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When Lt. Col. Harlan Chapman arrived in Hawaii  after his release from seven years in North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps,  Marine Lt. Gen. Louis Wilson was there to meet him. 

“Welcome back to the Marine Corps,” Wilson told Chapman.

“Thank you, general,” Chapman replied, “But I never left.”

Chapman spent more time as a prisoner of war than any other Marine held in captivity during the Vietnam War, according to an official Marine Corps history of the conflict (the longest-held American of the war was an Army Special Forces officer, Col. Floyd James Thompson who spent nine years in captivity).

On May 6, Chapman died at the age of 89, his family told Task & Purpose on Friday. The Marine aviator’s military awards include the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star with “V” device, and Prisoner of War Medal.

“Despite extreme cruelties during interrogation periods and severe maltreatment on a continual basis, Lieutenant Colonel Chapman distinguished himself by his indomitable spirit and dogged tenacity,” his Silver Star citation reads. “Refusing to provide the enemy with information, even that of a biographical nature, he aroused the increased wrath of his captors.”

“By his steadfast determination, devotion to duty, and adherence to the Code of Conduct, Lieutenant Colonel Chapman knowingly brought harsher treatment upon himself,” the citation continues. “Disregarding his own personal safety and well-being in order to remain loyal to the United States and to set an example for his fellow prisoners, he illustrated a high degree of professionalism under the most adverse of conditions.”

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Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Eric Smith provided Task & Purpose with a statement on Friday paying tribute to Chapman’s life and legacy.

“All of us owe a debt of gratitude to the heroes of our Corps who came before us,” Smith said. “Harlan Chapman is one of those heroes. We cannot possibly ever repay his sacrifice, and his Marine brothers and sisters together mourn with his family as we honor his life, his courage, and his commitment to our Nation. We remain Semper Fidelis to his memory.”

Chapman’s odyssey as a POW began on March 5, 1965, when his F-8 Crusader was shot down over North Vietnam on a bombing mission.

“Just before I released the bombs, the airplane got hit,” Chapman recalled in a May 2021 interview with The Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy. “I lost control of the plane. The plane was sort of tumbling. Nothing would stick, and I thought I was going to die.”

Chapman tried to reach for the overhead curtain that he needed to pull to eject, but the G-forces of the tumbling plane were so strong that he struggled to raise his arms. When he finally managed to get out of the plane, North Vietnamese forces below shot at him as he floated to the ground. He was captured as soon as he landed.

The torture began when Chapman arrived at a prison in Hanoi. He was suffering from a partial shoulder separation and his interrogators bound his hands tightly behind his back and put his legs in irons.

Despite threats that he would be shot, Chapman initially would only give his interrogators his name, rank, and serial number. When the pain he was enduring became excruciating, he started giving them fake names of members of his squadron, such as Clark Kent.

“That went on for too long, but I felt like hell that I had stopped sticking with name, rank, and service number,” Chapman said. “You feel like you’ve really failed, you know.”

Chapman was able to evade other questions due to his interrogator’s limited understanding of the Marine Corps, he said. When he was asked questions about the Navy, he would claim he didn’t have the information because he was a Marine. He also pleaded ignorance to questions about the Marine Corps, saying he was with the Navy.

All total, Chapman would spend more than 2,600 days in captivity before being released in February 1973. His stepson Darold Hessel told Task & Purpose that the lesson that Chapman and other Americans held as POWs during the Vietnam War can teach is that strong moral character and camaraderie can allow people to get through extreme duress.

Hessel, a former Marine captain and Cobra helicopter pilot, remembered his step-father advising  him how to build relationships with others in his squadron during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and to have faith in the system and country.

Chapman didn’t talk to his children about his experiences as a prisoner of war, Hessel recalled.

“When I joined the Marine Corps and was writing a paper in college about it, he opened up for the first time to me really,” Hessel said. “Even then, it was more of a willingness to answer my questions than it was to dig deep into the details of his own story.”

Chapman and his wife Fran celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary just days before his death. She told Task & Purpose  that Harlan was a “quiet and unassuming guy” who would answer questions from people he knew about his captivity.

But he had acardinal rule for sharing those stories: “Never talk about it while drinking.”

After retiring from the Marine Corps in 1976, Chapman and his wife spent 28 years running a real estate appraising business because he felt a regular office job would be too confining, she said.

Throughout Chapman’s life, honor, integrity and family were his guiding principles, Fran said.

“I think if you asked him, the motto ‘Return with Honor’ is exactly what [former POWs] stood for,” she said, “And they did.”

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