The unbelievable saga of a Three sports activities Rutgers hero who spent eight years as a prisoner of struggle (and his TD go that shocked school soccer)

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The US Air Force Starlifter landed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines on February 12, 1973. The nation’s eyes watched as 115 prisoners of war returned to the U.S. military facility.

Near the front of the pack was Raymond Vohden, a 42-year-old first lieutenant in the US Navy. Though he made headlines for his achievements as a soccer and wrestling star at Rutgers University decades earlier, Vohden was now more famous for another reason: the New Jersey man was the fourth American to be shot down over North Vietnam on April 3, 1965.

His hobbling Vohden had the option of exiting the back of the plane, where he could escape the view of hundreds who had gathered to greet the hero soldiers and millions more on television. But Vohden spat a line and said he would “meet people just like the rest of you”.

He strolled down the eight steps, put aside his crutches, and greeted the general who waited on the runway while the crowd cheered.

America’s fourth longest prisoner of war in the Vietnam War was at home. Vohden was the first soldier to return to American hands at the Hanoi ceremony two weeks after the US, South Vietnam, Viet Cong and North Vietnam signed a peace agreement. Pictures of Vohden stepping off the hospital plane were on the front pages of newspapers across the country.

“I get goose bumps because I think he’s like a cross between Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun’ and (Sylvester) Stallone in ‘Rambo’,” said his son Daniel Vohden. “He was the living image of a war hero.”

Raymond Vohden died at home in McLean, Virginia in November 2016. His obituaries highlighted his love for family, his three-sport career at Rutgers, and a 32-year military career with the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, two Legions of Merit, and two purple hearts. You don’t mention his handshake with two US presidents – Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush – and Pope John Paul II.

“If he were here today, he would have hated that kind of attention,” said his youngest son. “He’d say he’s not a hero.” That’s just how he was. ”

Nevertheless, 44-year-old Daniel Vohden is happy to take a call from a reporter on the eve of Veteran’s Day. Little does he know that 70 years ago his father was a hero of a different kind that month.

The 175-pound throwback threw an unlikely touchdown pass before the largest gathering of college football stars on a field.

A famous 3 sports college career

Ray Vohden was a Rutgers football letter winner for the 1950 and 51 seasons and a stellar scarlet wrestler for three years.

Rutgers’ home meeting with Brown University on November 4, 1950 was billed at the “first Hall of Fame game” after organizers promised a portion of the proceeds would go towards the planned construction of a national football shrine on the New Brunswick campus would be used where the first intercollegiate game was played in 1869.

An Associated Press report said the event brought “the greatest gathering of all football talent in one place”.

Rutgers were down 12-9 at the end of the fourth quarter when coach Harvey Harman called for a trick game. Instead of throwing the ball to quarterback Walt LaPrairie, the center snapped at Vohden, who was in the “T” lineup. Vohden, who had arrived three years earlier from Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield, New Jersey as a promising quarterback prospect, had thrown a pass in Rutgers’ last five games that season.

It hardly mattered. His throw sailed 26 yards into the air to defender Jim Monahan, who then carried the ball 55 yards to the end zone. The 81-yard touchdown was the defining result in a game that made headlines across the country.

While he won football and athletics as a javelin thrower and pole vaulter for two years, Vohden’s most successful sport was wrestling. He reached the semifinals in 1951 at the NCAA Wrestling Championships with 167 pounds and was fourth in the national tournament a year later with 177 pounds.

Dick Voliva, the legendary Rutgers wrestling coach, told local reporters that Vohden would have run for the United States in the 1952 Olympics if there had been no injury during the exams. His feats on the mat were recognized when he was inducted into the New Jersey chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2009.

“You look at my dad’s highlights, be it wrestling or on the soccer field, and you can only see the part of his personality where he was a fighter,” Daniel Vohden said. “He wasn’t the most talented.” Athlete. But his work ethic showed in college, whether it be in sports or in his ability to get a business degree or a law degree. ”

And his son added, “That hard work and determination would also affect his experience as a prisoner of war.”

Shot down over North Vietnam

Instead of continuing his law degree, Vohden joined the Navy Air Corps in January 1953. In September 1954 he achieved the status of all-weather pilot in the Navy and arrived off Vietnam in September 1964.

