Vietnam POW Lt. Col Donald ‘Digger’ Odell (USAF Ret) dies at 86

| October 25, 2020

The KoB sent in the sad news that we’ve lost another Vietnam POW. Lieutenant Colonel Donald “Digger” Odell has passed away at the age of 86.

He’d enlisted in the Air Force in 1952 and became an aviation cadet, earning his commission three years later and becoming a pilot. After flight training he served as a primary instructor pilot, then did a tour in Germany flying F-86 Sabres and F-102 Delta Daggers. On his return to the states he flew F-106 Delta Darts before being tapped for service in Vietnam.

Before shipping out he received training on the F-105 Thunderchief. The Thunderchief would become the only American aircraft of the war pulled from service for its high loss rate (both in combat and accidents). Despite the “F” designation, the Mach 2-capable Thunderchief was primarily used as a bomber in Vietnam, and later as a wild weasel (those crazy guys that tempt anti-aircraft missile radars into locking onto them so they can shoot radar homing missiles at them first).

Arriving in mid-August 1967, Odell was on his 17th bombing mission on October 17, 1967. As he rolled in for his bomb run on some rail yards 18 miles NE of Hanoi, his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Forced to bail out, he was very quickly captured.

Odell recounted his first hours in captivity thusly;

Just before dusk on the evening of October 17, 1967, the day my F-105D fighter bomber was shot down as I flew my 17th bombing mission over North Vietnam, I stood before a large group of villagers, my hands tied tightly behind me, naked except for my shorts.

Already bruised and bleeding from beatings by the villagers who had surrounded me when I parachuted from my burning plane into a rice paddy, I had just been pulled from a thatched hut by four stocky militiamen who pointed their weapons toward a patch, which wound beyond the hut to a ribbon of dirt road.

I assumed this would be the point at which a vehicle would take me into Hanoi. I wondered if I would be taken to the famed Hoalo Prison (named the Hanoi Hilton by earlier prisoners of war). I also wondered at the absence of the villagers who had been clamoring at me all day. Yet, I saw no one except for the four militiamen. The silence after the hate-filled screaming of the crowd earlier in the day should have been a signal but I was too tired and sore to realize anything other than that I was being taken to a prison camp.

As I rounded the corner of the hut, I saw the reason for the silence and absence of villagers.

Ahead of me in the gathering darkness, I saw the path was lined four and five deep by some 250 men, women and children from nearby villages. In their hands they held clubs, bamboo spears, stones and chunks of dirt. As they spotted me, they began shouting and gesturing. They became more frenzied and agitated as I neared them. The absolute hatred in their eyes sent a chill through me.

Two small boys clutching bamboo spears darted from the edge of the group nearest me, lips set grimly and eyes glaring with hate. Jabbing and poking, they danced around me. I felt sharp pains as the spears pierced my thighs and legs. I tried to draw away but my guards pushed me toward the crowd, the two boys scampering back as I was jostled forward.

With the guards pushing at me, I reached the beginning of the gauntlet line.

The actions of the boys had really fired up the others. Their chattering reached a high pitch and everyone was screaming and shouting at me, all the time raining blows with fists, clubs, and hoe handles, jabbing with spears and growing rocks and clods of dirt. I could feel blood running from my nose and forehead. My lips were cut and swollen.

I periodically opened and shut my eyes, partly for protection and also to see whether I had neared the end of the line. But I was only about halfway through. I was getting dizzy and I stumbled, a couple of times, but I hadn’t fallen.

Stay on your feet, I kept telling myself. Stay on your feet. You’ll make it.

Then through half-closed eyes I saw a rather tall Vietnamese step out of the crowd directly in front of me. In his right hand he carried a hacksaw, somewhat rusted and bent. He reached forward and with his left hand grabbed the back of my head and forced me down in a bowed position. I felt something scraping and searing pain across my back and neck. As I struggled futilely in his grasp I twisted my head and saw his right arm pumping the saw across my back.

My God, I thought, instinctively tightening my neck muscles. He’s trying to saw my head off.

It’s at this point that the militiamen pushed the man off but he continued to attack Odell with his fists.

This excited the crowd who renewed their frenzy further. AT one point Odell managed to struggle to his feet but was kicked to the ground by the tall man with the saw.

Now the clubs, fists and spears were really working on me and, half conscious, I felt myself being dragged upright and pushed forward by the militia. For the first time I began to doubt that I would come out of this ordeal alive.

At that moment, the words to the song, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ popped into my head.

I shut out everything that was happening to me. I seemed to lose all fear. I know I walked a little straighter down the path lined with my tormentors. I remember thinking the worst these people could do was kill me.’

