Jack Van Loan, an Oregon native and fighter pilot who spent six years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and then served for 20 years as executive director of the Five Points Association in Columbia, has died. He was 87.
“He was a mentor, a colleague, a co-chair and a friend to me,” former Five Points Association executive director Merritt McNeely posted on Facebook. “More than that, he was a true American hero and he loved and fought for Five Points like no one else. Rest In Peace my friend, Jack.”
Mayor Steve Benjamin said city flags will be flown at half staff this week in Van Loan’s honor.
“He was a gentleman, stern, loving and a leader,” the mayor said. “These men served our country in some of the most challenging situations, never lost their spirit and continued to serve. Jack led the charge in Five Points. When Jack calls you come. He was unique. He was special.”
Van Loan received his undergraduate degree from Oregon State in 1954. He spent 30 years in the Air Force. He was a POW for six years, held in the same prison as the late Sen. John McCain.
Van Loan was shot down over North Vietnam on May 20, 1967. He injured his knee when he parachuted, and his captors made the injury worse through torture.
The torture, which became more horrifying, continued for most of his six years of captivity.
Van Loan published a book about his experience in captivity, “Chained Eagles, The Story of Col. Jack Van Loan and the Vietnam POWs in North Vietnam.”
He wrote the book because he thought what the POWs experienced needed to be remembered.
“I kept being asked questions about it and realized I needed to write it up,” he told The State. “It was a very difficult thing for me to do, to write it out.”
Van Loan quickly learned his captors had no intention of adhering to the Geneva Convention, a treaty adopted to protect prisoners of war from the atrocities he suffered. The North Vietnamese torturers unsuccessfully tried to beat information from him.
He wrote in his book, “I wasn’t going to tell them about those targets, but I was going to have to come up with something. I tried to knock myself out by beating my head on the floor but that didn’t work out. All I was doing was bloodying up my forehead and getting blood in my eyes.
“I just was a total mess. ... I had just never, ever experienced any pain like that. I just didn’t think that it was possible.”
Van Loan was released on March 4, 1973, with the second large group of POWs to be freed after the Paris Peace Accords ended America’s involvement in the war. He had been held for 70 months.
Van Loan, a colonel, settled in Columbia after retiring from duty at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter. He served for 20 years as executive director of the the Five Points Association, and is credited with being the force behind the success of the urban village’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
He is honored with a statue in Five Points that portrays him emerging from captivity.
At the time the statue was dedicated, Van Loan was honored by the like of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC.
“Jack sacrificed for his country in a way few have ever done,” Graham said at the time. “As a POW he stayed true to the traditions of an American fighting man held in captivity. He’s an inspiration, a role model, and a credit to South Carolina in every way.”