He was just 19 years old when his B-17 Bomber was shot down by the Germans in 1944. He would spend 11 months as a prisoner of war.
For most, the war story would end there, but for Colonel Richard Keirn, it would be the beginning of an amazing story that would carry over two major wars.
Keirn is one of only two men in history to be held as a prisoner of war in both World War II and Vietnam. His two experiences as a POW were as different as the two wars, one that united America and one that divided it.
FROM GERMANY TO VIETNAM
"In Germany he was treated like a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention, but in Vietnam he was treated like an animal," said his son, Steve Keirn of Tampa.
Steve was just 13 years-old when his dad's F-4 Phantom was shot down by a North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile in 1964. His family was first told that Captain Keirn was killed then. Three months later they got word that he was alive and being held prisoner.
Keirn and other POWs were tortured. Steve said his father's captors dislocated his shoulders.
"Then they'd hang him from a beam and hang him by his elbows and just let him hang there for hours at a time," Steve said.
They also pulled off his fingernails and withheld food. Keirn would spend eight years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese.
THE MISSING CHILDHOOD
Steve grew up in a working class neighborhood in South Tampa and spent all of his teen years without his father. He made friends with another boy named Mike Graham, whose father Eddie Graham was a well-known professional wrestling promoter. He gave Steve odd jobs and took him under his wing.
Then Steve became part of Graham's show and went on to hold several championship belts. But the best day was when they received the news that the war was ending and his dad was finally coming home.
"My mom bought a red carpet that ran from the front door, all the way out to the street," said Steve as he chokes back tears.
LESS OF A MAN, MORE OF A MAN
Keirn went to Vietnam weighing over 220 pounds. He returned at 125 pounds. Over two wars he had been awarded five Purple Hearts along with numerous other medals and high honors. He would remain in the Air Force, attending the war college and retiring as a full Colonel.
He died at 75 and was laid to rest on Memorial Day with full military honors and a special fly-by of Air Force jet fighters. Before he died, he wrote a book called "Old Glory Is the Most Beautiful Of All," detailing his experiences.
Steve will carry his dad's story for the rest of his life. Now, he tells the intriguing story that was a secret years ago. To protect from anti-war activists, his family was asked to keep this all a secret.
"I answered the phone one day and a guy threatened my life. He said you, your family, and your dad will pay for the crimes your dad committed as a war criminal in Vietnam," Steve said.
But Steve doesn't carry a grudge because his father didn't, even after eight years of torture. He said his father's long absence instilled a deep faith in his family.
"I relentlessly watched my mother pray on her knees for my father," he said.
For Steve, the story goes on – as does his father's love of the skies, even dangerous ones
"He's up in heaven, and he's flying through the clouds. Just remember him when you look up," he said.
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
Didn't find what you were looking for?