Distinguished Alumni: KU helped launch path of healing, career achievements for Gen. Charles G. Boyd, Vietnam POW

General Boyd in plane
Gen. Charles G. Boyd flies his plane over Washington, D.C. He has been a pilot for decades and prefers flying as his mode of transportation.

The simple answer to why Charles Boyd enrolled at the University of Kansas in 1973 is that he was interested in the Spanish language and Latin American culture. The complicated answer developed over the course of nearly seven years spent as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

Now 50 years into a distinguished career of military service and national policy consulting, Gen. Charles G. Boyd, U.S. Air Force (Ret.), has no shortage of interesting stories. He has commanded U.S. military forces in Europe, directed a National Commission that foresaw the increasing threat of terrorism before the Sept. 11 attacks and is the only prisoner of war from Vietnam to achieve the rank of four-star general. Arguably among his most fascinating stories, however, is how he ended up at the University of Kansas.

Surviving Imprisonment

Boyd was about six months into his combat tour as an Air Force pilot when his 105th mission ended in a prison cell in Hanoi. On April 22, 1966, he had to eject from his plane after it was hit by enemy fire from the North Vietnamese. He was captured, then spent the next 2,488 days as a POW.

The treatment of American prisoners of war took a toll physically and mentally. Aside from interrogations that were often forms of torture, the isolation of prisoners from each other kept the POWs in the dark on what was happening in the world around them.

“I lived in a near vacuum as a prisoner of war for seven years, being cut off from information, other than that which I could get from other prisoners,” Boyd said.

During Boyd’s time in captivity, the first astronauts walked on the moon. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. The Woodstock music festival and Watergate scandal made headlines and the Beatles broke up. News of some events may have made it to prisoners, but what came was scarce, and it arrived in a trickle.

Although prisoners were isolated – sometimes in solitary confinement, other times with one or two cellmates – and weren’t allowed to speak to each other, they still found ways to communicate. One early prisoner brought in a “tap code,” a system of tapping out letters on cell walls as a way to “talk” to men in neighboring cells. Words were communicated, letter by letter, in a combination of taps.

The tap code helped prisoners pass the time, bolstering morale, sharing knowledge, telling stories and jokes, spreading news and even teaching new skills.

When Boyd found out that a prisoner two cells away knew Spanish, he used the tap code to learn a new language. A prisoner in the cell between them relayed the lessons and questions back and forth between Boyd and his teacher, tap by tap.

“It took a long time, but he gave me about 2,700 words of vocabulary, basic verb conjugation, pronunciation, syntax, et cetera,” Boyd said. “The big calluses on my knuckles from tapping so much lasted close to 10 years after I came home.”

Gen. Boyd portrait
Boyd is the only Vietnam POW to achieve the rank of four-star general. During his time in captivity, the first astronauts walked on the moon. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. The Woodstock music festival and Watergate scandal made headlines and the Beatles broke up.

Healing at KU

Boyd was finally freed and returned to the U.S. in February of 1973. The Air Force asked what he would like to do next. In an interview with NBC this spring, Boyd reflected on the options he weighed at the time.

“For me, I decided that this is behind me,” Boyd told NBC News. He didn’t want to “spend the rest of my life as a returned POW, and be recognized for that and nothing else. There was a whole new world in front of me and I didn’t know what it was,” but he was determined to look forward, not backward.

With his future in mind, Boyd told the Air Force he would like to complete his baccalaureate degree. He had about two years of college before joining the Air Force. So, the Air Force offered him three years of education to complete a degree wherever he chose.

When he was considering his options, expanding his newfound knowledge of Spanish was a priority. So, was location. His wife (who passed away in 1994), a Kansas native and KU graduate, had stayed in Wichita at McConnell Air Force base, where Boyd had been stationed before deployment. The University of Kansas, with its proximity to Wichita and a well-known Latin American studies program, easily met his criteria. So in fall of 1973, he became a Jayhawk.

KU campus 1974
A view of KU campus life in 1974, when Boyd was a student. (Courtesy University Archives)

“I was not your ordinary student,” Boyd said.

He was older than most classmates, but the greater distinction was likely his eagerness to learn. In his three years at KU, Boyd was able to complete both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Latin American studies.

Following his seven-year imprisonment and isolation, he was starved for information. He dove into his studies as a way to reconnect with the world and begin a process of recovery.

“I’m back after a very difficult period of my life and kind of lost in a way,” Boyd said of his arrival at KU. “I felt like I was trying to readjust to a world that had changed radically in my absence, and at the same time heal the wounds from the prison experience.”

Boyd’s fervor for learning played a part in his ability to recuperate; however, so did the support he received from faculty. They were aware of his background and paid close attention to his progress and needs.

“They treated me extremely well,” Boyd said. “I profited enormously from the experience. They helped with the healing process, plus, I left far better educated than when I arrived. I was now equipped in many ways to take on that future that I wanted so badly, wherever it might lead.”

A Distinguished Career

Since graduating, Boyd has had just one assignment in which he directly applied his knowledge of Latin American studies. However, he is quick to dispute any notion that his degrees haven’t been valuable in his career. The practice of reading, absorbing, analyzing and communicating that was at the center of his undergraduate and graduate work has also been central to his career.

“The process of educating a man or a woman is one in which the specifics of what they learn is less important than the process by which they learn and then to act upon what they’ve learned,” he said.

He said effective communication and an ability to grasp the interplay between a nation’s actions and its history have been crucial skills that he began to hone at KU.

Gen. Boyd in plane
Boyd retired from the military in 1995, but has yet to slow down. He is currently the Starr Distinguished National Security Fellow at the Center for the National Interest.

Boyd was active in the Air Force for more than 36 years, working in assignments around the world. His military decorations include the Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with oak leaf cluster, Bronze Star with combat “V” and two oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Flying Cross, and numerous other awards. His final military assignment was as Deputy Commander in Chief of U.S. forces in Europe.

Although he retired in 1995, his career has not slowed down. He has served in various civilian positions, inside and outside of government, all relating to foreign and security affairs. Currently, he is the Starr Distinguished National Security Fellow at the Center for the National Interest.

“Some say I’ve flunked retirement five times so far,” Boyd said.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, Boyd continues to be drawn toward work that allows him to stay involved in how the U.S. plays its role.

“We are still struggling to find the right balance in the aftermath of the Cold War,” he said. “The U.S. never quite grew comfortable with being the sole superpower. And now other major powers are emerging. The relationships are very much in play and evolving.”

Although Boyd’s particular journey is unlikely to be duplicated by future students, his general path to success can serve as a guide. He looks at his experience as a steppingstone process, where he has continued to expand his knowledge and skills with each new position. It’s up to the motivation of each individual to determine how far he or she will advance, he said.

“All the ceilings are gone or rapidly disappearing,” Boyd said. “If one truly wants expanded responsibility, and is willing to commit the time and energy that goes with it – there are no short cuts – then the chances of success in our society are high.”