Colonel Frederick A. Crow ’51 — Cornell’s “most decorated alumnus of the Vietnam War” — recounted his life story during a Veterans Day forum on Wednesday afternoon. Crow, who witnessed the Pearl Harbor attack as a teenager, spent nearly three decades in the air force and lived six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Crow grew up in Hawaii, where his father was a career naval chief petty officer. When he was 14 years old, Crow witnessed the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
“After living in town for six years, we got our number for a brand new house on the base of Pearl Harbor and moved in on Saturday, the sixth of December,” Crow recounted. “We had a good night sleep, everybody was happy. In the morning we were having breakfast and my mom had already gotten up and started the dishes.”
Moments later, Crow said he saw planes crashing and burning outside the kitchen window.
“We ran out and took a look and ran back in because it was a big problem,” Crow said. “I came back out again, went down to the water’s edge and right across that part of Pearl Harbor were the five battle ships tied there.”
This experience proved highly influential in his life. Crow later dropped out of high school and served as an aviation cadet in the Army during the late stages World War II. During this time, he was unable to complete his flight training until after the war was over, he was thus discharged. Crow then went back home to complete his high school education.
Crow began studying English at Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1947. As a student, Crow worked as an editor at The Sun and was a part of ROTC and the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.
“Someone told the me reason I got accepted into the fraternity was because my dad had a distillery in Kentucky,” Crow joked. “The first thing they asked me when I signed up was how long is it going to take to get some whisky down here.”
After graduating from Cornell, Crow spent the next 30 years of his life in the air force. During his time he witnessed the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Berlin Crises and the Cuban Missile Crises.
Crow spent six years in captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam from 1967 to 1973 — three of those years in solitary.
He recalled being shot down while parachuting and being captured, imprisoned and tortured.
“[We ate] damn little,” Crow said, recounting his imprisonment. “We had the same meal everyday. A bowl of cereal like oats and you might get some type of fruit. We always got a bowl of rice. Same meal every day, year in and year out.”
While in solitary confinement, Crow said he could not move around — his ankles were completely locked and his only form of communication with his fellow prisoners of wars was by tapping on the walls.
At the forum, Col. Frederick Crow’s son, Jeff Crow, recounted growing up without a father and not knowing whether his father was alive. Jeff Crow remembered seeing an Air Force sedan drive up to his house on Easter weekend.
“Sure enough, about 20 minutes later, my sister came walking out the house a complete emotional mess,” Jeff Crow said of when his family learned his father was missing in action.
As a child, Jeff Crow said it was difficult attending school and being asked questions like, “Is your father dead? Is your father a prisoner?”
“After three years, we finally received a letter,” Jeff Crow said. “That was how we finally knew he was indeed alive.”