Larry Chesley volunteered to go to Vietnam just before Christmas 1965. He told his wife he wanted to do it so someone else could be home for Christmas.
“I missed eight Christmases from my family,” the Queen Creek resident recalled during a ceremony honoring National POW/MIA Recognition Day on Friday at the Carl T. Hayden Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Phoenix.
Retired Lt. Col. Chesley was shot down over North Vietnam in April 1966 and was quickly captured and kept in various prison camps for almost eight years.
“My family didn’t even know I was alive for four years,” he said.
He still remembers the conflicting feelings that went through his mind when prison guards would walk the halls jiggling their keys.
He would think to himself: “I hope it isn’t me,” Chesley said.
Then he would feel guilty for thinking it as he realized a comrade was being taken away to be tortured instead of him.
“But one of the great things about the North Vietnamese was they didn’t show favoritism,” Chesley said. “When they started torturing, they went through all of us.”
The family only learned Larry was alive through another prisoner who was released and had memorized the names of everyone in his camp.
Chesley went on with his life and continued his career in the Air Force after coming home in 1970. Although his wife divorced him during his captivity, and he came home weighing only 100 pounds, he still did his best to live a normal life.
He remarried, moved to Arizona to be an instructor pilot at Williams Air Force Base and earned a masters of business administration. He even ran for office several times, eventually winning a spot in the state Senate in the early 1990s, representing Gilbert.
Like many former prisoners of war, Chesley credits his faith in God, his country and his fellow prisoners for getting him through the hellish ordeal.
“We all really do love each other, if we want to,” he said. “And the things that we can do for each other are so great.”