On Dec. 18, 1972, Robert Certain was supposed to head home from Vietnam, but he ended that day about as far from home as he could be.
Certain was a navigator on a B-52 bomber. Instead of going home that day, as had been planned, he was told he would take part in the bombing of Hanoi.
His plane got shot down. Two crew members died and the rest were captured. They were taken to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison and released 100 days later.
Certain recounted the story Thursday at the annual POW/MIA Recognition Day ceremony held at the Museum of Aviation.
Two surface-to-air missiles struck the plane and the crew bailed out with the aircraft in flames at 35,000 feet in sub-zero temperatures.
It was the first time he had ever jumped out of an airplane. It took 15 minutes to land.
“I was captured within minutes,” he said.
He was never tortured in the way that many other American troops were at the prison, but his sense of humor did get him bashed in the head with a rifle once.
An interrogator asked him if he had any “quail” on the plane. That was the nickname for decoy missiles the plane would shoot out to confuse ground radar.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t think so. I think the gunner had roast beef and co-pilot had fried chicken but I don’t think anybody had any quail,’ ” Certain said, drawing laughter from the audience.
The interrogator seemed confused and said he meant did they have any quail in the bomb bay.
“I said ‘No, the bomb bay is not heated or pressurized. They would die back there,’ ” Certain recalled. “That’s when I got hit with the rifle.”
The Vietnamese put him in a cell with a black crew mate, Certain said, because they believed the two would fight each other.
“That didn’t happen,” he said, noting that another crew member was also black. “We lived with them. We fought with them. We loved them. We cared for them. We took care of each other. Color didn’t matter.”
When they were released, they didn’t immediately celebrate when they got on the U.S. plane that took them home.
“It was very quiet until the pilot announced we were out of the (North Vietnamese) airspace,” he said. “Once that happened, then we went crazy.”
Certain would go on to become a chaplain after the war and served until 1999. In 2003, he wrote an autobiography called “Unchained Eagle.” He now advocates for veterans’ issues.
The audience included 32 special guests. They were survivors of the USS Pueblo, a Navy ship captured by North Korean forces in 1968. One of the 83 crew members was killed and the rest were held captive for 11 months before being released. The ship remains in the hands of North Korea.
The crew members are holding a reunion this week in Americus.