Robert Byron “By” Fuller, born on November 23, 1927, in Quitman, Mississippi, is one of the dozens of men who braved the severe treatment as a Prisoner of War (POW) of the North Vietnamese.
By Fuller enlisted in the US Navy after graduating from Emory at Oxford in Georgia, Class of 1945, and had served one year on active duty aboard USS Waldron (DD-699) before returning to Oxford to attend one year of college. He went on to attend the US Naval Academy at Annapolis and was commissioned an Ensign after graduating on June 1951. Soon after, Fuller trained to become a pilot, received his wings five months later, and was assigned to his first squadron assignment in Strike Fighter Squadron 192 (VF-192) Moffett Field with his first jet fighter, the Grumman F9F-5 Panther. Later, Fuller became the commanding officer aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31), where he led a major air-wing strike against Kép Air Base in Northern Vietnam, a vital military airfield operated by the Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) that had been expanded to accommodate jet fighters. The airstrip was heavily guarded by the enemies equipped with “extremely heavy and accurate anti-aircraft” weapons, resulting in intense combat that later left Fuller and his damaged A-4C Skyhawk as the only remaining light attack aircraft to press on and zoom in to the target. After receiving a second blow, the brave Captain did not go down without taking one last hit and aimed his rocket at “a revetment containing a parked MiG-17 fighter plane” before withdrawing back to safety. He later received a Silver Star for this conspicuous gallantry.
Unfortunately, Fuller became a POW after his plane was hit a few weeks later, in July 1967, during his one-hundred-tenth mission. After ejecting from the aircraft, which landed northwest of the Hun Yen in North Vietnam, the Captain was met with enemies, who pursued, shot, and captured him. Three months into his internment in Hoa Lo prison camp (translates to “fiery furnace” or “Hell’s Hole”), Fuller demonstrated extreme heroism. Also known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” the valiant Captain stood his ground on giving out his biographical information despite being subjected to harsh treatment by the North Vietnamese. He showed tenacity against all attempts by his captors to break his resistance, sticking up to his Code of Conduct for as long as it took. He endured various kinds of torture, including ropes, leg irons, and more than two years in solitary confinement in a 4-by-7-foot cell. Fuller’s unwavering gallantry and loyal devotion to duty inspired other POWs to also persist in the face of their captors’ efforts to demoralize and exploit them. He endured almost a decade of internment until his release on March 4, 1973, in Operation Homecoming, just two years before the Vietnam war ended. Despite his ordeal at the Hanoi Hilton, Fuller strode across the tarmac at Jacksonville Naval Air Station upon his return with a huge smile on his face and went as far as addressing the crowd who greeted him, saying, “America, America, how beautiful you are … Tonight my cup runneth over.”
His valor did not go unnoticed by the service, as the Navy awarded the brave Captain the distinguished Navy Cross, the second highest military decoration intended for Sailors and Marines. It is equivalent to the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross, the Air Force and Space Force’s Air Force Cross, and the Coast Guard Cross. Fuller was one of the lucky POWs to have survived, been freed from the brutal prison camp, and made it back home safely. According to reports, hundreds of thousands of others went missing even after being released at the war’s end on April 30, 1975.
Below is then-Captain Robert Fuller’s Navy Cross award citation:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Captain Robert Byron Fuller (NSN: 0-542942), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism as a Prisoner of War (POW) in North Vietnam during the month of October 1967. During this period, as a prisoner at Hoa Lo POW Prison, he was subjected to severe treatment at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors. As they persisted in their harsh treatment of him, he continued in his refusal to give out biographical data demanded by the North Vietnamese. He heroically resisted all attempts by his captors to break his resistance, indicating his willingness to suffer any deprivation and torture to uphold the Code of Conduct. Through those means, he inspired other POWs to resist the enemy’s efforts to demoralize and exploit them. By his gallantry and loyal devotion to duty, he reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Naval Service and the United States Armed Forces.
Fuller retired as a US Navy Rear Admiral in 1982 with dozens of military decorations under his belt, including the Navy Cross, two Silver Star Medals, four Distinguished Flying Cross, eleven Air Medals, two Navy Commendation Medals with Combat V, two Bronze Star Medal, two Purple Hearts, a United Nations Service Medal, and the Prisoner of War Medal, among many others. He passed away on October 2019 at age 92 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. During his Naval career, Fuller amassed 6,710 flying hours, 110 combat missions in Southeast Asia, and 640 Carrier Landings.
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