Robert Purcell had a funeral before he needed one.
It was held in the mid-1960s during the Vietnam War.
Purcell, an Air Force fighter pilot and Louisville native, was shot down, and for the next three and a half years, his family didn't know he was alive.
Eventually Purcell was able to mail a post card from his prison camp to send word that he lived, but it would be nearly eight years before he could return home. Family members said it was one of the longest imprisonments an American had to endure during the war.
Purcell returned home for the final time on Monday night in preparation for the funeral initially held decades ago. A few family members and a friend gathered at Louisville International Airport to pay their respects to the retired Air Force Colonel and escort his flag-draped coffin to a funeral home.
Purcell died Sunday at his home in Ft. Worth, Texas, after declining health from an accident that left half his body paralyzed and a bout with pneumonia. He was 78.
If Purcell was anything, he was tough, said his family.
Through his childhood, military service, return home and failing health, family members said they never heard him complain, not even about the seven years and seven months he spent at the infamous Hanoi Hilton, the same prison that held Republican senator and former presidential candidate John McCain.
“He never ever complained or said one foul word about any of his time there,” said Shawn Purcell, Robert Purcell's nephew.
Toughness was always a trait shown by Robert Purcell, said Jim Hagan, Purcell's best friend.
Hagan recounted a story of how once as a pilot in the Air Force, Purcell suffered from stomach ulcers, which would disqualify him from flying. To get around this, Purcell had a friend stand in for him during a medical examination while he dealt with the pain and continued flying.
“He made John Wayne look like he'd been in a trash can,” Hagan said. “He was a tough son of a b—-.”
That toughness met new demands during his time as a prisoner of war.
After growing up in Old Louisville and graduating from St. Xavier high school in 1949, Purcell enlisted in the Air Force in the early 1950s. By 1965, he was a Major, flying an F-105 fighter jet over Vietnam.
He'd flown 25 missions before being shot down in July 1965.
Even though Robert Purcell didn't talk much about his time as a prisoner of war, some details escaped and his family heard accounts from fellow prisoners. Purcell and his comrades had to endure savage beatings, constant propaganda and starvation. As an officer, Purcell took it upon himself to look after new prisoners, giving his meager rations to other soldiers, according to accounts gathered by his family.
There was another side to him than toughness, though. His family called him a saint and deeply religious Catholic. After siblings Maureen and Shawn Purcell's father died shortly after their uncle returned, Robert Purcell looked after Shawn, effectively adopting him as a son, Maureen said.
At the airport Monday night, Shawn Purcell fought back tears several times at the mention of his uncle, and each family member remarked how grateful they were that they could bring him home one last time.
“I am totally honored that I can take care of my uncle in this form and do this for my family,” Maureen Purcell said. “Anyone that can go for your country and give up seven years and seven months of your life and never complain …”
Karen Purcell Robey, another niece, agreed.
“It's where he belongs,” she said. “This is home for him.”
Robert Purcell's visitation will be held from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday at Ratterman Brothers Funeral Home on Lexington Road. His funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at St. Louis Bertrand Catholic Church on South Sixth Street, the same place family held his first funeral in the 1960s.
After the ceremonies, Robert Purcell will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Lieutenant Colonel Robert B. Purcell was shown with his mother,
Mary B. Purcell, after he arrived in Louisville from POW camp in 1973
PURCELL, ROBERT BALDWIN
RIP 06 DEC 2009
Name: Robert Baldwin Purcell
Rank/Branch: O3/United States Air Force, pilot
Unit: 12th TFS
Date of Birth:
Home City of Record: Louisville Kentucky
Date of Loss: 27 July 1965
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 210500N 1051400E
Status (in 1973): Returnee
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: F105 D
Other Personnel in Incident: none
Source: Compiled by P.O.W. NETWORK 06 September 1996 from one or more of the following: raw data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews.
REMARKS: 021273 RELEASED BY DRV
ROBERT B. PURCELL
Lieutenant Colonel – United States Air Force
Shot Down: July 27, 1965
Released: February 12, 1973
I was advised by your book committee that the target date for your first publication would be 4 July 1974. I thought what an appropriate date this was for some very obvious reasons – and for some that may not be too obvious to the average reader. What it meant most of all to me was that our independence was declared on 4 July 1776, but it was not won until the end of that conflict.
And how our extremely clever and tenacious enemy kept trying to sell us on the idea that “their war” was the same as our above-mentioned one. The mechanical processes may have been similar in some cases, but it is my personal opinion that the final result of our revolutionary endeavors was truth and law. I lived in the capitol or seat of their revolutionary endeavors and I saw, heard and felt for 7 1/2 years only lies, deceit and slander.
My release was declared and won on the same day, 12 February 1973. I am now fighting my way back into society in what I call my retroactive conflict. I may even see you on the battlefield someday, so until then, God bless you and keep you free.
Robert Purcell retired from the United States Air Force as a Colonel. He and his wife Suzanne resided in Texas until his death after a prolonged illness.
He will be buried in Arlington.
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard