Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Sunday, April 15, 2007
Capt. Luis Chirichigno was piloting an Army Cobra attack helicopter high above a couple of low-flying observation copters eight miles south of Duc Lap, South Vietnam, on Nov. 2, 1969. What happened next would make this Peruvian-born American chopper pilot a POW for the next 3 1/2 years.
His exploits would also make him a candidate for the Medal of Honor.
The 69-year-old retired Naples Army captain recently presented his faded pink-striped POW uniform and Ho Chi Minh sandals to the Military Heritage & Aviation Museum in Punta Gorda, Fla. Ironically, Brig. Gen. Jim Shelton, the new museum president, was Chirichigno’s company commander when he served in the 82nd Airborne Division during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. They hadn’t seen each other in 45 years.
More than four decades ago in Vietnam, Chirichigno and the other helicopter pilots were captured while on a mission with two observation choppers and two Cobra gunships in South Vietnam. The way it was supposed to work, the observation helicopters flew low and slow to draw enemy fire.
They would fly off once the shooting started. Then the two Cobras would fly down and obliterate the enemy with rockets and machine gun fire.
“I gave the order for the little helicopters to leave the area, but one was leaking fuel. I told the pilot to land and we’d pick him up,” Chirichigno said. “The first (observation helicopter) landed on top of a hill and the second one came in to protect the first one. As the second copter started taking off it was shot down, crashed and rolled down the hill.
“We immediately began firing at the enemy along the tree line. As we made our first pass I saw someone coming out of the helicopter wreck on the ground with his clothes on fire,” Chirichigno said. “It was Warrant Officer George Grega.
“As we started to make our second pass, we were shooting at the enemy trying to screen the downed helicopter crews, and they shot me down,” he said a few days ago. “I climbed out of my aircraft and my co-pilot got out, too.”
About that time Grega, who they had seen with his clothes on fire, met them behind their downed Cobra. He was in bad shape and so was Chirichigno, who had been hit by AK-47 rifle fire in both hands and a leg.
Chirichigno’s co-pilot decided to strike out on his own to a nearby field hoping to signal other helicopters flying in the area to land and pick them up. He was captured by North Vietnam Army soldiers a short while later.
After his co-pilot went looking for help, Grega died of his burns. Chirichigno spent the night in a ditch within yards of enemy forces. Navy fighter-bombers attacked the area with napalm, knocking out some of Vietnamese fortifications and killing many of the enemy.
The next day Chirichigno set off on foot for a Special Forces camp a short distance away. He never made it. He, too, was taken prisoner by enemy forces. Despite his injuries, he and other captured copter crew members were forced to walk out of the area tied together with a rope around their necks.
Eventually they reached Cambodia, sanctuary for enemy North Vietnam Army and Viet Cong soldiers. After receiving basic medical treatment to remove a dangling finger, Chirichigno was put in a cage.
“I spent the next eight months lying on my back in a bamboo cage with my feet in stocks,” he said. “You prayed a lot and did a lot of thinking about your life. It was there I remembered what Bear Bryant, my Alabama football coach, told us: ‘Never give up no matter what the score.’ That helped me a great deal while I was in the bamboo cage.”
In June some of the POWs in his camp got their marching orders because American forces were moving into Cambodia. Chirichigno and a few others headed north.
“We walked up the Ho Chi Minh Trail for a month to reach Hanoi. The last part of the way we were trucked to a camp we named ‘Plantation Garden;’ it had a big house in the middle of Hanoi,” he said. “We were kept there in concrete cubicles that surrounded the house until December 1972 when the Americans began bombing Hanoi. Then we were moved to the ‘Hanoi Hilton.'”
Their days were ones of frustration with little or nothing to do but attend lectures on the benefits of communism. At one point he was asked if he wanted to talk to Jane Fonda. He declined because, “she was a traitor.”
In comparison to his life as a POW living in a bamboo cage in the Cambodian jungle, life at the ‘Hilton’ was good, Chirichigno said.
“We could take a bath during the day; we slept on wooden platforms off the ground and we had blankets,” he explained. “Right after the Americans signed the peace agreement on Jan. 27, 1973, they got us all together and told us they were going to send us back home.
“I was in the last group released from the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ on March 26, 1973. I didn’t think I was going to be released because nobody back home knew I was there,” he said. “It was like heaven getting aboard the C-141 transport plane. Everyone on board celebrated on our way back to the Philippines.
“The Army had an escort officer waiting for each of us. My officer was a young Special Forces captain who kept telling me, ‘You’ve been nominated for the Medal of Honor.’ I didn’t want to hear about it; I wanted to hear about my family.”
Chirichigno found out he would be meeting his mother in Hawaii, but his wife had remarried after he was reported killed in action.
When he and the other Vietnam POWs returned to the United States, President Richard Nixon held a big affair for them in a banquet room atop the State Department in Washington, D.C. Henry Kissinger was one of the speakers. He met them both before the evening was over.
Chirichigno spent the next two years in a VA hospital recovering from the bullet wounds to both hands. After he recovered, while looking for a job, he went to see Kissinger.
The Secretary of State asked him what he wanted to do and the former soldier said he wanted to work for the federal government. Kissinger helped Chirichigno get a job with the State Department.
For the last 30 years Chirichigno has spent a lot of time traveling the world for the U.S. government. Much of that time has been spent crisscrossing Africa, South American and Central America.
After all these years the Army is reviewing his Medal of Honor nomination once more.
