A half century ago, “The people of Houston figuratively rolled out the red carpet,” stated the Houston (Minn.) Signal newspaper on May 4, 1973. The occasion was a weekend celebration, welcoming home Robert Flynn. “At one time, the prospect of seeing Bob on the streets of Houston again seemed rather remote. Never underestimating the power of prayer, the people of Houston saw their prayers answered… BOB CAME HOME!”
Lieutenant Commander Flynn was the longest surviving prisoner of war in the history of the U.S. Military, 2034 days, with 2030 days spent in solitary confinement. He was one of two U.S. military pilots who were the last Americans held prisoner in Communist China. The Vietnam War pitted the communist government of North Vietnam and its allies in South Vietnam, known as the Viet Cong, against the government of South Vietnam and its primary ally, the United States.
During the war, at age 29, Flynn had been shot down on August 21, 1967, when a North Vietnamese MIG attacked him near the Chinee border. Flynn was forced to eject and suffered muscle and skeletal injuries. Another crewmember who ejected did not survive, whereas Flynn was taken prisoner of war by China and was incarcerated in Peking, the Peoples Republic of China (Communist Red China). The Chinese news agency reported six days later that one American just shot down had been paraded before peasants and Red Guards at an anti-American rally.
Flynn was transported to Peking to be held in solitary confinement for five and half years – 2034 days, mostly in solitary confinement. He was repeatedly tortured and demanded to sign a confession as a criminal who had violated Chinese air space. Refusing to submit to that demand, he was jumped on and beaten. He was served a laxative. During that first winter, he had no warm clothes. He was subjected three times to handcuff torture where his hands and arms were twisted – one time for seven days, another for 30 days and another for 60 days. He had to eat and perform bodily functions without the use of his hands.
After a year, Flynn was permitted to receive mail and cigarettes from home. Taken from interviews by Troy Moons, “The most emotional moments in my life were when I started getting letters from Kathy.” He would write back using pieces of cigarette packages as stationery.
“They’d mess with you mentally,” said Flynn. “The mental deal was you cannot be released until you are sentenced. You cannot be sentenced until you have been tried. You can’t be tried unless you confess. So, unless you confess your crimes, you cannot get out of here. Well, I didn’t have anything to confess. But it was all threats and they were always open-ended. You never had a chance to grasp the end of a proposition.
“The most terrible part was the solitude, the solitude, the solitude,” said Flynn in 2008. “What do you do with all that time? All those hours? All those days and years? I’d think of my family; I’d plan parties, birthdays, anniversaries for everyone. And I would imagine Kathy bought some land in Alaska and gold was discovered there. And I had the biggest gold mine going. I had all kinds of people working for me – people I knew. And I ran a big imaginary corporation. That’s what I did.”
It was posted on the POW website that Flynn credited his survival to several teachers: Father Michael J. Quislie of St. Mary’s Parish (Houston, Minn.), Frederick Hauer, Houston football coach and history teacher and Pre-Flight Drill Instructor Sergeant Gus Aiken, USMC.
Following 2,034 days in captivity, Flynn was released during Operation Homecoming in 1973. He continued military service until retiring from the U. S. Navy in November 1985. He died at age 76 on May 15, 2014.
In high school in Houston (1952 to 1955), Flynn was on the football, baseball, track and basketball teams, was in the junior class play, was a class officer, sang in the choir, played trumpet in the band, was a member of an award-winning trumpet trio and graduated as an honor student.
He was “very outgoing, personable and friendly,” said high school teammate David Beckman, who has just written a detailed account about Flynn, including high school memories. After three years as a pre-law student at the University of Minnesota, Flynn enlisted in the Navy in 1958, entering the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. He married Mary Kathryn Michels in the summer of 1963.
The Houston Signal reported in 1973, “Houston has waited with great anticipation and excitement for the past two months as they looked forward to welcoming Bob home. The festive celebration began about 2:00 on Saturday afternoon people having been warned of his coming by the fire department and radio, went to meet him in Money Creek, about six miles from here. City police, fire trucks and Ihrke’s bus were the bigger vehicles that made a procession of about seventy-five cars that escorted Bob into town. At the intersection of Money Creek and Highway 76, Bob and his family were greeted warmly by his many friends. The mayor pinned a corsage of orchids on Mrs. Flynn and the couple was transported in Russ Peterson’s convertible for the ride into town.
“The rest of the town of Houston greeted him at the drug store corner. After a short drive through Houston the crowd gathered at the Community Building where many well-wishers got to shake Bob’s hand to really welcome him home… Bob seemed to remember everyone from his oldest friends to those who had known him briefly. Many were thrilled when he called them by name. He quickly made friends of some of the newcomers to town and patiently gave autographs as he shook the hands that crowded around him…
“Later in the evening, it was great rejoicing and cheers when Bob joined the band on the trumpet. He hadn’t lost his talent on the dance floor either.”
Source: “Robert Flynn, American Hero” by David Beckman