Unit: Company B, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division
Home City of Record: Uniondale NY
Date of Loss: 12 Jul 1967
Loss Coordinates: 134026N 1073809E (YA850131)
In the spring of 1973, 591 American Prisoners of War were released from prisons and camps in Vietnam. Among them were six of a group of nine U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division personnel captured in and near Pleiku Province, South Vietnam during the year of 1967 whose lives had been intertwined for the past six years. All had belonged to that part of the "Ivy Division" which was assigned to Task Force Oregon conducting border operations called Operation Sam Houston (1 Jan - 5 Apr 67) and Operation Francis Marion (5 Apr - 12 Oct 67).
On July 12, 1967, SP4 Martin S. Frank, PFC Nathan B. Henry, Sgt. Cordine McMurray, PFC Stanley A. Newell, PFC Richard R. Perricone, SP4 James F. Schiele and PFC James L. Van Bendegom, all members of Company B, 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, were conducting a search and destroy mission along the Cambodian border when their position was overrun
by the Viet Cong. With the execption of Schiele, all the men were captured. The U.S. Army notes that Schiele and Van Bendegom were captured by the North Vietnamese, while the others, apparently, were captured by Viet Cong.
PFC Schiele was seen by his platoon leader as his unit was forced to withdraw, leaving him behind. He had been hit a number of times by automatic weapons fire in the legs and chest and was thought to be dead. PFC Perricone stated in his debrief upon return to the U.S. that the enemy camp commander of Camp 102 told him that SP4 Schiele had died of wounds received in the fire fight. However, since there was no positive proof of death, the U.S. government placed Schiele in a Missing in Action category. Classified information given to the Vietnamese by Gen. John Vessey in 1987, however, states that both Schiele and Van Bendegom were captured by the North Vietnamese.
PFC Vanbendegom was also wounded in the engagement, and was seen alive by other Americans captured in the same battle about one week after his capture at a communist field hospital in Cambodia, not far from his capture location. One of the released Americans was later told by the commanding North Vietnamese officer at his prison camp in Cambodia that SP4 Vanbendegom had died of his wounds. Vanbendegom was categorized as a Prisoner of War.
The other seven Americans were held in prison camps on the Vietnam/Cambodia border for several months. According to the debriefs of releasees Sooter and Perricone, they and DeLong had attempted to escape from a border camp in Cambodia on November 6, 1967, but were recaptured the same day. Two days later, Sooter and Perricone were shown DeLong's bullet-ridden and blood-soaked trousers and were told that DeLong had been killed resisting recapture. The Vietnamese included DeLong's name on a list of prisoners who had died in captivity (saying he died in November 1967), did not return his remains, and did not offer any explanation.
Sooter, Frank, Henry, Perricone, McMurray and Newell were all released by the PRG in 1973. Frank was never known to be a prisoner by the U.S. Henry was injured, and maintains a permanent disability today. The U.S. is certain the Vietnamese also know the fates of DeLong, Schiele and Vanbendegom, but the Vietnamese continue to remain silent.
RICHARD R. PERRICONE
Staff Sergeant - United States Army
I was a member of Co. B. 1st Bn. 12th Infantry 4th Infantry Division. I was captured on July 12th 1967 and spent a little over two years in the jungles of Cambodia. Then I moved to North Vietnam where I stayed until March 5, 1973, the day I was released. I was captured about 25 miles west of Pleakui City, with four other Americans. When we reached the first jungle camp in Cambodia we met two other American POWs. We all tried to escape from there November 6, 1967, but failed and were recaptured.
The camp I lived in was 20 miles inside Cambodia. The buildings I lived in were made of small trees put together like beams. They were about three inches apart. The roof was made of large leaves. The beds were made of thin strips of bamboo tied together with vines. There were stocks the whole length of the bed. At night we put our legs into the stocks. The stocks were two trunks about five inches in diameter. But after the escape attempt, our legs were in the stocks all of the time. The general routine each day was: We would get up at about 5:30 A.M. Eat our first meal at 7 A.M., which was two or three cups of rice and the tops of sweet potato plants. We would then just lay around all day. Then at 4, we would have our second meal. Then, at about 5:30 or 6, we would be locked up again for the night. Some life, don't you think???
