On Sunday afternoon, a large group of Mebanites and local veterans came together at the Mebane Veteran’s Garden, located at the corner of Third and Center Streets in downtown Mebane, for the annual Veteran’s Day celebration. Commander Mike Barr of Mebane’s VFW Post 1920, the official hosts of the Veteran’s Day program, provided the welcome to the many guests and veterans onhand.
Following an invocation by Sammy Ballard of First Baptist Church of Mebane, the guests were treated to the posting of colors by the Marine Corps League Detachment 1209, under the leadership of LCPL Alan D. Lam.
Following the singing of the National Anthem by Jimmy Cartner and the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance by Don Solomon, Vice-Commander of American Legion Post 95, Commander Barr recognized the POW/MIA Chair of Honor, which is ceremonially onhand at various VFW and American Legion events to recognize America’s Prisoners of War and Missing in Action soldiers.
Captain Gary Smith, Triad Ride Captain of the local Patriot Guard, provided some words about his organization’s mission to provide veterans and their families with privacy and honor during burial services.
Playing the bagpipes, Bruce Wright played a stirring rendition of “Going Home,” which led to the recognition of various honored guests by Commander Barr.
The honored speaker was Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Norman McDaniel, who was a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam from July 1966 to February 1973. In his 1975 book, “Yet Another Voice,” Col. McDaniel explained how his religious faith helped him survive an ordeal that many of his fellow P.O.W.s would not. The son of Cumberland County sharecroppers, McDaniel graduated as valedictorian from Fayetteville’s Armstrong High School. He attended North Carolina A&T University, where he earned a BS degree Cum Laude in Mechanical Engineering.
Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant with the United States Air Force in 1959, Col. McDaniel flew 51 combat missions over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. His medals include the Purple Heart, Prisoner of War Medal, Bronze Star with “V” Device, and the Vietnam Service Medal with 14 bronze service stars. Col. McDaniel has also been awarded membership in the North Carolina Military Veteran’s Hall of Fame.
Following six months of recovery following his detainment in North Vietnam, McDaniel received a Master’s Degree in Systems Management from the Florida Institute of Technology. His last active duty was in 1986. Col. McDaniel currently does part-time work as a facilitator for Inverness Technologies, Inc.. He is also self-employed as a consultant, program management trainer, and motivational speaker.
“It’s a blessing to be here,” Col. McDaniel said. “This is a great day. It is my blessing to be with you this afternoon. Let me just say anytime I can appear before an audience, and share with them some of the things that happened to me, and some of the things that I know that you’re going through, I just thank God for being able to do that. Everybody has a story. Every single one of you has a story. Every individual is special and unique in the sight of God. Somebody needs to hear your story. You need to be there for whoever God puts into your path.”
“Nothing happens by chance. Everything that happens to us, God either allows it through his permissive will, or his absolute will,” McDaniel continued. “There are some things that are going to happen to you no matter what. He also puts situations in this life in your path, and it’s up to you to decide what you’re going to do with them. Are you going to make the most of them, use them to your advantage to help yourself and help others? Or let it go? So you’re not here by chance today. Be the best you can be, and let God take care of the rest.”
On his 51st combat mission, during the summer of 1966, McDaniel’s EB-66 plane, which conducted electronic warfare by detecting and jamming enemy radar, was hit around 8:30 a.m. by a surface-to-air missile over North Vietnam.
“It wasn’t a direct hit. Had it been, certainly I wouldn’t be your guest speaker today,” Col. McDaniel said. “But the missile detonated close to the plane. Some of the fragments of the missile punctured the fuel tanks of the plane. The plane went out of control, began to disintegrate and go out of control. We went into a deep spin and dive. It seemed like it lasted forever. I guess it only lasted 10 or 15 seconds. When it started veering off the second time, we lost oxygen pressure, communications, and the compartment was filling with smoke and fumes. Hey, it was time to get out of there.”
Following his successful ejection from the crashing plane, McDaniel sprained his left ankle, and suffered a flesh wound in his neck. Enemy fire came towards him from the ground and pierced his parachute, but he wasn’t shot on his descent. As soon as he landed, however, McDaniel was captured by the Viet Cong.
