. As a fighter pilot, he had been shot down over Vietnam, and was held as a prisoner of war. The youth of Midway Locust Grove found Brig. Gen. Sehorn to be so inspiring they wanted to bring him to Missouri so that others could hear his story.
Putting on an event of this scale required sponsors. The event was sponsored by Midway USA, a local shooting supply manufacturer; Independent Stave Company, a wine barrel manufacturer in Lebanon, Mo.; and Veterans United Home Loans. Master of ceremonies Brian Neuner said obtaining the sponsors wasn’t hard. “We made three phone calls, and had three sponsors,” he said.
The event opened with a mix of contemporary religious music and patriotic country music. Midway Locust Grove members in day-glow green T-shirts offered hospitality and helped people to their seats.
Brig. Gen. Sehorn was welcomed by T.J. Moe, a wide receiver for the Missouri University Tigers, who presented him with a Mizzou jersey with the number 1 and “Sehorn” on the back.
Brig. Gen. Sehorn began his story by telling how he was a young captain on his first combat mission when his plane was shot down over Hanoi. He considered crash landing in the ocean so he could be rescued by sea, but he spotted a MIG 21 fighter that forced him to ditch his plane sooner. He was captured on the ground and taken to the “Hanoi Hilton,” where he was held as a prisoner of war.
“It was the best tour I ever served, and also the one I never want to repeat,” Brig. Gen. Sehorn said. “I say the best because of the men whom I served with—men of courage, all doing their duty.”
He was immediately bound in a position that left him temporarily paralyzed below the knees and elbows. He was starved and deprived of sleep. He was asked who was in his squadron. At first he only gave his name, rank and serial number, as directed in the military code of conduct.
Eventually he ended up using made-up names of professional athletes and celebrities. He felt great guilt about this, even if he had only given false information. “I thought I had disgraced my uniform. For three months I considered suicide,” he said.
However, he later learned that the questions he was being asked, and the answers that he gave, were irrelevant. “They had the rosters of all the squadrons,” he said. “They weren’t looking for intel, they just wanted to break the will to resist—to make you do something you didn’t want to do.”
Brig. Gen. Sehorn said he came to realize that there was only one way out. He paused, and then got down on his knees on the stage, like he had on that cold, concrete prison floor.
“I prayed, not to be released or to go home, but to have the courage to endure what was before me,” he said. “I had a warm feeling come into my heart, and I was filled with peace, and courage.”
Turning to God made all the difference, for Brig. Gen. Sehorn and for those around him.
“Our Lord was there for those who would turn to him. Those who endured the best were those with solid faith in their God,” he said. “There were diverse faiths among us, but we shared a belief in a divine presence.”
When they got together, the prisoners organized themselves. They formed things like movie night, when they took turns telling each other the story lines of movies they remembered. They gave each other classes on things like physics, calculus, history—even ballroom dancing. While those little assemblies enlivened their spirits, each time it ended in the same way. “The organizers would get pulled from the room, beaten, tortured and put in solitary confinement,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Sehorn said he served as chaplain for some church services while a prisoner, and he called the Rev. Dennis Harper, pastor at Midway Locust Grove, to the stage. “I guarantee you that on any given Sunday I had a higher percentage of my guys in church than you do,” he said with a chuckle.
When the war was concluded, the 550 prisoners of war in the Hanoi Hilton, minus the few that didn’t survive the experience, were released. Brig. Gen. Sehorn had been imprisoned there for 63 months.
In his office, he has a brick taken from the Hanoi Hilton. It has a brass plaque on it that quotes Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, “Freedom has a special flavor that the protected will never know.”
Mr. Koenig is editor of the Missouri Conference Review, where this story first appeared.