We were allowed to bathe about once a week or ten days. This mostly depended upon which guard was on duty that day. December 1996
Richard and his wife Maria live in New York.
Sat Feb 21 1998
25 YEARS AFTER RELEASE... ONE POW'S VICTORY
PATRICE O'SHAUGHNESSY Daily News Staff Writer
"Two thousand and sixty-four days," says Richard Perricone, shaking his head in disbelief and smiling slightly. As a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he sometimes lost track of which day of the week it was, but he never missed tabulating his time in captivity.
Twenty-five years later, Perricone doesn't think about those lost years every single day. But when he does, he can call up every detail of the fear, brutality and boredom; his endless, simple dreams of eating pancakes in a diner or taking a long, hot shower; the terror of hearing U.S. bombs drop around him.
Perricone is 52 now, but his thin frame and dark, though receding, hair give him a younger appearance. He manages a 340-unit apartment building on W. 56th St., where he lives with his wife, Maria, and 4- year-old daughter Alexandria.
He is one of 556 POWs who came home in February, March and April of 1973 to rejoin everyday life in a country transformed. Some went on to more public service, such as Douglas (Pete) Peterson, the country's first ambassador to Vietnam, and U.S. Sen. John McCain (R- Ariz.) and Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.).
Most just picked up their lives and found jobs and wives and had children in anonymity. But all are bound by an experience that, in Perricone's words, "You can never picture, nobody could ever picture. There are just a handful of us; we're the only ones who can picture it."
All but about 75 of the POWs were pilots, so Perricone, being an Army grunt captured on the ground, is among an even more exclusive fraternity. He keeps in touch with five other men in his company who survived the Hanoi Hilton with him.
"We were very tight . . . we became like brothers," he said. "After spending 5 1/2 years together, closer than brothers. When we meet, we kiss and hug."
He talks easily about his arduous past, by turns proud, angry, laughing, rubbing his arms to erase goose bumps as he describes the ambush that killed most of his company, and holding back a tear when he thinks of March 5, 1973, the day he was freed.
With 25 years' perspective, he concludes that the experience helped him. "It made me really cherish life and be a hardworking person," Perricone said. "Nothing bothers me. I've been through so much, and my life was on the line all those years. It made me a hard person, and that keeps me going, and keeps me young."
He was very young 19 and working in his father's butcher shop and hanging around his hometown of Uniondale, L.I., when he was drafted in 1965. He arrived in South Vietnam a year later, to an almost party-like atmosphere, with girls kissing him and his buddies when they stepped off the ship.
Reality quickly appeared in the form of skirmishes, sniper fire and body bags.
"The scariest part was the darkness, at night you couldn't see a thing, and you didn't know what was out there, or coming at you," he said. "When the light came up, you could finally breathe a sigh of relief."
The third platoon of B Company, 1/12th Infantry Battalion, 4th Division, had barely taken that first gasp of morning air on July 12, 1967, northwest of Pleiku, when hell arrived. We walked right into an ambush," Perricone said. "The company was wiped out except for seven guys. We were captured by the 66th North Vietnamese Army regiment. I got shot in the leg, had shrapnel in my arm, and I got knocked out by a hand grenade, and the next thing I knew a guy was shaking me awake; I was already tied up."
In the first days, "we didn't know what they'd do, I was worried about torture, that they'd pull my fingernails out," Perricone said. "They didn't do that stuff, but they'd beat the s--- out of you. They broke my nose."
He and six other men from his company were held in the Cambodian jungle, in a thatched hut, their feet in stocks at night, eating rice and tops of sweet potatoes. Two pals died of disease.
