Wednesday, October 12, 2011

TFH 10/12: Lieutenant Commander George Thomas Coker, USNR

(Photo: Wikimedia)

George Thomas Coker was born in Amarillo, TX on July 14, 1943. His family moved to Linden, NJ in 1951. He attended St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark and became an Eagle Scout on January 27, 1959. While studying at Rutgers University from 1961-1963, he entered the Navy's aviation officer cadet program, received a commission, and became a Naval Flight Officer. George Coker eventually graduated from the University of San Diego in 1976; his studies were interrupted by his gallant service to our Nation during the Vietnam War.

In 1966, Coker deployed with Navy Attack Squadron VA-65 on board the USS Constellation. VA-65 flew the A-6 Intruder, and then Lieutenant Coker was a bombardier/navigator. He recieved two Navy Commendation Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross for "resourcefulness, superb airmanship, and courage" throughout 54 air missions over enemy territory.

George Coker's 55th mission on August 27, 1966 changed the course of this great American's life. On that day, his A-6 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over North Vietnam. Both Coker and the A-6's pilot, John H. "Jack" Fellowes, were captured.

After his capture, Coker's fighting spirit and devotion to our Nation could not be broken. He resisted his incarceration as best as possible while working to maintain morale among his comrades.

On October 12, 1967 Coker and another prisoner, Captain George McKnight (USAF), escaped from Dirty Bird Prison. For his courage and refusal to be held captive, he was awarded our Nation's second-highest honor: the Navy Cross.
From MilitaryTimes' Hall of Valor:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant Commander George Thomas Coker (NSN: 0-669409), United States Naval Reserve, for extraordinary heroism during an extremely daring escape from a solitary confinement cell while a Prisoner of War in Hanoi, North Vietnam on 12 October 1967. During a period of particularly harsh treatment, Lieutenant Commander Coker and another prisoner executed an escape as a two-man team despite the high risk of brutal reprisal or possible loss of life. That night, after opening the cell door by removing door bolt brackets from inside the room, he proceeded over the wall and through several blocks of housing to the Domer Bridge. Walking under the bridge to the Red River's edge, he swam downstream all night and at sunrise buried himself in a mud bank in an effort to remain concealed. He was later discovered, recaptured, severely beaten for many hours, and banished to solitary confinement for two and a half years. His extraordinary courage, aggressiveness in the face of the enemy, and dedication to his country reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Naval Service and the United States Armed Forces.

George Coker's heroism in captivity did not end there. He also received the Silver Star Medal, the Legion of Merit with Combat "V", and two Bronze Star Medals with Combat "V" for his conduct and courage while imprisoned. George McKnight was also awarded the Air Force's second-highest honor, the Air Force Cross, for his role in the escape, as well as many other awards for valor in captivity.

We thank all great Americans who, when deprived of military means to resist after capture, continue to fight the forces of tyranny by any way possible. We are all better for their service and sacrifice.

George Coker was released from his captivity and returned to the United States on March 4, 1973 after six and a half years of imprisonment. George Coker retired from the United States Navy in 1986. In the 1990s, he served as the Scoutmaster of Troop 62 in Virginia Beach, VA where he inspired and led numerous young men to become Eagle Scouts. In 2005, he was honored by the Boy Scouts of America with their Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.

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