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An Indomitable Spirit

Nicole Patterson

Bernard Talley

Colonel Bernard L. Talley Jr. (USAF, Retired), C’62, was a POW during the Vietnam War. This is his story.

bernard-talley_photo-3.jpgWhat’s the measure of a man? Is it how he handles power or where he stands in moments of great challenge and despair? The Bible says God measures a person by their heart (1 Samuel 16:7), not their position, wealth, looks, education or success. The heart of a person is their character, courage and spirit.   

Bernard L. Talley Jr., C’62, made friends easily. His childhood nickname “Bunny” stuck with him throughout his life. A graduate of Loyola High School in Towson, Maryland, and Mount St. Mary’s College, Talley earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. According to a local Star-News staff writer, “Talley was winning friends easily as he drove around town in a 1957 pink Chevrolet. He bought the car for practically nothing from this next-door neighbor, Mrs. Elizabeth Hasenkamp, who said ‘I took $1,000 off the price. He was just the politest young man.’” Talley had an early zest for life. 

On June 27, 1962, he entered the United States Air Force Officer Training School. Three months later he was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. In April 1964, he was awarded pilot wings. Two years later, by April 1966, the 26-year-old Talley volunteered to be deployed to Vietnam as an F-4C Phantom II pilot.   

He was on his 76th combat mission when his plane was hit by a missile over North Vietnam. The day was September 10, 1966, when pilot Capt. Douglas “Pete” Peterson and co-pilot Talley were shot down. Their aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile. After releasing eight 500-pound bombs and assessing the damage, he saw a flash and a huge ball of fire from the rear. Neither was fatally injured by the missile’s blast, but the aircraft was severely damaged and both engines were rendered inoperative. The entire aft portion of the aircraft was on fire. At 2100 hours, after bernard-talley_photo-5.jpgattempting to radio their position and situation, the pair ejected at about 350 mph. Their parachutes landed east of Hanoi, near An Doai village, into the rice fields. According to an interview with the New York Times, Peterson had a fractured arm and leg; he lay disabled under a mango tree. Talley ran across the fields and buried himself in the grass, evading capture for roughly 26 hours before becoming the 125th American captured.   

Gone were the days of his beautiful childhood home in a cozy neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland. He was now a resident of the Hoa Lo indoctrination prison. Nicknamed the “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Hanoi Hilton,” Talley endured brutal interrogations, physical beatings and regular torture. As he told writer Scott Dillingham in a 2017 piece titled “Returned with Honor,” for six months, he was placed in a filthy five-foot by seven-foot solitary confinement cell with leg irons and hand manacles. While the Vietnamese soon demanded propaganda bernard-talley_photo-2.jpgand military-related information, many of the POWs resisted and faced severe punishment. Their code of honor was “stick together and return with honor.” 

Talley and the other POWs lived in infested conditions with little food or medical attention. In 2019, he told writer Chris Roak in a story titled “Frisco Veteran Recalls Time He Spent as a Prisoner of War” that he received food twice a day; it was usually rice and “it had all kinds of foreign matter in it,” Talley recounted. “Half the year the prisoners would have pumpkin soup, and the other half it would be underwater greens.” Talley also spoke about the system of “tap code,” a communication the prisoners used to secretly talk with one another. “At times Talley would signal to the late John McCain, a former senator and presidential candidate, whose cell was across from his,” Roark wrote.   

Many of the men faced loneliness and depression. In the 1999 documentary “Beyond Courage: Surviving Vietnam as a POW,” director and producer Will Furman showed the return of four POWs to Hanoi and various prison camps in North Vietnam, before they were torn down, to recount their stories inside the cells where they were once held against their will. One man, Ben Purcell, recounted that as a prisoner he had not had any physical touch for more than three years.  

While men in solitary confinement were disillusioned and forlorn, they busied their minds with word games, visions of their loved ones or plans for the future, Talley said his strong faith helped see him through many dark days and nights. Eventually, he stopped worrying and put his faith in God. While imprisoned, he penned a devotional prayer to St. Joseph. Slowly he passed it along to the other prisoners to recite:  

“St. Joseph, the foster father of our dear Lord, Jesus Christ, be unto us our champion in this our time of need. Share with us thy loyalty and fortitude and defend us against the influence and wraths of ignorant men. In this life our battlefield, together with Mary our beloved mother, lead us into a peaceful life everlasting, Amen.”  

