After his plane was shot down in 1966, U.S. Air Force pilot Jerry Driscoll found himself in a squalid North Vietnamese prison.
He thought he’d be incarcerated for six months or so. Then a cellmate told him two years would be a lot more likely. Driscoll wrapped his head in a blanket and screamed. “When I was finished,” Driscoll would later tell a documentary filmmaker, “I thought, ‘OK, I can do two years.’ ”
He did nearly seven, withstanding torture and deprivation along the way.
Driscoll, a 24-year Air Force veteran who lived in Wayzata, died Feb. 20 at age 75, after a six-year battle with the neuromuscular disease primary lateral sclerosis.
Driscoll was born in Chicago and raised by his mother. After graduating from a Catholic high school in Chicago, he went to Winona, Minn., to study at St. Mary’s College. But his goal was a commission at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, and he got it in 1959.
“He fell in love with the Air Force, and he fell in love with flying,” said his wife, Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll.
He graduated in 1963, and by the end of 1965, Driscoll was flying sorties over Vietnam. On his 112th mission, Driscoll’s jet got strafed by anti-aircraft fire. He ejected, landed in a rice paddy in North Vietnam and was quickly surrounded by local farmers, he told the Sun Sailor in a 2014 interview.
Like many U.S. prisoners in Vietnam, Driscoll would be shuffled from camp to camp, doing a stint in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” At a prison near the Chinese border — a particularly bleak one with no electricity — Driscoll met up with U.S. Navy pilot Arv Chauncey.
“Jerry was just a really good guy,” said Chauncey, who lives in Eden Prairie. “He went along with everything we did to resist.”
They resisted by communicating. Prisoners devised a code to tap out on the walls that divided them, and a sign language to communicate between camp buildings. Driscoll, in an interview for the 1999 documentary film “Return With Honor,” said that on Sunday morning, prisoners across camp would recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
“We did this every single Sunday,” he told the filmmakers.
Driscoll’s love of country and his faith in God got him through Vietnam, his wife said.
A devout Catholic, he fashioned a rosary in prison, using old bread to make a cross, toothpaste tins for beads, and a moccasin string to hold everything together. A rat took a bite out of the cross, but he managed to keep the rosary hidden from guards.
Driscoll visited Vietnam in the 1990s, and wasn’t bitter about his experience as a POW, his wife said. “I was probably madder than he was. He had no ill will whatsoever. ‘They did their job, I did mine’ is what he said.”
Driscoll, whose many commendations included a Silver Star, three Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Bronze Stars with Valor, returned home in February 1973. He stayed with the Air Force as an instructor and teacher and finished his career in 1987 as a colonel, commander of a ROTC detachment at the University of California-Berkeley.
After the Air Force, Driscoll was a commercial pilot for 22 years, including 13 years with American Airlines.
In addition to his wife, Driscoll is survived by a son, Donald; two stepchildren, Kim Gehrman White and Jason Gehrman, and six grandchildren. There will be a mass at 11 a.m. March 1 at the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus in Medina, with visitation an hour before.