“For all that day, I was held in a hut. Two guards hovering over me. No chance to escape,” McDaniel recalled. “They did their torture and interrogation at night because they kept the prisoners disoriented, and they kept the other Vietnamese who were not involved in the fighting from knowing what was going on. That night, they started their interrogation and their torture. They did not abide by the 1949 Geneva Convention on the treatment of Prisoners of War.”
McDaniel explained that the North Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, had been a prisoner during the French’s occupation of Vietnam, and knew how to make life difficult for American P.O.W.s. And while three of the four men in McDaniel’s plane survived ejection from the EB-66, they were forced to withstand a multitude of pain, suffering, and humiliation at the hands of the enemy guards for years.
“He (Ho Chi Minh) had told his people, if the American pirates are captured, don’t kill them, but make them suffer,” Col. McDaniel said. “Ho Chi Minh knew how tough prison life could be. But he also knew how much we Americans valued life. And he knew that at some point in time, we might be valuable - the P.O.W.s - as negotiating pawns. We as flyers didn’t know this.”
“We were tortured. We were subjected to horrendous punishment day after day, week after week, month after month. And let me tell you, my friends - you had to, out of necessity, reach beyond yourself to survive,” McDaniel added. “When the rubber meets the road - that means when you’ve got to put up, or shut up - let me tell you. There’s a lot of things that you’ll say you’ll go to the mat for that you won’t go to the mat for. There are a lot of things you’ll say you’ll go to the mat for that aren’t worth going to the mat for.”
“The Vietnamese were after military information, propaganda information, and biographical information. They didn’t understand English that well. And you could tell them something that didn’t mean a hill of beans. But as long as you were acting subservient and meek, you could get away with it. But if you were bellicose and hostile, you could compliment them to the world and back, and they would come across you, and beat you up and slap you around. They just did not tolerate a person being hostile and angry towards them. We were able to survive. But you had to reach beyond yourself. And for this old guy, my biggest source of strength was faith in God.”
For a year and a half, McDaniel’s wife didn’t know if he was dead or alive - just Missing in Action.
But finally in 1973, after nearly seven full years of captivity, McDaniel and a little more than 600 of his brothers in arms were repatriated and returned home to the United States.
“There are probably only about 355 of us still alive,” McDaniel said.
When McDaniel left to go to Southeast Asia, his daughter had just celebrated her first birthday, and his son was nearly four years of age. When he returned to his family, his daughter was celebrating her eighth birthday, and his son was nearly eleven years old.
“Just the mercy of God that I got through it,” McDaniel said. “Some of the fellow P.O.W.s relied on faith in God. Some of them relied on hate of the Vietnamese. You know, hate is a strong force. Sometimes hate hurts the hater more than the hated. Some just believed that the United States was 100 percent right in the war. And that gave them that strength outside of themselves.”
“I take my hat off to every veteran who served this great nation,” McDaniel said as he concluded his comments. “Because it’s only because of their sacrifices - those who are serving today, and those who gave it all - that I’m able to stand before you today. We are blessed to be in this great country.”
Following McDaniel’s comments, the ceremony honored each of the veterans onhand at the ceremony, who were asked to walk out and join their brothers in arms at the sound of each of the various honorary songs. Army veterans came out to the strains of “The Army Goes Rolling Along,” while the Navy veterans were honored to “Anchors Aweigh.” The Marine vets onhand were honored to the sound of the U.S. Marine Corps Hymn, while the Air Force veterans came out to the strains of “The U.S. Air Force.” In addition, U.S. Coast Guard veterans were honored to the sound of “Semper Paratus.” Once assembled along Third Street, the veterans received a rousing round of applause from the civilian spectators.
Jimmy Cartner played another beloved patriotic song - “America the Beautiful” - leading up to the ceremonial laying of the honorary wreaths. The various wreaths were laid in front of the Veteran’s Garden fountain on behalf of the Marine Corps League, Detachment 1209, American Legion Post 95, VFW Post 1920 Ladies Auxiliary, and VFW Post 1920.
The ceremony concluded with Bruce Wright playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes, a 21-gun salute by the Marine Corps Honor Guard, and the playing of “Taps” on the trumpet.