Almost to the end of the gauntlet line the crowd began to close in on Odell and his captures. Even the smallest of children joined in. A bloody-lipped Odell tried to smile at one youngster who was about 5 or 6 years old.

His only reaction was to spit and slap at me. I was now totally encircled and felt death closing in on me. The militiamen pushed me to the ground where I sat hunched over as they tried to beat off the surging crowd. But it was futile. Seated there amid a tangle of bare legs churning the dirt, the blows and what I assumed to be accompanying curses I mumbled a prayer.

It was answered by an old Vietnamese man armed with a machine gun who gestured for the crowd to back away. Then, he and the guards broke into a building where they kept Odell safe for transport to a POW camp. he villagers remained pounding on the doors and shouting but eventually gave up. Huddled on the floor in silence, Odell believed he had survived the first real test of what he could take mentally and physically.

As it turned out there were to be many such tests ahead for me.

Odell would spend five and a half years in the infamously horrendous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp in North Vietnam before being repatriated in 1973. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1975. He then returned to his native Michigan where he lived until his death.

Odell remained very active in the military and veteran community. He offered to give speeches and wrote a book zon his wartime experiences as a way to cope with some of the trauma. According to an Air Force press release, Odell would often conclude his speaking engagements by acknowledging that America was not perfect. He would go on to then ask the audience that if they knew of a better place, of a better system of government, under which to live, to please give him a call. “The phone never once rang,” Odell said in later years.

During his service he earned the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, two Bronze Star Medals w/ “V”, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Air Medals, two Purple Hearts, the Prisoner of War Medal, and the Vietnam Service Medal with 11 campaign stars.

After retiring from the military he worked as a public affairs officer as a civilian at Selfridge Air National Guard Base. He retired from that job after 12 years in 1990. He was married and the father to four children.

For all his years of suffering here, I pray he’s able to enjoy his richly deserved eternal reward.

Source; Fox News and others.

Category: Air Force, Guest Link, POW, Valor, Vietnam, We Remember

Comments (17)

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  1. Ocean12 says:

    A true hero.

  2. KoB says:

    Godspeed and Fare Well Lt Col Donald “Digger” Odell, may your final flight to Valhalla be a smooth one. God’s Blessing bring His Peace to your Family. We Thank You for your Service and the Sacrifices you made Good Sir! May we be Honored to meet you…on the Other Side.

    Outstanding job on the write up Mason (not that I expected any different). When I stumbled across this story I knew we had to share it with the Troops of TAH, and I knew that you would do justice to the telling of “Digger’s” Story. Thanks

    You know, not sure about y’all, but when I read the stories of the Heroes like Lt Col Odell, I flash back to the lying, embellishing, piece of sh^t phony like we had the other day. I won’t even mention that Fat Bastards name in the same comment as “Digger.” Several verses from The Book come to mind. That whole “Vengeance is Mine, sayeth The Lord”, and “…He works in mysterious ways, His Wonders to behold.” I would like to be part of the “mysterious ways” and make that fat phony, lying, POS wonder if he will survive the vengeance gauntlet of TAHers giving the fat bastard the punishment that Lt Col Odell suffered. Who’s with me? Wouldn’t mind including some of the ones that used the comment thread in the linky to make Lt Col Donald Odell’s obit notice an opportunity to turn his death into a political attack. Shut up Gun Bunny…Rant over.

    Thanks for posting Mason.

  3. Skippy says:

    Rest well

  4. Robert Szrama says:

    “For all his years of suffering here, I pray he’s able to enjoy his richly deserved eternal reward.“

  5. Sparks says:

    Rest in well-deserved peace Sir.

  6. Skippy says:


  7. Joe says:

    Great nickname- after a character on the radio show Life of Riley he was a mortician. Godspeed sir.

  8. AW1Ed says:

    Fair winds and following seas, Lt Col Odell.

  9. Green Thumb says:


    Rest well, LTC Odell.

  10. Green Thumb says:

    This make me want to rip Patrick Dowdee a new asshole.

    • Thunderstixx says:

      And every other Valor Thief claiming to be a POW in Black Ops situations…..
      Stuff a couple M-80’s, the real ones, up their asses with the fuze sticking out, take them to a Home Depot gagged with Gorilla Tape and left in the toilet after lighting the fuze…
      I hate those people, I really hate their asses…

  11. A Proud Infidel®™ says:

    Rest In Peace Sir, you’ve earned your place in History and Valhalla.

  12. NHSparky says:

    Rest easy. You’ve earned it.

  13. Combat Historian says:

    Rest In Peace, Colonel…

  14. inbredredneck says:

    I don’t even wanna think about tryin’ to endure what he went through. He was more of a man than I could ever dream of bein’.
    Thanks, Mason, for the good write up.

  15. UpNorth says:

    Rest in Peace, Colonel Odell.