Never Lose Your Sense of Humor…important words from CDR James “Puck” Howe USN

Puck picture board (2)My next contributor is not only a decorated Navy Pilot, he is one of the most hilarious people I have ever met. I admire how he faithfully and skillfully served our country, but what impresses me most, is his prowess at introducing people.  He possesses this unique ability to acquaint two people who have absolutely nothing in common and instantly make them feel like old friends.  It speaks to his love for people–especially his friends–and I feel very lucky that our family is counted in this extraordinarily long list.  Jim’s lesson learned from former POW CAPT Jack Fellowes USN is important to us all and I thank him for honoring someone who heroically endured the unthinkable with courage and unshakeable faith.

Never lose your sense of humor.  I’ve received some wonderful advice over my 50 years, but that gem remains the best.  I was a sophomore at the U.S. Naval Academy and my academic track record left much to be desired.  I was quickly working my way out of my selected major of Ocean Engineering and, more importantly, was already gravely concerned about graduating high enough in the class to be able to select Naval Aviation after finishing my four years.  About 11 weeks into the semester, my Economics professor announces that we’re going to have a guest speaker the following evening instead of class that day.  Little did I know that the speaker would provide guidance that I would use throughout my life.  That speaker was CAPT Jack Fellowes USN.  CAPT Fellowes had been an A-6 Intruder pilot during Vietnam.  During Fellowes’ 55th bombing mission on August 27, 1966, he and his Bombardier–Navigator, LTJG George Coker, were shot down over North Vietnam while flying near the Nghệ An Province. Their aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile which blew off the right wing, and the two crewmembers ejected from the aircraft after it went into a flat spin.  CAPT Fellowes was captured within hours and sustained a broken back during the ejection, an injury which the Vietnamese would use to their advantage for years.  CAPT Fellowes was held in captivity for six and half years.  Fellowes was held in five different camps while a POW including Cu Loc, Hỏa Lò (“Hanoi Hilton”) and Alcatraz Grove, during which he was beaten, tortured, and starved. At one point he was tortured for 12 continuous hours, which resulted in permanent damage to both of his arms.  On March 4, 1973, both Coker and Fellowes were released as part of Operation Homecoming.  Of his 2,382 days in captivity (6.5 years), 2.5 years were in solitary confinement and 2.5 years were in the “Hanoi Hilton”. Fellowes was awarded the Silver Star for his leadership and resistance while a POW.
My entire class listened to his heroic tale for nearly 2 hours.  It seemed like 2 minutes.  The stories he shared of heroism, camaraderie, death, betrayal, love, fear, pain, brotherhood, and faith kept his young Midshipmen crowd enthralled for every minute.  I cried at least three separate times during his discussion.  And through it all I wondered how anyone could endure the unendurable things he experienced.  At the end of his discussion, I got the chance to ask him just that.  His answer was simple…and amazing.  “Midshipman Howe, my brothers in captivity were certainly crucial to my survival, as was my faith in God and Country.  But if I had to pinpoint one thing that got me through the worst times it was this – never, ever, lose your sense of humor.”  The room was quiet.  He expounded.  “Even during the toughest times, we would find humor in some aspect.  Whether it was making fun of our cabbage soup, or wondering if other people were having as much “fun” as we were, I never lost my sense of humor.  And if I got close, my brothers were there to remind me “we get free food”.”  He shared a few other funny vignettes, some of which may be considered “inappropriate” in some circles, but funny nonetheless.  We were all speechless.  And most importantly – I knew in my heart it was true.  I had experienced a similar feeling, albeit during significantly less trying times.  During one of our Upper Class “Training” (really hazing) sessions, my roommate turned to me a with a big smile on his face and said “who said college wouldn’t going to be fun”.  If I didn’t laugh, I would have cried.  Like many, I’ve experienced standard ups and downs throughout the years, both personal and professional. But through it all I’ve always done my best to remember Captain Fellowes’ advice.  Sometimes I’ve failed, but generally I’m able to do what he said.  After all, what’s a life without laughter?

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