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Former POWs honored
at NAS Meridian service

By Staff
OFFERING THANKS Retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Ralph E. Gaither, left, shakes hands Friday with Lt. Cmdr. John Alford after Gaither spoke at Naval Air Station Meridian about his experience as a prisoner of war. Alford thanked Gaither for his service to the country. Photo by Kyle Carter / The Meridian Star
By Steve Gillespie / staff writer
September 20, 2003
Ralph E. Gaither stood at the podium at Naval Air Station Meridian, pointed to a crowd of people and said some of those with whom he shared prisoner of war experiences "were here."
And some "are here," he said, with his hand over his heart.
A retired U.S. Navy commander, Gaither was the guest speaker at the base's annual ceremony commemorating Friday as National POW/MIA Recognition Day.
Gaither was a Navy fighter pilot who served on the aircraft carrier USS Independence. He was shot down on his 72nd combat mission in Vietnam on Oct. 17, 1965, after taking part in an air strike on a railroad bridge 17 miles northwest of Hanoi.
Gaither, an ensign at the time, and his radar intercept officer, Lt. j.g. Rodney Knutson, were captured after they were shot down a few miles south of the China border. They were released in February 1973.
The lucky ones
Gaither said captivity becomes a way of life for prisoners of war.
Tom Collins of Meridian is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and former Vietnam POW who has known Gaither since their days as prisoners of war.
Collins was at Friday's ceremony and was the guest speaker at last year's event.
Also a fighter pilot, Collins was shot down and captured the day after Gaither. He also was released in February 1973. He said he and Gaither got to know each other well during their 7 1/2 years in captivity.
Gaither said he will never forget his experiences as a POW.
Paying their respects
Born in Birmingham, Ala., Gaither, 61, grew up in Miami and now lives in Gulf Breeze, Fla. He and his wife, Barbara, have two daughters. He wrote a book about his experiences as a POW, "With God in a POW Camp."
His service decorations include: two Silver Stars; two Legion of Merit medals; a Distinguished Flying Cross; four Bronze Stars; six Air Medals; two Purple Hearts; a POW medal; and 16 Vietnam Service Medals.
Other events during the ceremony Friday included music, prayers, the raising of the POW-MIA flag, a 21-gun salute and a fly-over of NAS Meridian jets.