The first time I met Captain Tanner, was in 1976. My father and mother had moved to Covington, Tennessee from Cincinnati a couple years earlier leaving me to finish college in Cincinnati. I guess they decided it was better to move out on me just in case I didn’t move away from them.
My parents’ neighbors were Nels Tanner and his family. I didn’t know much about Captain Tanner other than that he flew for FedEx. I also knew he and my dad played golf from time to time and attended the same Sunday school class and mens’ breakfast.
On one of my trips to see my folks, my dad told me that he and a few of the men from town along with Nels Tanner were going fishing and I was coming as well. He might have actually asked if I wanted to go with something like “would you like to go fishing? — we’re leaving tomorrow at 7:00AM. See you in the morning.” I probably could have said no but I would have never even considered it.
On the boat, Nels was very quiet and reserved. I eventually asked my dad why. He told me that he had been in the Hanoi Hilton and wasn’t really ready to talk about it yet. He’d been released some three years earlier.
Of course, I knew what the Hanoi Hilton was but everything about the Vietnam War was rather abstract and it just wasn’t something people talked about much. I remember the question I eventually asked Nels which was “weren’t you mad that you were shot down?” He just looked at his fishing pole and said “Nope. We were told during training to look at the person on your left and look at the person on your right. One of you will be killed, one will be a POW, and one will make it home unharmed. We knew what we volunteered for.”
That’s pretty much all Nels said during the entire trip.
Over the years, I met Nels a number of times. He was as humble a man as you will ever meet. In his later years, he developed cancer of the jaw and he took that pretty much in stride as well. It was just the way things were; no more, no less.
Captain Tanner survived 2,339 days of captivity at the Hanoi Hilton. He shared little of the tortures he endured although he was known for his “confession.” He told the North Vietnamese that two Airmen, Clark Kent and Ben Casey, had both turned in their wings to protest the war. His “confession” was widely reported in the press. It was said that he was barely recognizable when he finally emerged three years later from solitary confinement after being tortured for the ruse.
At an address before the Tennessee State Legislature shortly after his return, Captain (then Commander) Tanner said,
We Americans take our great land too much for granted. Some are so busy criticizing that they cannot see its greatness. Faith has been reserved, in many cases, for material things. You can lose every material thing you possess in one split-second. I have experienced this and I have found that there is only one thing that cannot be taken away from you. That is faith – in God and in Country.
Captain Tanner died June 11, 2015 at the age of 82.
Even though I rate a full military service … I respectfully decline. I mean no disrespect to those who have honorably served their country in time of need. I simply want to emphasize by means of this service, that the witness of this sinner, having asked for and received forgiveness for his sins by his faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, is far more important than any other statement he or his community could possibly make.