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    A hero’s life remembered: The story of J.B. McKamey

    A hero’s life remembered: The story of J.B. McKamey

    Courtesy Photo | In the Clark AB hospital, released Prisoner of War, U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Bryan McKamey...... read more read more

    UNITED STATES

    08.17.2020

    Story by Jason Bortz 

    Naval Air Station Pensacola

    By MC1 Tim Schumaker

    Quite a few of our country’s heroes have significant history at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, “The Cradle of Naval Aviation,” but none of them have a story quite like former Commanding Officer Capt. John Bryan (JB) McKamey.

    For over 10 years now, the former base commanding officer has rested among the tens of thousands buried in NAS Pensacola’s Barrancas National Cemetery. His gravesite represents 37 years of federal service, nearly eight of which were spent as a Prisoner of War (POW) in North Vietnam’s infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” His life and service to the nation are remembered by former colleagues and held in high reverence to this day.

    “JB McKamey was and always will be a great American hero,” said Art Giberson, a retired chief petty officer, Vietnam Veteran, and former colleague of McKamey’s at NAS Pensacola.

    Giberson’s admiration for McKamey is evident by having interviewed him about his unimaginable time as a POW for a chapter in his book, War Stories.

    “Like most Vietnam Veterans he was a little hesitant to talk about it with just anyone, but when he got to know you, particularly if you were also a Vietnam Veteran, he would go into great detail and you could see the emotion in his eyes when he discussed the mental suffering and pain,” he said.

    On June 2, 1965, Lt. j.g. McKamey was flying combat missions with his wingman over North Vietnam from the USS Midway (CVA-41) in an A-4E Skyhawk. During an “uneventful” routine reconnaissance flight, they started to head back to the ship when the jets crossed over a river and he saw something that resembled a construction site. He told his wingman that he wanted to take a closer look at it, so he turned around and flew at low-altitude to see what it was.

    "Suddenly I heard a sharp ‘thump, thump!’ — not unlike a knock on a door— on the side of the aircraft and I immediately lost all electrical power,” McKamey told Giberson. "I put the plane into a climb and reached for the generator. I jerked the handle and it came off in my hand. That's when I began to realize that I was probably in more trouble than I realized."

    With his cockpit filling with smoke and his jet engulfed in flames, he ejected and parachuted towards Earth. Landing in an open area, he quickly saw armed Vietnamese running towards him and was immediately apprehended.

    "I was taken prisoner and after walking for about five hours, put in a small prison near Hue,” he told Giberson. “I was confined there for about 10 days while awaiting transportation to Hanoi.”

    Once at Hanoi, McKamey was subjected to brutal interrogation tactics at the hands of the North Vietnamese, only responding in accordance with the Code of Conduct by giving his name, date of birth and service number. He was forced to endure increasing amounts of pain when he refused to answer any other questions, to the point of blacking out.

    "The pain was so bad that I lost all track of time,'' he told Giberson. "It may have only been a few minutes, but it seemed like hours. I really don't know.

    McKamey was quoted to say that food deprivation and sheer boredom were the worst things that he and his fellow POWs had to contend with in his seven years as a POW in Hanoi.

    "There was absolutely nothing to do. We just sat in our cells day in, day out,” he said.

    In January 1972, all of the POWs were told they were to be gradually released in the order of their capture. On Feb. 12, 1973, McKamey returned home. It had been 2,813 days since he was launched from the deck of the USS Midway.

    Some people would have been incapable of maintaining a functional life after such a harrowing experience, understandably, but not J.B. McKamey. His career was far from over.

    After being briefly hospitalized to recover from his injuries, he returned to active duty and served in numerous billets until 1982 when he assumed command at NAS Pensacola until 1984. He retired from the Navy as a Captain after 31 years of active duty service on June 1, 1986, and was among the first Vietnam POWs to receive the POW Medal when the medal was authorized in 1989.

    His service to his country was still far from over, as he later returned to NAS Pensacola and served as the public affairs officer (PAO) for an additional seven years until he retired for the final time.

    During his years as PAO, he hired Harry White to be his community relations specialist, who eventually became McKamey’s replacement upon his final retirement in 1996. White subsequently served as the NAS Pensacola PAO until 2014, and fondly remembers the years he spent as a colleague of McKamey.

    “He was a mentor and a friend,” said White. “One of the most even-keeled people I have ever known. I never saw him rattled or angry, and everyone gave their very best because nobody wanted to disappoint JB.”
    When asked about his character, White further echoed Giberson’s strong sentiment of respect and admiration.

    “He was a man of tremendous character and courage, and was extremely smart,” he said. “He was also very kind and caring -- always available if you needed someone to talk to. I think JB was always concerned about every member of his staff having an opportunity to be successful, and he worked hard to provide those opportunities.”

    White says that McKamey never brought up his time as a POW unless it was at a speaking engagement, but had no reservations speaking about it when it was brought up.

    “JB could make one come to tears through laughter and then through sorrow with his stories of being a POW,” said White. “He had a wonderful way of describing his capture. I remember questioning a decision he made in the heat of an emergency and his response was ‘What are they going to do, send me to Vietnam and make me a POW?’ I never again questioned his wisdom.”

    Once he was finally finished with federal service, McKamey spent his retired years in Florida with his family. On the morning of February 9, 2010, he passed away peacefully at his home at the age of 74.
    A memorial service was held at NAS Pensacola, and his coffin was draped with a U.S. flag, and a black-and-white POW/MIA flag next to it. Six of the eight pallbearers at the service were also former POWs, who observed as he was lowered into his final resting place at Barrancas National Cemetery.

    Retired Capt. James Bell who had been in Hanoi with McKamey, was quoted after the memorial service in a eulogy.

    “I knew JB in Hanoi,” he said. “We were shot down about the same time in 1965 and although we never lived together, I knew JB well from living next door to him on several occasions, and ‘talking to each other’ by tapping on the wall. The Navy and the military have lost an exemplary warrior. It was a pleasure to serve with you, my friend.”

    Capt. Bell has since passed away, but this sentiment seemingly matches everyone who knew JB McKamey. NAS Pensacola’s airstrips, hallways, hangars and brief rooms are wealthy with the rich legacies of great men and women who have come before us, but it would likely be quite a challenge to find a Navy life as compelling as that of JB McKamey.

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    NEWS INFO

    Date Taken: 08.17.2020
    Date Posted: 08.17.2020 11:13
    Story ID: 376152
    Location: US

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