Although military personnel have been deployed in the region for the past five years, the United States did not officially enter the Vietnam War until March 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson launched a campaign to bomb targets in North Vietnam and on the Ho Chi Minh Trail Vietnam launched Operation Rolling Thunder.

“Many people might say we lost this war, but in my father’s opinion we achieved what we had to do and that was to stop the spread of communism in Asia,” said Daniel Vohden.

His father’s delta-winged single turbojet took off from the USS Hancock shortly after noon on April 3, 1965, records show. The mission was to bomb Thanh Hoa Bridge, a 540-foot span over a river nicknamed Dragon Jaw. A total of 104 American pilots were reportedly shot down in an area of ​​75 square miles around the river during the Vietnam War.

Vohden was the fourth. According to pownetwork.org, Vohden was north of the dragon when his bomber was shot down. He was captured by the North Vietnamese after hitting the ground. He broke his right shin in two places and injured his ankle. He lost three inches of bone due to improper medical treatment in captivity.

“You could have just chopped that thing off, but he wanted to save his leg so he could have special shoes made,” his son said. “He would walk with a limp. He couldn’t run; he couldn’t walk.” Exercise and this was a man who predicted his life on athletics.

So what did he do? He started swimming. Every day it was religious for him. He went to the local recreation center and did 30 or 40 laps for a good hour. He couldn’t kick his legs; They would all be poor. If we were going on vacation the hotel had to have a pool. When we went to the beach, he would swim in the sea and then throw us into the water. Swimming became his passion and he would be in the water until the last year of his life. ”

Held in captivity for 8 years

Vohden was one of at least 142 American soldiers held in prisoner-of-war camps in North Vietnam from March 1965 to February 1973. He reportedly spent nearly eight years in the infamous camps known as the Hanoi Hilton and the Zoo.

In an interview with The Associated Press in April 1973, he spoke of the grueling conditions that included sleeping on a straw mat under a mosquito net.

He spent that time playing cards – not playing cards – during his 2,872 days in captivity. For example, a bridge game was played with stones.

“I could endure the physical pain in prison,” he told The Associated Press. “I was tortured like the other prisoners of war and I found that I could stand it.”

Years later, Vohden processed his experiences more easily.

“At dinner parties people asked him about his experience as a prisoner of war,” said Daniel Vohden. “He wouldn’t get into the emotional things, the soldiers he knew who died, but I remember he told a funny story about how.” They had this thing called (crap) bucket. Sometimes the guards would come by and torture them. To prevent them from throwing any trash in that bucket, and instead of emptying it, they let it fill up for a couple of weeks. And to keep them from coming in to torture them, they would swirl (the bucket) around and make the smell so bad that no one wanted to come near this room. ”

He continued his military service until he retired as captain of the Navy in August 1985 and served as the Pentagon expert on POW-MIA affairs. The July 19, 1979 issue of The Star-Ledger reported that Vohden had returned to his detention center in North Vietnam to discuss with Vietnamese officials the status of soldiers reported missing after being appointed Congressional adviser.

He declined to go into detail about his prisoner-of-war experience except to describe his incarceration as a “disgusting experience”.

“If I can go there, I can help you,” he told the newspaper. “My experiences are not that important.”

He talked about forgetting his past.

“The war is over,” he said. “If you live in the past, you will never achieve anything.” This is the only way life can go on, and most prisoners have felt the same way. ”

Honoring his legacy

Forget the past? His youngest son has a different attitude. The resident of Northern Virginia wants to preserve his father’s memory.

He says the Legion of Rutgers football fans who know his father’s story is a good place to start.

“He was kind of a pessimist, so he was disappointed with the performance of the football team,” said Daniel Vohden. “But he was always a fan.” He went back a few times to watch them play, and I remember he really enjoyed the trip when they played in the Navy a few years ago. ”

He will think of his father on this Veterans Day, but not as a star college athlete or a war hero.

“I know him as my pop, my baseball coach, the guy who gets kicked out of my little league games because of his passion,” he said. “It’s funny because I saw this video of his return from Vietnam only after his death. But when I saw that, I was in awe. Seeing these clips of him come down the steps of this plane on crutches gives me goosebumps knowing this guy was my pop. ”

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Keith Sargeant can be reached at ksargeant@njadvancemedia.com. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.

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