NEW YORK – Navy Cmdr. Robert J. Flynn, who spent more than five years in a Communist Chinese prison during the Vietnam War, almost always in solitary confinement, after he was shot down on a bombing mission, died May 15 in Pensacola, Fla. Flynn, one of only two American servicemen known to have been held by the Chinese during the war, was 76.
The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Kathy.
Then-Lt. Flynn, a bombardier-navigator, was taking part in a raid on Aug. 21, 1967, targeting rail yards near Hanoi, the North Vietnamese capital, about 75 miles from the Chinese border, when his two-man A-6 Intruder came under attack. The Pentagon later said his plane and another Intruder on that raid had been downed after straying over southern China while seeking to escape North Vietnamese jets.
Flynn and his pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Jimmy Lee Buckley, ejected from their craft. Flynn, suffering severe spinal injuries, found the pilot’s body near the spot where he had come down, and he was soon captured. The Chinese news agency Xinhua reported six days later that one of four U.S. airmen whom China had just downed had been paraded before peasants and Red Guards at an anti-America rally. It did not identify that airman, but Flynn was the only survivor from the two Intruders.
Kathy Flynn said in an interview Wednesday: “I saw on TV he was being beaten, and the streets were lined with people. That’s how I knew he was alive.”
For the remainder of the Vietnam War, he spent virtually all his prison time in a small cell in Beijing, and he was kept in handcuffs for three separate periods, covering seven, 30 and 60 days, barely able to eat or perform bodily functions. After a time, he was allowed to correspond with his wife and received packages from her via the Red Cross.
He refused to provide military information to his captors or to take part in Chinese propaganda.
“The most terrible part was the solitude, the solitude, the solitude,” Flynn told the Pensacola News Journal in 2008. “What do you do with all that time? All those hours? All those days and years?”
“I’d think of my family,” he said. “I’d plan parties, birthdays, anniversaries for everyone. And I would imagine that Kathy bought some land in Alaska and gold was discovered there. And I had the biggest gold mine going. I had all kinds of people working for me – people I knew. And I ran a big imaginary corporation. That’s what I did.”
Freedom finally came on March 15, 1973, when he was taken across a covered bridge into Hong Kong, wearing a blue Chinese cap. He was released to the U.S. authorities there together with Maj. Philip E. Smith of the Air Force, who had been imprisoned by the Chinese since his plane was downed over their airspace in September 1965.
Two CIA agents, John Downey and Richard Fecteau, who had been captured in China in 1952 during the Korean War, were also at the prison where Flynn and Smith were held. Fecteau was freed in December 1971, and Downey in March 1973.
In later interviews, Flynn maintained that he had not been downed over China, as the Pentagon said, but had parachuted into North Vietnamese territory, then had been turned over to the Chinese. But the remains of Buckley, Flynn’s pilot, and those of the other Intruder’s pilot, Lt. Cmdr. J. Forrest Trembley, were recovered in China after the war.
Robert James Flynn was born Sept. 15, 1937, in La Crosse, Wis., and grew up in Houston, Minn. After attending the University of Minnesota, he entered the Navy and was on his 71st mission in the Vietnam War when he was shot down.
After the war, he held command positions and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington. He retired with the rank of commander in 1985.
“I wouldn’t want to do it again,” he told the News Journal in recalling his captivity. “But it was part of the experience of my life. Life is sort of an adventure. Sometimes, the adventure gets out of hand.”
- New York Times