“It’s been almost two years, and I’ve been told it takes the review board about two years to make up its mind,” Chirichigno said. He currently lives in Naples with his second wife, Maria, when he isn’t traveling to hot spots around the world for the State Department.
Brig. Gen. Shelton calls ‘Prodigal Son’ but didn’t know it at the time
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. Monday, April 16, 2007 and is republished with permission.
Shelton, the new chairman of the board of the Military Heritage & Aviation Museum near Punta Gorda, got the surprise of his life a few days ago when he called a Vietnam vet who spent 3 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, initially in a bamboo cage in Cambodia and finally in the “Hanoi Hilton.”
The story began when Tami Cash, the museum’s new executive director, was helping staff a booth at the annual Florida International Air Show at the Charlotte County Airport recently. Capt. Luis Chirichigno from Naples, the former Cobra gunship pilot, stopped by and told her he would like to donate his POW garb to the museum.
She got all excited about his pending donation and called her boss, Shelton, and told him what had transpired. Concerned about the authenticity of the proposed donation, he took the captain’s phone number, but only got his first name.
He called and asked for “Luis,” not exactly certain what his last name was.
“When I realized it was Luis Chirichigno , who had been in my rifle company in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I started crying,” the big, burly retired brigadier said with tears in his eyes. “I thought Luis had been shot down and killed in his helicopter in 1969. That’s what I read in The Army Times.”
The former Army captain and Cobra helicopter pilot was very much alive, to Shelton’s surprise. The two old warriors met for the first time in 45 years 10 days ago at the museum when Chirichigno donated his pink-striped POW uniform and his Ho Chi Minh sandals — made of tires — to the cause. The two former paratroopers spent the rest of the day talking about old times.
The last time they had seen each other Shelton was a 25-year-old captain and the commander of a rifle company Chirichigno also served in at Fort Bragg. He was a 22-year-old specialist in the 82nd Airborne. President John Kennedy was on the verge of sending the 82nd, the 101st Airborne and the Marines into Havana until the Russians capitulated and took their missiles out of Cuba.
Later, Chirichigno , who had been a star swimmer for the University of Miami before joining the Army, got out of the service and went back to school at the University of Alabama on another swimming scholarship. That lasted until the late Coach Bear Bryant found out the Peruvian-born athlete could kick a football. He brought him on the team to kick in 1965 for the Crimson Tide when Joe Namath was the team’s star quarterback.
He spent a year at Alabama, long enough to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering. Then he returned to his first love, the Army, this time as an Airborne Ranger. He put in for aviation training, since he graduated from Officers Candidate School while attending classes at Alabama, he became a Cobra gunship pilot. He was sent to Vietnam.
“I would get smatterings of information from time to time about Luis from other guys who had been in our outfit in Bragg. Eventually I learned Luis had gone to OCS and was a lieutenant,” Shelton said. “Then I learned he had gone to Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces. The next thing I heard was that he had been shot down while flying his Cobra and was missing in action. Then The Army Times ran a story he was KIA.”
Shelton made a phone call to a Vietnam vet whose first name was Luis a few days ago. It turned out to be his “Prodigal Son.”
“When the general told me who I was talking to, the name sounded familiar, but I wasn’t certain at first,” Chirichigno said. “Then I realized it was my old company commander at Bragg. It was fantastic, I never dreamed anything like this would happen.”
“My wife, Joan, was sitting nearby when I made the call to Luis,” Shelton said. “When I realized who he was, I told her, ‘My son has come home from the dead.'”
Vietnam tiger cage focal point of display at Military Museum
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Friday, Sept. 28, 2007 and is republished with permission.
A bamboo tiger cage will be one of the main displays at the Military Heritage & Aviation Museum’s new location in Fishermen’s Village, where a ribbon-cutting and grand opening will be held Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
The cage is similar to the one Capt. Luis Chirichigno lived in for eight months after being captured by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
The captain’s Cobra gunship was shot down on Nov. 2, 1969 while on a mission. After being captured and caged by the V.C., Chirichigno was eventually released from his bamboo prison and taken up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Hanoi. He spent the next several years in the “Hanoi Hilton,” the infamous POW camp where scores of American aviators were held prisoner.
Chirichigno donated his pink-and-gray-striped POW uniform and his Ho Chi Minh sandals to the museum.
Randy Sander, of Majestic Cabinets in Port Charlotte, recreated the bamboo cage with plans that museum board member George Speidel obtained from the Internet.
“Mike Norris, owner of the cabinet shop, came to me and asked if I wanted him to build the cage for the museum. The bamboo was ordered from Vietnam and I volunteered my time to build the cage,” he said.
“I couldn’t imagine a guy having to spend months in a cage like this,” Sanders said as he looked at his 3-by-4-by-5-foot creation. “I can’t imagine anything like that, it’s so inhuman.
“I crawled in the cage to get a feel of it while I was building it,” he said. “Just thinking about what that guy must have gone through is something.”
Chirichigno lives in Naples with his wife. He retired from the military after being released with the other POWs at the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1973. He is a member of the museum’s advisory board.
Name: Luis Genardo Chirichigno
D.O.B: 21 June 1937
Hometown: Piura PERU, South America
Currently: Naples, Fla.
Unit: United States Special Forces/O3
Commendations: Distinguished Service Cross, Prisoner of War Medal,
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida and is republished with permission.
The Military Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday through Saturday. On Sunday it’s open from Noon until 5 p.m. and is free to the public.
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