Name: Robert Harper Shumaker
Rank/Branch: O4/US Navy
Unit: Fighter Squadron 154
Date of Birth: 11 May 1933
Home City of Record: La Jolla CA (USN says New Wilmington PA)
Date of Loss: 11 February 1965
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Status (in 1973): Released POW
Born in New Castle, PA, on 11 May 1933 to Alva and Eleanor Shumaker, Rear Admiral Robert Shumaker ’56, USN (Ret.), grew up attending local public schools and spent a year at Northwestern University before entering the Naval Academy. Following graduation, he completed flight training and flew the F-8 Crusader with fighter squadron VF-32. Around this time, Shumaker was considered for astronaut training by NASA, but unfortunately his selection was blocked due to a short-term physical ailment.
By early January, 1965, following two significant military defeats at the hands of North Vietnamese guerrilla forces, the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam was near collapse; U.S. options were either to leave the country or increase its military activity. President Johnson chose to escalate. Plans were authorized for a “limited war” that included a bombing campaign in North Vietnam.
The first major air strike over North Vietnam took place in reaction to Viet Cong mortaring of an American advisor’s compound at Pleiku on February 7, 1965. Eight Americans died in the attack, more than one hundred were wounded, and ten aircraft were destroyed. President Johnson immediately launched FLAMING DART I, a strike against the Vit Thu Lu staging area, fifteen miles inland and five miles north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
Thirty-four aircraft launched from the USS RANGER, but were prevented from carrying out that attack by poor weather, and the RANGER aircraft were not allowed to join the forty-nine planes from the USS CORAL SEA and USS HANCOCK, which struck the North Vietnamese army barracks and port facilities at Dong Hoi. The strike was judged at best an inadequate reprisal. It accounted for sixteen destroyed buildings. The cost? The loss of one A4E Skyhawk pilot from the USS CORAL SEA and eight damaged aircraft.
FLAMING DART II unfolded 11 February 1965 after the Viet Cong blew up a U.S. enlisted men’s billet at Qui Nhon, killing twenty-three men and wounded twenty-one others. Nearly one hundred aircraft from the carriers RANGER, HANCOCK and CORAL SEA bombed and strafed enemy barracks at Chanh Hoa. Damage assessments revealed twenty-three of the seventy-six buildings in the camp were damaged or destroyed. One American pilot was shot down — LCDR Robert H. Shumaker.
LCDR Robert Shumaker was flying an F-8-D Crusader (assigned to Fighter Squadron 154 on board the USS Coral Sea) when he was hit by 37 mm. cannon fire, which forced the jet out of control. He ejected and his parachute opened a mere 35 feet from the ground. The impact broke his back and he was captured immediately, placed in a jeep and transported over the rutted roads to Hanoi. Upon arrival in Hanoi a white smocked North Vietnamese gave him a cursory examination before dozens of photographers, yet did not give him any medical attention. His back healed itself, but it was six months before he could bend.
Shumaker was the second Navy aviator to be captured. For the next 8 years, Shumaker was held in various prisoner of war camps, including the infamous Hoa Lo complex in Hanoi. Shumaker, in fact, dubbed this complex the “Hanoi Hilton”.
Shumaker, as a prisoner, was known for devising all sorts of communications systems and never getting caught. Like other POWs, he was badgered to write a request for amnesty from Ho Chi Minh, which he refused to do. As punishment, the Vietnamese forced Shumaker to stay in a cell with no heat and no blankets during the winter.
In the torture sessions he continued to hold out for his beliefs. His back healed, but was reinjured two years later in a torture session because he refused to play the part of a wounded American in a propaganda movie. After beating him they used him for the part anyway.
He was known as one of the “Alcatraz Eleven” because he spent nearly three years in solitary confinement, much of the time clamped in leg irons. He would often think of his young son, Grant, who was just a baby when he was shot down. That little boy was eight years old when he saw him again.
As stated previously, Commander Shumaker originated the name “Hanoi Hilton” for the prison. The famous name was the ultimate in satire since the prisoners were tortured, starved and insulted rather than treated with hospitality. Through his entire imprisonment of over eight years, CDR Shumaker maintained himself as a military man. He states that “When we were released, we marched to the airplanes to show we were still a military organization.”
Shumaker was released in Operation Homecoming on February 12, 1973. He had been promoted to the rank of Commander during his captivity. Upon arrival at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, CDR Shumaker stated: “I simply want to say that I am happy to be home and so grateful to a nation that never did forget us. We tried to conduct ourselves so that America would be as proud of us as we are proud of her. I am very proud to have served my country and pleased that we can return with honor and dignity.”
Speaking of his time in Vietnam, RADM Shumaker stated:
“Paradoxically, I learned a lot about life from my experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Those tough lessons learned within a jail cell have application to all those who will never have to undergo that particular trauma. At some point in life everybody will be hungry, cold, lonely, extorted, sick, humiliated, or fearful in varying degrees of intensity. It is the manner in which you react to these challenges that will distinguish you.
When adversity strikes, you’ve got to fall back with the punch and do your best to get up off the mat to come back for the next round. Realize that a person is not in total control of his destiny, but you need to know what your goals are, and you have to prepare yourself in advance to take advantage of opportunity when that door opens. Some important tools on the road to success include the ability and willingness to communicate, treating those around you with respect and courtesy no matter what their station in life might be, and conducting your life with the morality and behavior that will allow you to face yourself forever, in the end, you alone must be your own harshest critic.”
Rear Admiral Shumaker retired from the U.S. Navy on 01 February 1988. After retiring from the Navy, Shumaker became an assistant dean at George Washington University and later became the associate dean of the Center for Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota. He is married to the former Lorraine Shaw of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. In April 2011 he was presented with the Distinguished Graduate Award from the U.S. Naval Academy. He has one son, Grant.
Since the war ended, nearly 10,000 reports relating to Americans missing, prisoner or unaccounted for in Southeast Asia have been received by the U.S. Government. Many authorities who have examined this largely classified information are convinced that hundreds of Americans are still held captive today. These reports are the source of serious distress to many returned American prisoners. They had a code that no one could honorably return unless all of the prisoners returned. Not only that code of honor, but the honor of our country is at stake as long as even one man remains unjustly held. It’s time we brought our men home.