RICHMOND, Va. — As far back as he can recall, self-proclaimed Army brat Paul Galanti dreamed of soaring through the skies. While many teens yearn to sit behind the wheel of a car, Paul envisioned climbing into a cockpit.
“I always wanted to fly,” Galanti said. “Actually kindergarten was the first time I saw an airplane. I’m not sure I could count to 17 but I knew what a B-17 was.”
While the 19-year-old student earned his wings at the Naval Academy, war was escalating half a world away.
“I didn’t know what Vietnam was. I never heard of it,” Galanti said.
The newly-minted fighter pilot flew dozens of successful combat flights into North Vietnam. But his luck ended on June 17, 1966, on his 97th mission in just six months.
"I had this horrible explosion and violent jolt,” Galanti said. “It was awful. I looked out and saw the airplane going away from me still spinning.”
While he survived getting blown out of the sky, he did not know that a dreadful odyssey awaited.
“I had the most sinking feeling I ever had in my life,” Galanti said. “Got captured almost immediately.”
After a two-week forced march, Galanti joined other American P.O.W.s at the infamous Hanoi Hilton where sadistic guards applied ropes to stop circulation.
“They would pull your elbows back till they touched," Galanti said. "Both of my shoulders popped out of joint when they did that. It was unbelievable pain."
Torture and stretches of solitary confinement were the norm week after week. Month after month. Year after year.
Galanti and his fellow prisoners were so isolated that news of the moon landing did not reach them.
“We were probably the last Americans, the last living Americans, to know about the moon shot," he said. "They didn’t tell us. We finally learned about it about a year after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon."
During a propaganda photo shoot orchestrated by his captors, Galanti represented the plight of American pilots. The prisoner delivered a silent, defiant message.
“I really didn’t know it was on Life Magazine. The first edition came out with the middle fingers down,” Galanti said. “The second one is after that they airbrushed it out.”
Finally on February 12, 1973, after the signing of a peace agreement Paul and about 600 other P.O.W.s walked out of prison.
After 2,432 days in captivity, Galanti was headed home.
“They took us to a bus. It was broad daylight. No blindfolds,” Galanti said.
The 83-year-old’s mouth still waters thinking about eating his first real meal in seven years.
“It was a 16oz steak medium rare," he said, " and a half gallon of vanilla ice cream."
Fifty years later, Paul Galanti harbored no ill will toward his former enemies.
His darkest days softened by a sunny disposition.
"It was an amazing experience because I felt like these guys were my brothers. I knew every single guy in that camp,” Galanti said.
Paul Galanti's sweetest homecoming memory was stepping off the plane in Norfolk and into his late-wife Phyllis’ arms. It would be the perfect time to recite an original poem seven years in the making.
“Lonely is the days and nights, my love. Since we’ve been a part. Seems like almost forever since I held you to my heart. The moments are as restless as the waves that move the sea. But every second means a step. Nearer my love to thee.”
Paul Galanti and several of his fellow P.O.W.s will gather in May for their 50th reunion at the Nixon Library. This gathering will be their last formal meeting together.
You can also watch Greg McQuade's "Heroes Among Us" reports Thursdays on CBS 6 News at 6 p.m.
Find unique, award-winning stories every day on CBS 6 News:
Mondays: CBS 6 Gives
Tuesdays: CBS 6 Problem Solvers Investigations
Wednesdays: Wayne's World
🙋♀️ Thursdays: Heroes Among Us
Thursdays: Beyond the Roster
Fridays: I Have a Story
Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email email@example.com to send a tip.
Do you know about a good news story happening in your community? Click hereto email WTVR.com and the CBS 6 News team.
SHARE on social media to SPREAD the WORD!
EAT IT, VIRGINIA restaurant news and interviews