Floyd James Thompson
Floyd James Thompson
Thompson on Easter Saturday in 1975
|Born||July 8, 1933|
Bergenfield, New Jersey, U.S.
|Died||July 16, 2002 (aged 69)|
Key West, Florida, U.S.
|Service/||United States Army|
|Years of service||1956–1982|
|Unit||7th Special Forces Group|
|Awards||Army Distinguished Service Medal|
Legion of Merit
Bronze Star Medal with "V" Device
Purple Heart (2)
Floyd James "Jim" Thompson (July 8, 1933 – July 16, 2002) was a United States Army colonel. He was the longest-held American prisoner of war in U.S. history, spending nearly nine years in captivity in the jungle camps and mountains of South Vietnam and Laos, and in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
Jim Thompson was born July 8, 1933, in Bergenfield, New Jersey, as the son of a bus driver. He graduated from Bergenfield High School in 1951. Thompson worked for the A&P supermarket :19 before he was drafted by the United States Army on June 14, 1956.:28 He was at first a very truculent, rebellious soldier, but then decided that he liked the military. After basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he decided to make the military his career.
After completing Officer Candidate School,:32 Thompson served stateside and also spent a year in Korea.:37 He was stationed at Fort Bragg when he was recruited into the Army Special Forces as a Green Beret.:41 After completing Ranger School and Jump School, he served as an instructor with the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, from August 1958 to June 1960. His next assignment was as a platoon leader in the 2nd Brigade of the 34th Infantry Regiment, stationed in South Korea from June 1960 to July 1961. Thompson then served as a reenlistment officer with Headquarters XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, from September 1961 to September 1962, and then as a staff officer with 1st Special Forces at Fort Bragg, from September 1962 to December 1963.
Captain Thompson went to Vietnam in December 1963.:52 Prior to his deployment, he hadn't heard of the country. He was to serve only a six-month tour of duty but was captured on March 26, 1964. He was released on March 16, 1973, 10 days short of 9 years.
On March 26, 1964, Thompson was a passenger on an observation plane (an L-19/O-1 Bird Dog) flown by Captain Richard L. Whitesides when it was downed by enemy small arms fire at , about 20 kilometers from Thompson's Special Forces Camp near Quang Tri, South Vietnam.
Thompson survived the crash with burns, a bullet wound across the cheek, and a broken back. He was quickly captured by the Viet Cong. Initially, Whitesides was not found; he was awarded the Air Force Cross for a previous mission but was killed before it could be presented to him. He was the first American to be killed in action at Khe Sanh, South Vietnam.
Aerial search and ground patrols failed to find any trace of the aircraft.:94
On March 27, 1964, an Army officer visited Thompson's home and told his pregnant wife Alyce that he was missing. The trauma sent her into labor and their son was born that evening.
Prisoner of war
Thompson spent the next nine years (3,278 days) as a prisoner of war, first at the hands of the Viet Cong in the South Vietnam jungles, until he was moved in 1967 to the Hanoi prison system. During his captivity, he was tortured, starved, and isolated from other American POWs. At one point, Thompson did not speak to another American for over five years. He was released with the other POWs in mid-March 1973 in Operation Homecoming.
Return to the United States
The years following Thompson's release were not happy ones. His troubled life was chronicled in an oral biography called Glory Denied by Tom Philpott. Although Thompson was promoted to lieutenant colonel upon release and then to full colonel, he had missed the most important years of his military career while in prison. He had no formal military education beyond OCS and lacked even a college degree or experience as a company commander.:295
He had difficulty adjusting to a vastly changed peacetime Army. In addition, Thompson's marriage had been troubled even before his captivity, and his wife Alyce, believing him dead, was living with another man at the time he was repatriated. He and his wife divorced in 1975. Alyce told author Tom Philpott that she believed prison had affected her husband's mind. She said he suffered from nightmares and was abusive towards both her and the children. Thompson later remarried but divorced soon afterwards. Thompson never formed any kind of a relationship with his children. His daughters were 6, 5 and 4 when he left, and his son was born the day of his capture. Only his eldest child barely remembered him. He eventually became completely estranged from all of them.
Thompson said that one of the things that helped him cope with his brutal imprisonment was thinking of the fine family that awaited his return. He developed a very serious drinking problem and was in several military hospitals for treatment.:349
In 1977, Thompson attempted suicide with an overdose of pills and alcohol.:430 His superiors told author Philpott that had it not been for Thompson's status as a hero, he would have been dismissed from service because of his alcoholism. In 1981, while still on active duty, Thompson suffered a massive heart attack and a severe stroke. He was in a coma for months and was left seriously disabled. He was paralyzed on one side and could speak only in brief phrases for the rest of his life.
The stroke that left Thompson's left side paralyzed:431 and his age contributed to his forced retirement from active duty in the Army. A ceremony was held for him in The Pentagon on January 28, 1982. Thompson received the Distinguished Service Medal in appreciation for his 25 years of service to his country as an Army officer. Because of his recent stroke, he had a hard time speaking, so Michael Chamowitz, his close friend and lawyer, read his retirement speech.
I am honored to receive this award (the Distinguished Service Medal) today but at the same time I am saddened to be leaving active military service. The Army has been my life and I am proud of each of my twenty-five years of service.
