BELTON — Hundreds of students, veterans and community members gathered at Belton’s Grand Avenue Theater Friday to hear a story of survival.
The theater played host to a talk by Col. Thomas “Jerry” Curtis, who had been held as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. While the theater hosted the event, the Central Texas group of Master Networks was the group that brought Curtis to the venue.
Belton High School students and members of Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps from Temple and Belton high schools participated.
Curtis’s talk to the gathered crowd mainly focused around the seven and a half years that he spent as a North Vietnamese prisoner during the war, and how he was able to get through it. Before Curtis was captured, he was a rescue helicopter pilot and was shot down when he was in the process of rescuing another soldier.
During his years of imprisonment, Curtis said that one of the things that helped keep him sane was a code of tapping that corresponded to letters in the alphabet with the exception of the letter K.
“I spent a year in solitary confinement,” Curtis said. “But as long as I had that tap code to communicate to the POW’s that were a wall away from me, then I wasn’t in solitary. It became to me, a lifesaver.”
While there was no torture for those captured when he first got to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp, Curtis said that this changed after he was moved a few times. Eventually, Curtis and the other prisoners were pressured by their captors, and later tortured, to write biographies — something prohibited by the military.
Curtis said that although he thought he was strong willed enough to resist the torture and not write a biography, he eventually broke and wrote a biography, although mostly false.
He was finally released, along with other prisoners of war, after 2,703 days in captivity as part of Operation Homecoming. For many of the prisoners, it wasn’t until they were on the way back home that they finally were relieved and celebrated.
At the end of the talk, Curtis answered some questions from those in the crowd and later signed copies of a biography, “Under the Cover of Light: The Extraordinary Story of USAF COL Thomas “Jerry” Curtis’s 7 1/2 -Year Captivity in North Vietnam.” The book details what Curtis went through in Vietnam.
For veteran Mac Hickerson, who was one of the attendees of the event, Curtis’s story was inspiring and showed what a hero truly was.
“This talk was amazing, coming from a man who has been though all of this,” Hickerson said. “I think it was amazing just being able to say hello to this guy because he is definitely a hero if there ever was one.”