John is a veteran of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. His experiences could fill a book, but, this article will only detail one very moving experience that he had in France with the infantry in WWII, and a few facts about his nearly 6 years as a POW during the war in Vietnam. Much additional information can be found about him on the internet and from numerous books about Vietnam POWs. Our immediate Past Chapter Commander, John E. Stavast passed away Sunday, July 4, 2004.
John Stavast was born in Denver in 1926. His family had moved to Pueblo, Colorado and he was attending high school when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program, entering active duty March 20, 1944. The aviation cadet program was closed down in November 1944 and John was then put through training as a gunner on B-29 Bombers. He was then shipped out to Europe where there were no B-29s, so instead, he was put in Company A, 117th Infantry Regiment. While in the infantry, he had a totally unexpected and personally very moving experience. Here it is in Johns own words.
One day, during our move across France, our company (Co A, 117th Infantry) came to a brief pause in operations out in the countryside that I will never forget. Lieutenant Miller, the Company Commander, a West Point graduate and one of the finest leaders I have ever known; had us all assemble to give us a brief talk. He told us we were camped near one of the great battlefields of World War One, where American troops had fought a quarter-century before, and where many had been killed. So many in fact, that an American Cemetery was established there, and he turned and pointed it out, on a hillside not far away. He said American Cemeteries for our war dead are maintained in perpetuity by the nation of France, and that they were very worthy places for respectful visit. Having a few hours before the unit was to move out, he told us we had time to look it over, and then he dismissed us. I started up the hill, feeling something more than idle curiosity, but not much more.
When I was just a kid growing up I often heard my Mother speak sadly of the loss of her two young brothers, killed in action in France during the Great War. She told me a lot about those two uncles I could never meet, but I was young and didnt really give it much thought. I couldnt recall much more than their names as I went up into the cemetery. What a beautifully maintained place it was, in sharp contrast to the rest of war-torn France. The uniformed caretaker explained the American dead from the battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918 were buried there. He assisted me at the registry listing, and was just as amazed as I was at the unlikely coincidence of finding the name of one of those uncles that my Mother had talked of so often. Moments later, I was at his gravesite, reading the name carved in stone, Private Art Van Eck. The experience overwhelmed me, and I just stood there , a teenaged Infantryman with tears streaming down my face, thinking of my Mother and the young brother she lost but would never forget.
Within hours, Company A was on the move again and that moment in time had passed. By wars end I had written many letters home about my experiences and about the world-changing events happening all around me that made deep impressions upon me as a person. But, to my Mother the only thing that counted was that I had stood at her brothers grave that day in France. For the remainder of her life, that seemed to represent closure for her, knowing she could never go there for herself, and it gave her peace.
117th Infantry Regiment crest
30th Infantry Division patch
8th Air Force
92nd Bombardment Group
Eventually, John was reassigned to the 92nd Bomb Group (B-17s) in England. After WWII, he was discharged in 1946, returned home and enrolled in Pueblo Junior College.
In 1949, he was invited back into the revived aviation cadet corps. John Stavast earned his Air Force pilot wings with Flying Class 51-A at Reese Air Force Base, Texas. His initial assignment was to Air Training Command as a flying instructor, and after that he was in instructor helping to train pilots of the Japanese Self Defense Force. In 1956 he was transferred to Tactical Air Command and assigned to the 18th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. He would then serve multiple assignments, flying and staff, in various Tactical Recon units. Tactical reconnaissance, or recce, meant using camera-equipped planes to take photos over enemy held territory. John would successively fly the RF-84F Thunderstreak, the RF-101C Voodoo, and finally the RF-4C Phantom II. He was flying an RF-4C on his 91st combat mission over North Vietnam on September 17, 1967 when his plane was hit by a missile and went down near Hanoi.
John Stavast and his backseater, Gerald Venanzi, bailed out and were quickly taken prisoner. They both survived to be released in March 1973. Here are some of the things John has said about his captivity. Immediately after capture he was tortured for seven days and nights straight. The treatment in Hanoi was very harsh, very bad. They did some pretty bad bone-busting on me. After his release it was determined that he had broken bones in his back, arms and legs, a skull fracture and a fractured jaw, much of which he could not remember happening because he was unconscious for extended periods. During that week of torture he was given only one cup of water every 24 hours.
The Hanoi Hilton was an imposing prison facility, occupying an entire city block. The walls were 4 feet thick, 20 feet high, and extended up another 5 feet by electrified strands of barbed wire. Shards of glass were embedded on the wall’s top. He was moved about and was in nine different prison installations including the Zoo, Alcatraz, and the Plantation as well as the Hanoi Hilton. John was senior officer in 5 of the 9 POW Camps that he was in. The prisoners developed a communications network employing “tap” codes that was never discovered by their captors. John also spoke about how the prisoners welcomed the risks of the U.S. bombings and were especially delighted when a surface-to-air missile unit parked next to the prison was knocked out with surgical precision during a strike in the 1972 Christmas bombing (Operation Linebacker II). In the later years conditions improved markedly, especially after negotiations had begun. Captives were given new clothes, were permitted to organize and to bathe and exercise regularly, and were given much-improved medical attention and food. The treaty was signed on January 27, 1973 and soon thereafter, prisoners were released in four batches beginning in February. But while this was taking place, at the same time the North Vietnamese were moving tanks past the prison, in preparation for their major armor attacks to defeat the South Vietnamese after the complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces.
John was in the group that was repatriated on March 14, 1973. He said, When we climbed aboard that C-141 in Hanoi for the flight home, the planes crew handed out chocolate milkshakes. The moment the wheels left the ground and we knew we had really left North Vietnam, we celebrated by throwing those milkshakes in all directions and shouting. The crew didnt mind that wed created a mess. John did not know until later that image of him in a sudden spontaneous outburst was seen on the TV sets in millions of homes all across the country, by Americans who will forever remain in awe and admiration of those ex-POWs.
Upon his return to the United States, John Stavast, was given extensive medical attention and extended convalescent time to restore his physical strength and condition. During that period he traveled widely all around the country, with the blessing of the Air Force, making public appearances before various groups. During that time he began receiving the first of the POW Bracelets, with his name engraved, being returned to him personally by Americans that had been praying for his safe return.
John Stavast retired from the Air Force in June 1980 as a Colonel with over 6,000 flying hours in T6, B25, B26, T28, T33, F86F, RF84F, RF101C, F101B, F4B, RF4C, T38, T2 and other types of aircraft. His many decorations include three awards of the Silver Star, 2- Legion of Merit, 2- Purple Heart, 3- Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star with V device and 6 Air Medals.
John is married to the former Shirley L. Metzger of Eugene, Oregon. They had met in France, were married in California and have made their home in Austin, Texas since his retirement.
Since his release, John Stavast has had more than 2,000 POW bracelets with his name engraved, that have been presented to him by the wearers. In retirement, he has devoted much time in volunteer service for disabled veterans through the VA. He has commanded his local post of the VFW, and chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He is a gifted and inspirational speaker, still in demand to speak to the public about his experiences as a POW before all types of audiences. He typically ends his talk, How wonderful it is to live in this great country. Ill never take my freedom for granted again. In my years in Hanoi prisons, I never met a POW whose faith in you, or our President, ever wavered. We all knew we would be back home one day. I am proud of my association with so many fine, courageous men, and we are all very proud of you. God bless you all. Thank you for your many prayers and efforts on our behalf. Thanks also for the wonderful welcome home.