ATLANTA, April 29, 2016 -- Bill Reeder was sitting at the authors' table signing copies of his new memoir when he overheard someone telling one of the other authors nearby that he had done 6 1/2 years in Vietnam, an implausible length of time for even the most gung-ho American troops. Reeder's attention perked up when he heard the man say his helicopter had been shot down in 1968 and he'd been held as a prisoner of war until 1973.
Reeder, the author of Through the Valley: My Captivity in Vietnam, wondered who at the huge Army Aviation trade show he was attending would claim to have been a Vietnam POW more than four decades ago. He looked up at the claimant standing a few feet away and almost shouted the word "Jim!" Their eyes locked; they stared in amazement, and both suddenly found themselves in a bear hug.
They had not set eyes on each other since Jim Pfister had walked out of their cell on March 5, 1973, in the first group of 591 POWs to be released after the signing of a peace accord in Paris that effectively ended U.S. participation in the Vietnam War.
The two men instantly recognized each other as cellmates in North Vietnam's notorious prison derisively known to its American inmates as the "Hanoi Hilton." Private First Class James F. Pfister Jr. was a door gunner on an Army Huey helicopter that was shot down on January 5, 1968, in a hotly contested area the Americans called Happy Valley southwest of Da Nang in the northern region of South Vietnam. Pfister was captured and held for a time in a prison camp in the South, then moved to Hanoi, for the rest of the war.
Army Captain William Reeder Jr. arrived much later. After flying a twin-engine, fixed-wing reconnaissance plane on his first tour in Vietnam, Reeder switched to Cobra helicopter gunships. He had just been promoted to aircraft commander when his Cobra was shot down during a desperate attempt to rescue U.S. and indigenous troops from a beleaguered Special Forces camp in the Central Highlands in May 1972. Although he didn't know it at the time, his co-pilot/gunner was mortally wounded in the crash. Reeder suffered a broken back and other severe wounds in the shootdown but somehow managed to crawl away from the crash site and evade capture for three days before North Vietnamese troops caught him.
Through the Valley, a reference to the valley of death in the 23rd Psalm, tells a horrific tale of Reeder's initial imprisonment in the South and forced march up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Hanoi, stumbling and falling in agony along the way. He was released three weeks after Pfister, and the two never met again until the Army Aviation Association show in Atlanta 43 years later.