Of those 25 years, I spent nine as prisoner of war. Those days were grim, and survival was a struggle. I was able to withstand that long agony because I never lost my determination to live—no matter how painful that became—because I love my country and never lost faith in her, and because I had dreams of what my life would be like upon my return to America. Those dreams were always, unquestionably, of a life that was Army. I found that the dream of continued service gave me a goal that helped me survive my years as a POW.
After my return from Vietnam, the opportunity to serve became the motivating force in my life. Military service has given me my greatest challenges and my greatest rewards. I have worked hard for sound leadership development in the Army and for realistic training. The greatest problem faced by POWs was fear of the unknown. This fear can be reduced, not only for the potential POW but across the awesome environment of the battlefield, by training which is honest enough to address the real issue of combat and which is tough enough to approximate battlefield conditions.
No, I do not now retire freely—there was much I still wanted to do—but circumstances present me no alternative. I leave active military service because I must. But for the rest of my life, the Army will be no less a part of me, and of what I am, than what it has always been.
Colonel Floyd James Thompson
January 29, 1982
Later years and death
In 1981, Thompson moved to Key West, where he remained active in the community, according to the Monroe County Office of Veterans Affairs. In 1988, Thompson and a number of other former prisoners of war were awarded medals by President Ronald Reagan.
In 1990, Thompson's son Jim was convicted of murder and imprisoned for sixteen years.
On July 8, 2002, the staff of JIATF (Joint Interagency Task Force) East and some of his close friends threw Thompson a birthday party. He was described as being in high spirits and full of excitement. During the celebration, he quoted General Douglas MacArthur: "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."
Eight days later, Thompson was found dead in his Key West By the Sea Condominium on July 16, 2002, at the age of 69. His body was cremated, and his ashes scattered at sea off the coast of Florida. There is a memorial marker for him at Andersonville National Cemetery.
In an update to Glory Denied, Tom Philpott reported that Alyce Thompson died of cancer in 2009. He also mentioned that Thompson's daughter Ruth had suffered three disabling heart attacks and had lost a son to suicide. Philpott reported that Ruth had told him the strength of character that she inherited from both her parents had helped her though the difficult times. Glory Denied was later turned into an opera  written by Tom Cipullo.
On November 2014, Thompson's pilot Richard L. Whitesides' remains were recovered in the area where he was lost on March 26, 1964, and have been identified. They were returned to his family for burial with full military honors at West Point Cemetery.
In October 1974, Thompson started to receive medals and awards in recognition for his service in Vietnam. South Vietnam gave him the country's highest award to Allied enlisted military personnel for valor, the Republic of Vietnam Military Merit Medal.
In recognition of his escape from Viet Cong POW camp for two days in October 1971, Thompson received the Silver Star. For his nine years in captivity, Thompson received the Army Distinguished Service Medal, Bronze Star Medal, and Legion of Merit. The Bronze Star recognized his continuous resistance to the enemy. The Legion of Merit recognized his suffering for his nine years in captivity.
A ceremony was held on June 24, 1988, in the White House honoring POWs from World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Two representatives were picked from each war to receive the Prisoner of War Medal. Thompson and Everett Alvarez were chosen to represent POWs from Vietnam.
His military decorations and awards include:
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- Prisoner of War Camps
- Awards and decorations of the Vietnam War
- Aircraft losses of the Vietnam War
- U.S. prisoners of war during the Vietnam War
- "F. J. Thompson, 69, Longtime P.O.W., Dies". nytimes.com. Retrieved 2017-02-15.
- Philpott, Tom, at Centreville, VA, Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War (1st ed.), New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company (published May 2001), pp. 324, ISBN 0-393-02012-6
- "Veteran Tribute: Floyd James Thompson (Colonel, USA)". Veterantributes.org. Retrieved 2017-06-12.
- New York Times, July 19, 2002
- Tom Philpott (2001-04-02). "The Prisoner". The New Yorker. New York City. p. 56. Retrieved 2013-08-28.
- Richard Bernstein (2001-08-02). "The Glory And Tragedy Of a P.O.W. Scorned". The New York Times. New York City. p. E1. Retrieved 2013-08-28.
- Philpott, Tom, at Centreville, VA, Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War (1st ed.), New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company (published May 2001), pp. 385–386, ISBN 0-393-02012-6
- Philpott, Tom, at Centreville, VA, Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War (1st ed.), New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company (published May 2001), pp. 384–385, ISBN 0-393-02012-6
- Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War, « The Thompson family's postwar lives read like a Jerry Springer show, replete with severe alcoholism, spousal abuse, adultery, teenage pregnancy, bitter divorce and the jailing of Thompson's son on a murder charge».
- Philpott, Tom, at Centreville, VA, Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War (1st ed.), New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company (published May 2001), pp. 322–323, ISBN 0-393-02012-6
- Philpott, Tom, at Centreville, Virginia, Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War (1st ed.), New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company (published May 2001), pp. 398–400, ISBN 0-393-02012-6
- Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War
- F. J. Thompson, 69, Longtime P.O.W., Dies, Published: July 18, 2002 in The New York Times
- "Floyd James Thompson". Find a Grave. Retrieved 2008-02-02.
- POW Network
- POW/MIA Freedom Fighters
- Booknotes interview with Tom Philpott on Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War, August 5, 2001.