There were two previously captured soldiers there. "We were told not to talk, so we communicated by songs," he said, laughing. "I'd sing, 'Hello my name is Richard, I'm from New York,' and the guards didn't realize we were exchanging information."
He said he could hear American voices every two or three weeks, being so close to the border of South Vietnam, and figured if they fled their captors and headed south they'd be saved. So, on Nov. 22, 1967, "we contemplated the great escape," Perricone said.
He was the healthiest, so he had to jump the guard. They waited until the dumbest guard was on duty. They called him Elvis because of his long sideburns, and Perricone slammed him with a rock.
"We ran, and pretty soon we heard shots ... they caught us, all except for one guy, Joe, and took us back and beat us with sticks," he said. "A few days later, a Viet Cong guerrilla came in with a sack dripping blood. I thought it was gonna be Joe's head. The guy took out a shirt, it had Joe's name on it and about 20 bullet holes. He threw it on the ground and said, 'That's what's left of your friend.' "
They were held in the jungle until Thanksgiving Day 1969, when they were marched to North Vietnam on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a three- week trek. Perricone passed truckloads of soldiers and supplies heading south to fight U.S. troops.
His new prison was Hoa Lo in Hanoi, dubbed the Hanoi Hilton, where he was kept in a locked cement room with other captives, most of them pilots. Those who "misbehaved" were put in solitary.
"They told us we were never going home, that we'd be tried as war criminals after the war," Perricone said. "They showed us movies of anti-war protesters ... it hurt to see that."
But the sanitary conditions were better, and he heard news of what was going on back home.
"The other prisoners told us about the girls wearing short skirts, and flower power, free love, the new cars," he said. "We heard American music. The Vietnamese would play Connie Francis records, but always called her Francis Connie."
They ate pumpkins and cabbage, sometimes bread. "The biggest topic for five years was food," he said. "We'd talk about how good it would be to go to a diner for pancakes, or to have a big steak."
He remembers the December 1972 bombing of Hanoi like it was yesterday.
"We were in a room with no windows, just a small opening on the ceiling, and you could see the flashes and hear sirens ... you'd hear surface-to-air missiles taking off right next to you. In 1973, the carpet bombings, they came really close. It would go on for three or four minutes straight. It was the most frightening, to think that I was going to die this way, after all those years of being sick and being a prisoner."
Some of the POWs cracked under the pressure and made propaganda statements. Perricone doesn't condemn them. "Some guys just couldn't take it ... the ones who complied got to write home, they got some privileges."
He endured until that March day in 1973 when the North Vietnamese released him, sending him home with a plastic bag containing candy and toiletries, including a metal comb made from a recycled, shot- down U.S. plane. He still has the gray and maroon striped pajamas he wore in captivity.
Upon arriving at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, two of his long-held dreams came true: He had a steak dinner and was given a bar of soap, a washcloth and a long, hot shower.
He came home to a parade in Uniondale, with thousands of people lining the streets to welcome him. His father had longish hair, sideburns and wore bell-bottoms.
"People looked so weird to me, but they hugged me and thanked me … it was great."
His parents told him that if his younger brother had been drafted, they were going to send him to Canada. "I said, 'Are you kidding me? What did I go over there for?' "
In the first three years home, Perricone suffered from nightmares. He saw every Vietnam War movie that came out. Meanwhile, he bought a house and took college courses. He married the woman who had worn his POW bracelet and they had a son, Anthony, in a marriage that lasted 16 years.
He marched in the ticker-tape parade down Broadway in May 1985. "People hugged and thanked and congratulated me all over again," he remembered.
He was chief engineer at Phillip Morris corporate headquarters on E. 42nd St., then got the manager's job at 150 W. 56th St. in 1990. He met and married his wife, Maria.
They talk of visiting Vietnam. "I'd like to go back there, just to see what it's like," Perricone said. "I wouldn't get mad at them; war is war."
He may not hold anger anymore, but he will never shake the pain. "I lost 5 1/2 years of my life, years that should have been the best part," he said, wistfully.