Commander Paul Galanti Shares Memories Of Being Shot Down Over Vietnam
Monterey, VA – Highland County’s veterans were honored with a special ceremony in Monterey this past Saturday. Organized by Iraq war veteran and Blue Grass Ruritan Club member Paxton Grant, this year’s event featured guest speaker retired navy Commander Paul Galanti, who is currently serving as Commissioner of Virginia’s Department of Veterans Services.
Commander Galanti is a highly decorated naval fighter pilot who served in the Vietnam War. In 1966, during his 97th combat mission, his A-4C Skyhawk fighter bomber was shot down over North Vietnam and he was captured. It would be nearly 7 years before he would see American soil and his family again. Commander Galanti talks about that fateful day.
“It was not a good day to start with” says Galanti “the first mission was terrible, the weather was bad; we went in and couldn’t find the target and had to jettison the bombs in the ocean.”
He says he got egg in his handlebar mustache during breakfast and could get it all out, so he took a razor and scraped it out as best he could. He says for a long time, he thought that might have been the reason he got shot down that day. Commander Galanti remembers the final seconds in his plane like it was yesterday.
“I was number four in the flight [and] my gunsight was out; I didn’t want to abort the flight” he says.
He thought he could rely on his fellow bomber, but when the shooting started, his plane was hit.
“I figure the reason I got shot down is they were shooting at him and it didn’t leave him enough” says Galanti. “One round went right through my engine; the engine exploded, the airplane came unglued very quickly.”
Using all his strength to control the damaged fighter he tried to keep it in the air as long as he could to try and reach the coast where he could eject over the water and be picked up by a US navy ship. But despite his efforts, the plane was going down and he had to make a decision on what to do next.
“I had to get out of it” he says. “In a very quick period of time I went from being this cocky, young – I made Tom Cruise look like a wimp – and I went from that to flying an airplane totally out of control, making my first ejection at almost 600 mph, and then coming down and landing right smack in the middle of a bunch of guys who really didn’t want me in their country.”
For the next 6 years and 7 months Commander Galanti would be a prisoner of war at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where he often found himself in solitary confinement. A photo of him taken in Hanoi was on the cover of Life magazine in October of 1967. The photo shows him seated with his hands down between his knees and both middle fingers extended. The North Vietnamese did not understand the meaning of his gesture, but his family and fellow servicemen knew that this meant that he was keeping his spirits up and that he had not been broken by his captors.
While he was a POW, his wife Phyllis set in motion a national campaign to write letter to the North Vietnamese government demanding fair treatment and ultimately the release of the American POW’s held in Vietnam. She went on to become Chairwoman of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing In Southeast Asia. In February of 1973, over two years before the fall of Saigon, Commander Galanti and other POW’s were returned to the United States. He and his wife Phyllis were featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine that month.
Stay tuned on Friday for more of Commander Paul Galanti’s remarkable story.