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Project brings memories for POW

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Local man recounts death of prisoner

by Tracy Wheeler
Staff writer

Last Saturday, David Harker received an unexpected phone call. The man on the other end, calling from Pennsylvania, was asking if he was the same Army Staff Sgt. David Harker who shared a bamboo hut with Bill Port as a prisoner of war in the Vietnam jungles during the late ‘60s.

“Yes,” Harker said, “he is that soldier.”

Mike Fields, and English teacher at Juniata Valley High School in Alexandria, Pa., was the caller. And Port, who died in that Vietnamese POW camp, was from a neighboring Pennsylvania town. What Fields wanted was Harker's personal account of his fellow POW.

“I had tears in my eyes. It was like the past coming back to haunt me,” Harker said of the phone call. “I wouldn't have done it (the interview) if I didn’t think so much of Bill.” The interview would also give him a chance to mend something he meant to do in 1973.

“The one thing I still regret is not contacting the parents of everyone that died in the camp. This is something Bill’s mother can see.

Friday, Fields and four seniors from the high school’s video club traveled six hours from Southeastern Pennsylvania to Harker's Campbell County home. The interview, covering everything from Port’s capture to the circumstances of his death, lasted a little more than two hours.

Harker said Port's capture was something he didn't know many details about. “He was one of the few who didn’t tell the story over and over. All I know is his unit came under heavy fire. He had burns on his face when he first came and a big wound on his arm.”

That’s when Harker first met him. One thing Harker remembered vividly about Port, whom he considered his best friend, was his sense of humor.

“He always had a wit about him,” he said. “His spirits were always good. He was never down, which was very unusual for the people in that situation. He’s what we would call feisty.”

“The situation we were in was just terrible - it’s beyond comprehension, but he had a way of cutting through these things and working through the deprivation.”

Harker was captured with three other soldiers in a Viet Cong ambush near Quang Tin Province in January 1968. He spent three years in several jungle camps of South Vietnam before being led on foot to Hanoi, where he was held captive until March 1973.

The camp was surrounded by a bamboo fence, with sharpened bamboo stakes planted in the ground to deter escapes. Bombs and artillery fire from allied forces shook the camp a few times but never injured anyone, thanks mainly to a bomb shelter the POW’s dug in the ground.

Escape was something he said the prisoners “contemplated from time to time, mostly hair-brained schemes,” but only two actually followed through. One was shot between the eyes by a Vietnamese villager. The other was captured and kept in the stockades for six months.

The POWs, he said, were poorly fed, but expected to hike five to ten miles to dig roots to eat, then carry the 60-to-70 pound sacks back to camp. Aside from that, the prisoners were confined to their huts.

“We became a tightknit family, closer than husband and wife,” he said. “We would sit together and tell stories, just waiting for the war to end - and people just started dying.”

One of the American POWs was actually a military doctor, but the Vietnamese refused to allow treatment of the prisoners. Port died quietly of an arm infection, Harker said.

“Bill never did get to the point where he seemed so critical that I thought he would die, so I was shocked when one morning I tried to wake him on his bamboo bed and he was dead. In the end, his body probably couldn’t cope with healing that wound.

A memorial, a bridge, and a playground honoring Port was recently completed in Petersburg, Pa., and the high school students are hoping their video can be a way to show Port’s significance.

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“Many people go by the memorial and don’t know much about it,” said senior Matt Hearn. “Maybe this can tell them who he was.”

Even now - nearly 18 years after returning home to Lynchburg March 19, 1973, to a hero’s welcome by nearly 10,000 people - Harker said hardly a day goes by without him thinking of one of his fellow POWs.

“I don’t talk about it every day. But when I’m riding down the road, or something, I’ll think about it. It’s not debilitating, it’s good thoughts. These men really blessed my life, and you’re always lucky to come across people like Bill.”

Lynchburg, Virginia
November 1991