By 1970, North Vietnam’s president, Ho Chi Minh, was dead. After the failed U.S. rescue attempt on the Son Tay prison camp, the prisoners there were moved to the more secure, and now overcrowded, “Hanoi Hilton.” There was rejoicing! The prisoners were now together, unable to be kept separated. Now housed in groups of 20 to 50 in large open rooms, the men could teach what they knew and learn from one another; they could encourage one another not to lose hope. The men recited the Lord’s Prayer, Pledge of Allegiance and exercised. Talley was asked to be his cell’s chaplain because of his years of Catholic education and devotion. He later admitted to a reporter that he would sometimes pray more than 7,000 prayers a day, “over-praying” he called it.  

Talley was a prisoner of war for 2,369 days. That’s nearly six-and-a-half years.  

bernard-talley_letter-to-bernard-in-text.jpgBorn February 23, 1939, the youngest of three, Talley’s father Bernard Leo Talley Sr. and his mother Emma Louise Talley waited three years after he was captured to learn he was still alive. Students, friends, family members and strangers wore copper and silver POW bracelets. Little did he know that people were sending up prayers from all across the country and the world to heaven for him. God heard each one.  

The Vietnam War ended following a January 1973 cease-fire. Operation Homecoming POW repatriation flights started on February 12. On March 4, 1973, Talley was released. It was rumored that on the flight out of Hanoi, he collected the wings from the stewardesses. After stops in the Philippines and Hawaii for medical care, Talley and the other POWs rode the C-141 aircraft home to freedom.  

On March 2, 1973, Mount St. Mary’s President John J. Dillon Jr., Ph.D., wrote a telegram to Talley’s parents in Baltimore: “Faculty, students and administrators here at Mount Saint Mary’s College join in expressing delight at the happy news that your son will at last be on the way home from life in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp. Mountaineers all over the country will, I am sure, share in your joy, too.”  

They wrote back: “Dear Dr. Dillon: We both appreciated your very kind telegram. Needless to say, we are two very happy people and are counting the hours until Bernard returns. So many of the boys in his class from the Mount have kept in touch with us through these long years. We shall be eternally grateful. Please convey our thanks to the faculty, students and administrators of the Mount.”   

Talley was invited to dinner at the Nixon White House’s Reception for Former Vietnam Prisoners of War on May 24, 1973.  

bernard-talley_letter-to-president-in-text.jpgHis journey didn’t end there. Col. Talley retired from the U.S. Air Force as vice commander of the 452nd Air Refueling Wing at March Air Force Base, California. He was back to the cockpit seat of a plane and joined American Airlines, becoming a certified pilot on six types of aircraft as well as a check captain/instructor at the American Airlines Flight Academy. He retired again after 20 years with American Airlines.  

He would give speeches and remind people what POWs went through to help everyday Americans understand the freedoms they and others fought to get. He worked to raise awareness and support for veterans, prisoners of war and those missing in action. “Hopefully they would appreciate the freedom in a way that was designed by our founding fathers, given to us by our creator and fought for by our brave men and women,” Talley said. “Americans did not give their lives to foster hate, mistrust and abuse within our families, government or ourselves.”  

No matter the pressures or persecution he faced, his personal faith and strong community carried him through.  

Talley and his wife, Devon, built the dream house he had imagined while in his cell as a POW. He told a reporter: “It’s really neat because it has an office that lets me look out west toward the sunset. The bedroom is on the east side because I envisioned the good Lord and the sun come up, and I wanted all of that to be right there,” he shared.

He died peacefully on February 21, 2022, and is interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Talley was awarded two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit with a bronze oak leaf cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Bronze Stars with Valor, two Purple Hearts, a POW medal and others, including the Mount’s highest honor: the Simon Bruté Medal. His heart lives on through his wife Devon, daughter Emily Rose and her two sons Leo and Gavin.  

The measure of a man who had been beaten, brutalized and tortured was surely that he faced the nightmare with bravery. His faith spurred a superhuman strength that would make its bed in the depths and later rise on the wings of the dawn—steadily guiding him home.   

Nicole Patterson