Third Friday of September is POW/MIA Recognition Day

By August 1972, there were few naval aviators with more warfare experience over the skies of North Vietnam than Lt. Jack Ensch. With nearly four deployments to Yankee Station under his belt, Ensch, a radar intercept officer in the Navy’s F-4 Phantom, had flown more than 280 combat missions over enemy territory. A few months earlier, he was credited with shooting down two MiG-17s in a fierce dogfight. Jack Ensch had the Right Stuff.

Jack Ensch prepares for a combat mission during a deployment to Vietnam.

Jack’s 285th mission was scheduled to be a combat air patrol (CAP) in support of air strikes on military and industrial complexes near Hanoi. Launching from the USS Midway with his pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Mike Doyle, Ensch knew being shot down was always a possibility, but he never let it cloud his focus.

“This being my fourth combat deployment, the thought of being shot down did, at times, creep into my mind,” said Jack, who was a member of Fighter Squadron 161 (VF-161). “You just had to compartmentalize such thoughts and get on with flying your missions.”

Shortly after crossing the shoreline into North Vietnam, Ensch and Doyle came under fire from a number of surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. They successfully dodged several missiles, but one they didn’t see exploded over their plane’s cockpit.

“Needless to say we never made it to our CAP station,” recalled Jack. “I ejected both of us from the aircraft. I survived. Mike didn’t.”

On Aug. 25, 1972, Jack Ensch became a prisoner of war (POW). He would spend more than seven months in two military prison camps, the Hanoi Hilton and the Zoo, before being repatriated the following year.

NO ONE LEFT BEHIND

For more than half a century, a driving force behind the relentless search for unreturned Americans listed as captured, missing or killed in action/body not returned in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia has been the National League of POW/MIA Families. Established in 1970, this small nonprofit organization is singularly focused on obtaining the release of all prisoners, the fullest possible accounting for those missing, and repatriation of all recoverable remains of those who died during the Vietnam War.

“There is no other organization like the National League of POW/MIA Families,” said Ann Mills-Griffiths, the League’s chairman of the board and CEO. “It really is because of post-Vietnam War determination of the impacted families and supportive veterans that today’s state-of-the-art Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency exists. It all stemmed from the League’s determination to press for answers to uncertainty that today’s admirable and capable accounting efforts exists.”

Ann has been at the helm of the League for more than 40 years and knows firsthand the pain of loss during the Vietnam War. Her brother, Lt. James Mills, also a radar intercept officer in the F-4 Phantom, disappeared in September 1966 when his aircraft didn’t return from a nighttime combat mission over North Vietnam.

Jack Ensch upon his release from the Hanoi Hilton prison camp in March 1973.

FINDING STRENGTH

For Ensch, as well as all other POWs, each day in captivity was fraught with uncertainty as well as continual physical and psychological anguish.

“I drew my strength to endure the POW experience from several sources,” said Jack, who was in the last group of POWs to be released on March 29, 1973. “My faith, my love of country, my desire to be reunited with my family, and the support of my fellow POWs. All those things combined helped me return with honor, which was the motto of our entire POW organization.”

Between February and April 1973, 591 American POWs were released from North Vietnamese prisons and returned to the United States.

“It was a mixed feeling of joy and relief that it was over,” reflected Jack. “There was also the surreal feeling of ‘is this really happening?’”

The remains of Jack’s pilot, Mike Doyle, weren’t returned to the United States until 1986.

Ann Mills-Griffiths from the National League of POW/MIA Families reflects on a painting of her brother James, a naval aviator who lost his life during a combat mission over North Vietnam in 1966.

GETTING CLOSURE

Mills-Griffiths needed to wait for more than 50 years to learn the fate of her brother.

“Our family never expected to know what actually happened to my brother,” said Ann. “In our case, a miracle occurred when Vietnamese fisherman snagged his net on underwater wreckage which was eventually determined to be the F-4 in which my brother disappeared.”

“Our family never expected to know what actually happened to my brother.”

Multiple recovery efforts in the years following the aircraft’s discovery ultimately found fragmentary remains, but it wasn’t until 2018, that some of those remains were positively identified as James Mills.

“They came to tell me in my office,” said Ann. “I was astounded. There were no tears. It was joy, totally.”

Both Mills’ and Doyle’s remains were buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

ALWAYS REMEMBER

While Ensch continues to share his experiences with visitors to the USS Midway Museum as one of the ship’s volunteer docents, Mills continues to fight to find those lost during the Vietnam War and bring them home.

“I pray America will never forget those listed as missing in action,” said Jack.

There are still 1,584 Americans missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.

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