BLOOMINGTON — William J. Reich's first trip on an airplane was flying from his home in Wisconsin to Texas to join the U.S. Air Force.
The first time he parachuted from a plane was when he was shot down in a F-4D Phantom over North Vietnam on May 11, 1972.
Reich was captured and taken to the prisoner-of-war camp derisively known among American POWs held there as the "Hanoi Hilton," where many were tortured and held in solitary confinement in an effort to break their spirit.
"Happiness greater than I'd ever known” is how Reich described his release from captivity nearly a year later.
The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel will be the guest speaker at the fifth annual Veterans Day One on One dinner Thursday night in the Brown Ballroom at Illinois State University's Bone Student Center, Normal.
The private event sponsored by the five Twin City Rotary clubs honors military veterans. Each attending Rotarian sponsors and pays for the dinner of a veteran.
Reich will be the guest of Bloomington Interim City Manager Steve Rasmussen. The two men were roommates at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
While they've stayed in touch by telephone and through email, the dinner will be their first face-to-face reunion since graduating from the academy in June 1970.
Reich said he accepted Rasmussen's invitation to speak because he believes in the importance of Veterans Day, which is Saturday, and remembering those who serve their country in the military.
"The biggest price I paid for serving my country in combat was to be a POW," said Reich. "But I know guys who were killed, and I think it's important to recognize the willingness of people to put themselves in that situation."
When Reich's plane went down, Rasmussen was serving with the 101st Airbone Infantry Division in South Vietnam.
“A lot of times we went out to rescue downed flyers,” said Rasmussen. “(Reich) unfortunately was shot down north of Hanoi so that was deep into North Vietnam, and we couldn't mount a rescue mission in time to get him. So he was captured by the North Vietnamese.”
Reich had flown more than 100 missions, 30 over Vietnam, out of Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand before he was shot down.
“I was tired and injured. I was cut, burned and my arm was broken,” Reich later wrote as part of a compilation of the accounts of 33 Air Force Academy graduates who were POWs in Vietnam.
"My future was in doubt, yet, the first night in solitary, my morale was raised by the contact with other Americans," he wrote. "A togetherness, a unity of the American prisoners was made apparent to me; one that the (North) Vietnamese were never able to to break, even though that was their highest goal.”
Boredom was the “persistent enemy” and “companionship was most important and made solo confinement most inhumane," he recalled.
Eventually, his captors gave him a Bible to read, which Reich said he read through "cover to cover twice" not because he was that religious, but "just to have something to read."
Forty-five years later, Reich said the biggest impact on his life from his time as a POW was that it led him to become a believer in God.
"When I was a POW, I realized I absolutely had no control over what was going on and that I was at the mercy of the North Vietnamese soldiers," he said. "I just felt this sudden need to make a prayer to God. In the Bible, it talks about the peace that passes all understanding. And that was the feeling I immediately had over myself. It kind of grew from there."
After his release from captivity, Reich resumed his Air Force career, leaving active service in 1979. He then served in the Air Force Reserve, retiring in 1998. Since then, Reich has been a chief engineer for Boeing Aircraft in St. Louis. Now 70, Reich lives in O'Fallon, Mo.