Vietnam POW tapped KU to help launch distinguished military career

The rows of medals on his chest tell the distinguished story of retired Gen. Charles G. Boyd, the only Vietnam POW to achieve the rank of four-star general. But Boyd’s bare knuckles can tap out another colorful tale — how he came to the University of Kansas.

Boyd was about six months into his combat tour as an Air Force pilot during his 105th mission when — on April 22, 1966 — his plane was hit by enemy fire from the North Vietnamese. He ejected from his plane, was captured, and spent the next 2,488 days in a prison cell in Hanoi.

Prisoners were isolated and weren’t allowed to speak to each other. One early prisoner developed a “tap code,” a system of tapping out letters on cell walls as a way to “talk” to men in neighboring cells. Words were communicated, letter-by-letter, in a combination of taps.

The tap code helped prisoners pass the time, bolster morale, share knowledge, tell stories and jokes, spread news and even teach new skills.

When Boyd found out another prisoner knew Spanish, he used the tap code to learn the language. A prisoner in a cell between them relayed the lessons and questions back and forth between Boyd and his teacher, tap by tap.

“It took a long time, but he gave me about 2,700 words of vocabulary, basic verb conjugation, pronunciation, and syntax,” Boyd said. “The big calluses on my knuckles from tapping so much lasted close to 10 years after I came home.”

Boyd was finally freed and returned to the U.S. in February of 1973.

When he was considering his options, learning more about Spanish was a priority. So was location. His wife, a Kansas native and KU graduate, still lived in Wichita — Boyd had been stationed at McConnell Air Force Base before deployment. KU was not far from Wichita and had a well-known Latin American studies program. So in fall of 1973, Boyd became a Jayhawk.

At KU, Boyd discovered a process of learning that propelled him into a highly distinguished career in the Air Force.

“KU treated me extremely well,” Boyd said. “I profited enormously from the experience. They helped with the healing process, plus, I left far better educated than when I arrived. I was now equipped in many ways to take on that future that I wanted so badly, wherever it might lead.”

Boyd was active in the Air Force for more than 36 years. His military decorations include the Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, Bronze Star with combat “V” and two oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross, and numerous other awards. His final military assignment was as Deputy Commander in Chief of U.S. forces in Europe.

Boyd’s wife died in 1994, and he retired from the Air Force 1995, but his career has not slowed down. He has served in various positions relating to foreign and security affairs. He directed a National Commission that foresaw the increasing threat of terrorism before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Currently, he is the Starr Distinguished National Security Fellow at the Center for the National Interest.

“Some say I’ve flunked retirement five times so far,” Boyd said.

Boyd was named one of the 2013 Distinguished Alumni of KU’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the highest honor from the College. 

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