Selfridge Veteran to Share POW Story

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Public Affairs
Lt. Col. (ret.) Donald "Digger" Odell will talk about his experiences as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War during a special presentation at Macomb Community College, March 19. Odell spent nearly six years in a Vietnam prison camp after his F-105 fighter jet was shot down over North Vietnam on his 17th mission of the war.

Odell's presentation "A POW in North Vietnam: My Story," is part of The Sixties: A Decade that Define a Generation, a series of programs, presentations and exhibits at the Lorenzo Cultural Center at Macomb. The series runs Feb. 28-May 16.

Odell, of Harrison Township, is a longtime friend of the Selfridge military community. After retiring from active duty in the Air Force in 1978, he spent 12 years working as the base public affairs officer as a civilian. He continues to be active with the Selfridge Base Community Council and several local charitable organizations, notably Wertz' Warriors, a group with raises funds for the Michigan Special Olympics.

After enlisting in the Air Force in 1952, Odell earned his commission and wings as a pilot in 1955. From 1963-66, he was assigned to the 94th Fighter Squadron at Selfridge, before being assigned to the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron in Thailand. He was shot down on Oct. 17, 1967, near Hanoi, North Vietnam, and was repatriated on March 14, 1973.

Odell said he decided early on that he would be willing to talk publicly about his experiences as a prisoner and the abuses he endured.

"My thinking was I could talk about it and I could deal with it or I could keep it inside and let it eat away at me," he said. The retired pilot said he stopped counting how many talks he gave about his experiences when the number passed 1,500.

As a prisoner - the North Vietnamese government refused to call the captured Americans Prisoners of War and instead labeled them "criminals" before changing their status to "detainees" a month before they were released - Odell and his fellow prisoners underwent regular beatings and other forms of torture as their captors sought to extract confession from them.

"A lot of guys were tortured into confessing something. We never held that against those men. Everyone has their own point of what they can endure," he said. "It was at those points that you lean on your fellow man. It's that guy in your cell - if you weren't in solitary - that you counted on to pick you back up. He knew that he could count on you to do the same when he needed you."

Odell's presentations at the cultural center, located on M-59 in Clinton Township on the college's Center Campus, will be at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. They are free, but advanced registration is required by calling (586) 445-7348.

Other presentations on the war during the series include Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stanley Karnow, former chief correspondent for Time and Life magazines, will trace the origins of American involvement in Vietnam through the 1975 fall of Saigon in a May 7 presentation. Other programs examine President Lyndon Johnson's role in the war, March 29; college debates about the war, April 5 and 15; lessons learned from the war, April 25 and 29; and a tribute to the Armed Services, which will include a video featuring reflections from local Vietnam veterans, May 16. The Michigan Moving Wall, a memorial to the men and women from Michigan who lost their lives in Vietnam, will be on display throughout the program series.

Odell the war and his experiences as a POW reinforced his appreciation of being with other people and appreciating others for their thoughts and ideas.

"It also greatly taught me to be appreciative of who you are and what you have," he said. "When you've spent time alone in a cell with one metal cup and one metal spoon - yeah, you get to appreciate what you have now."

As for challenges facing America in its current conflicts, Odell said simply that he often sums up his talks by making the following comment: "our system of government is not perfect."

"But if you can find a better one in this world - and I've been to a lot of other countries over the years - give me a call and I will move there. I haven't heard that phone ring yet," he said.