By Max Garland
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Lt. Col. James Williams has something better than a bucket list.
“I don’t like the word ‘bucket list’ because it makes it feel like you’re getting ready to die,” said the North Memphis native and Vietnam War veteran. “I call it my ‘living list.’”
Williams completed a significant piece of that list in November, when he and other veterans returned to Hanoi, Vietnam, to gain closure from their time at war.
North Vietnamese forces captured Williams after his jet was shot down in May 1972 and held him prisoner until March 1973.
“The whole purpose, in a nutshell, was it being a healing mission to put us back in that environment,” said Williams, 75, of the trip organized by the Valor Administration, Vietnam-USA Friendship members, and North Vietnamese combat veterans.
What Williams didn’t know ahead of time was he would meet the widow of the North Vietnamese pilot who shot his jet down. Through Nguyen Thi Lam, he learned more about her late husband, Do Van Lanh.
Williams felt uneasy when he first met her. Once they started talking through an interpreter, that tension began to fade and Williams found some closure. Lam shared pictures of Lanh, and she said she was sorry it had to be her husband who shot Williams down.
“That kind of broke the ice a bit,“ Williams said.
Williams, a Douglass High School graduate and Tennessee State University alum, was soon to wrap up his tour when his F-4D Phantom fighter jet got shot down on May 20, 1972. He was part of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy’s bombing campaign against North Vietnam known as Operation Linebacker I.
“It was air-to-air engagement,” Williams said. “That particular day, there were 40 days left on my tour. In fact, I was on my 228th combat mission.”
His jet was hit by a missile from Lanh, Williams was forced to eject, and North Vietnamese forces captured him. He ended up imprisoned at Hoa Lo Prison, or the “Hanoi Hilton,” for 313 days.
Williams endured solitary confinement and around-the-clock interrogation. He said they tried to break him down for information, while he stuck with his created story that he was only on his 12th combat mission and had been in the country for just three weeks. Williams was finally released on March 28, 1973, after the war’s end.
Williams spent 28 years in the military, retiring from service in 1995. He then launched an Air Force Junior ROTC program in a Georgia school system, where he taught for 20 years. Today, Williams is on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs POW Advisory Committee.
Earlier this year, Williams connected with a Valor Administration representative who notified him of the trip to Vietnam, a golden opportunity to complete a part of his living list.
“Some of the guys kept saying, ‘Have you told Colonel what we plan on doing?’” Williams said.
“The plan for me was to meet the pilot who shot me down, but he passed away in 1980, so they had me meet his wife.“
Beyond meeting Lam and many veterans on the North Vietnamese side, Williams got to experience how much Hanoi had changed since he left as a just-released prisoner of war in 1973. The mental picture he kept—a landscape altered by bombings—was replaced by its transformation into a modern city.
“It was something that I wanted to do but didn’t think I would have the opportunity to do,“ Williams said.