‘It was worth it’

By on October 1, 2014

How Ed Davis endured seven and a half years as a POW

Ed Davis and Maco on their return flight to the U.S. Ed was a POW in Vietnam for seven and a half years.

Ed Davis and Maco on their return flight to the U.S. Ed was a POW in Vietnam for seven and a half years.

For seven and a half years, the world stood still.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and Yoko broke up the Beatles. But for Ed Davis and his fellow prisoners of war, none of that happened, at least not in their reality. For seven and a half years, Ed was tortured in a North Vietnam prison camp, cut off from the rest of the world. His family thought he was dead. It was an unimaginable horror, but in hindsight, “it was worth it.”

That was the message delivered by Karen Davis, Ed’s widow, who spoke to a small patriotic crowd in Lititz Springs Park for National POW/MIA Recognition Day Sept. 19. Ed passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006, but Karen continues to tell his story so others never forget the sacrifices that thousands like him have made.

Ed was on his 57th combat mission when he was shot down.

“He was extremely tortured, starved. His weight went from 185 to 95 pounds,” Karen explained. “He spent long periods of time in isolation, and a total of one year in solitary confinement in which there was no mail, no newspapers, no visitors.”

His commander, Vice Admiral James Stockdale, declared him killed in action. Life went on without Ed Harris.

Life in a POW camp is all about keeping your sanity and keeping hope alive.

“They taught each other everything they knew,” said Karen. “They had classes in almost everything.”

The officers in camp had all kinds of backgrounds. Lawyers, doctors, clergy. They had all kinds of skills, hobbies, talents. And they had a lot of time on their hands.

Karen shared the story of one POW who always wanted to learn how to play guitar, but there was no guitar in the prison camp. A fellow officer offered to teach him. With the melody in his head, they drew the frets in the dirt and practiced without ever using an actual instrument.

Karen Davis told the stoy of her late husband during a Sept. 19 POW/MIA recognition ceremony in Lititz Springs Park. (photo by Stephen Seeber)

Karen Davis told the stoy of her late husband during a Sept. 19 POW/MIA recognition ceremony in Lititz Springs Park. (photo by Stephen Seeber)

“When he came home,” she said, “he picked up a guitar for the first time and played it, beautifully.”

“But they decided early on,” she continued, “that just because they were treated as animals, they weren’t going to become animals. They were always going to keep their respect and dignity. Their two mottoes were ‘Return with Honor’ and ‘Unity Above Self.’”

About a year into his incarceration, during a Hanoi propaganda event, 52 American POWs were marched through the streets. Ed was identified in a press photo, and word was sent home to his family. Hope was rekindled, and that hope eventually brought a young man home, seven and a half years later.

During his release, he took “no man left behind” to a new level. Ed captured headlines for smuggling a puppy that was destined for the dinner table.

“Prisoners were given puppies at the camps,” Karen explained. They would care for the animals, get them plump and healthy, and then the dogs would be taken away and butchered for food. It was another form of torture.

“Ed had a puppy, and the day he was released he was determined that the puppy was not going to stay there,” she said. “He got permission from James Stockdale to put the puppy in his duffel bag and take her home.”

It was a symbolic gesture that went as far as President Nixon, who reportedly said, “Nothing will separate this man from his dog.”

So, Maco (the puppy) was spared and Ed Harris became known as “the man with the dog.”

Upon his return to the U.S., Ed worked for aviation companies and eventually became a full-time public speaker, sharing his story of perseverance across the country.

Karen and Ed were married in 2000. He died six years later, at the age of 67.

“He was a very tough man, but a very gentle man, a very loving man,” she said. “He held no animosity whatsoever toward his captors. He said he really wouldn’t want to take them out for a cup of coffee, but if he ever saw one of them he wouldn’t want to harm them.”

Now Karen, who lives in Lancaster, continues to tell the story whenever she can.

Honoring POWs and MIAs during the Sept. 19 ceremony in Lititz. (photo by Mike Shull)

Honoring POWs and MIAs during the Sept. 19 ceremony in Lititz. (photo by Mike Shull)

“The story has to be told,” she said. “As time goes on, the younger generation doesn’t understand a lot of it. And it’s timeless, really. The lessons that were learned about unselfishness and … these men are starving, and yet if there was somebody who was sicker than they were, they were sharing their food with them.

During an interview after Ed’s return, he was asked how he felt when he set foot on American soil and saw the U.S. flag?

With tears in his eyes, according to Karen, he replied, “When I saw that flag, I knew all I had endured was worth it.”

That was the message shared in Lititz on a warm September night.

“Here we are this evening, in this beautiful park, in this beautiful gazebo, on this beautiful night in remembrance of the brave men and women who were so willing to give their lives for freedom,” Karen said in her closing remarks. “And even now, we have thousands and thousands of men and women all over the world, ready to do the same thing for our freedom. We should not forget them. We will not forget them. This is such a great country. Be proud to be a veteran. Be proud to be an American!”

To date, 1,641 Americans are still missing in Southeast Asia. In addition, 4,452 never returned from WWI, 73,539 from WWII, 7,881 from Korea, 126 from the Cold War, and six from Iraq and other conflicts (statistics provided by the Lititz VFW).

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