Jack Van Loan has spent most of his life being passionate about two jobs: First as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and then as executive director of the Five Points Association.
Those two worlds will be forever meshed on Veterans Day this Friday, when the Five Points Centennial Plaza is unveiled with a tribute to Van Loan.
The plaza will feature a statue of him based on a photo taken moments after he was released from a POW prison in Vietnam.
“Jack is sort of like the unofficial father of Five Points,” said Amy Beth Franks, executive director of Five Points Association. “The reason we’re doing this is to honor his sacrifice to our country … he means a lot to this community.”
Politicians including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, S.C Sen. John Courson and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin are expected to attend. Fellow POWs held with Van Loan at the infamous Hanoi Hilton also will be there.
Van Loan calls them all friends. And vice versa.
“My friend Jack Van Loan is an authentic American hero,” Benjamin said. “He served his country with distinction and, once home, he never stopped serving. Five Points, Columbia, South Carolina and the United States are all better because of Jack.”
“Hero” and “friend” are words many use to describe Van Loan.
“What an appropriate honor for a dear friend and American hero,” Graham said. “Jack sacrificed for his country in a way few have ever done. 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.”
Courson met Van Loan when the latter arrived in Columbia in 1984. But it wasn’t until Courson was campaigning for then-presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain that he learned Van Loan had been a POW – with McCain.
“I have a tremendous admiration for him, not only for his service to our Armed Forces but also what he’s done after,” Courson said of Van Loan.
Van Loan served as Five Points Association executive director for more than 20 years.
“Not only was his business there, but he developed a tremendous love for the village,” Courson said. “He is just a very involved citizen of the community.”
Van Loan, McCain, and others who suffered the atrocities they did on behalf of the United States “are American heroes,” Courson said. “They held up under great duress and torture in Hanoi and did not cave.”
Van Loan, who will be 85 in December, hasn’t caved since. For example, several years ago, when Five Points Association representatives asked him to take over running the St. Patrick’s Day Festival, Van Loan agreed with one stipulation.
“St. Patrick’s Day was nothing but a drunken brawl,” the always blunt Van Loan said. “They asked me to be over it and I said, ‘You have the wrong guy. I don’t preside over drunken brawls.
“So I said I’d do it, but not as it was then.”
Van Loan is pleased that he helped transform the famously fun festival into what he calls “a good celebration now that makes a lot of money that we put back into the city.”
Van Loan was at Shaw Air Force Base as director of operations for the 9th Air Force when he retired as a Colonel. He lived in Sumter for a bit before moving to Columbia.
“Columbia is the best kept secret in the world,” Van Loan said. “It’s a terrific place.”
Van Loan was born and raised in Oregon, and received his undergraduate degree from Oregon State in 1954. He spent 30 years in the Air Force. Six years of that was as a POW.
“As a courageous Prisoner of War (POW) Jack Van Loan has been a symbol of resistance, defiance, and upholding honor for American service members,” Wilson said.
Van Loan’s time spent at the infamous Hanoi Hilton has been well-documented. He staunchly and publicly defended McCain when his behavior as a POW was questioned during his presidential campaign, gave a lengthy oral history about his experience to Oregon State University and in 2015 wrote a book about his time as a POW.
Van Loan, who was shot down in enemy territory in May 1967, published the book “Chained Eagles, The Story of Col. Jack Van Loan and the Vietnam POWs in North Vietnam” with retired Air Force Lt. Col. Norman Turner.
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 said. “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 suffered by Van Loan in Hanoi. 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.”
Forty-three years after his release from the Hanoi prison on March 4, 1973, Van Loan still vividly remembers the pain. The cane he uses today is a constant reminder.
“They tortured us badly,” he said. “They beat me up within an inch of my life.”
After his release, Van Loan returned home to two sons who barely remembered him, and one with no memories of him at all. His youngest son was 16 months old when he was taken prisoner; his other sons were 7 and 5.
“There was some apprehension when I came home,” he said. His marriage didn’t make it, but his relationship with his sons did. “I’m very proud of them.”
Van Loan remained in the Air Force. He flew every fighter plane in the Air Force except the F-105, he said. He has models of the planes he flew displayed in his home office, along with a photo of his release from the Hanoi Hilton and one of him standing in front of the F-4C he was shot down flying.
There is also a photo of Van Loan and his fellow POWs on the C-141 that flew them out of Vietnam. He described the moment captured in the photo in his book: “Of course when we broke ground everybody was whooping and hollering. The aircraft commander called as we crossed the North Vietnamese coast outbound and he said, “We are now feet wet.” (Over the South China Sea). Everybody just went crazy.”
Years later, Van Loan met his current wife, Linda, while he was pursuing his masters degree at the University of South Carolina. He was roaming the halls looking to hire a typist, and found her. He convinced her to take the job, and later convinced her to marry him, he said.
“She’s the best friend I’ve ever had,” Van Loan said. She also had three children, giving them a total of six.
“I’m proud of all of them,” he said. “They are a source of real delight for me. They’re all good kids.” And they will all be at the ceremony in Five Points Friday.
Before they married in 1999, Van Loan took Linda to Vietnam. He’s still angry about the treatment of the POWs (“I don’t forget that, ever. I didn’t like being beaten like that.”) But he appreciates the beauty of Vietnam and respects the people there.
He and Linda toured the prison where he survived for six years – the building is now a gift shop – and he showed her the rooms where he was beaten.
Linda is “speechless” about the events honoring her husband.
“It’s an incredible honor that is being bestowed on Jack,” she said. “He’s worked hard for a long time to help Five Points and the City of Columbia.”
Van Loan said between his wife, family, friends and living in a place he loves, he is “doing pretty well.
“I’m surrounded by a town who loves me, and (85 pound) puppies who love me,” Van Loan said. “I’ve got a lot of good friends on both sides of the (political) street. I value that.”
If you go
Five Points Centennial Plaza unveiling
When: 3 p.m. Friday
Where: Intersection of Blossom Street, Congaree and Santee avenues
Cost: Free; event is open to the public. Limited seating available.