Former NAS Fallon commander noted for his courage as POW
Two years ago at the annual National Vietnam War Veterans Day at Mills Park, Carson City Mayor Bob Crowell reflected on prisoners of war but specifically on the courage of retired Navy Capt. Wendell “Ray” Alcorn.
Alcorn, a prisoner of war from 1965-1973, commanded Naval Air Station Fallon in the 1980s and also lived in Carson City before he and his wife, Karen relocated to Brevard, North Carolina, in 2006 to be closer to family. During Gov. Kenny Guinn’s administration, Alcorn served as Nevada’s commissioner for Veterans Affairs.
Alcorn, a Pennsylvania State University graduate, attended flight school where he received his wings on Flag Day, June 14, 1963. After completing a Mediterranean tour, Alcorn and Air Group 9 sailed toward Vietnam in 1965. Crowell, whose friendship with Alcorn spanned decades, remembers his friend and fellow sailor, who died March 12 at the age of 80. Alcorn’s interment will occur at Arlington National Cemetery at a later date.
“Capt. Alcorn represented the epitome of courage displayed by our fighting men and women enduring years of captivity in unbelievable conditions,” Crowell said before veterans honor their comrades on National Vietnam War Veterans Day, which is Sunday. “He was also a respected member of the Carson City community volunteering to help out when he could. When he would show us the tin cup he used for many years, it would bring tears to our eyes when you think about what it meant. Our nation and community will miss Ray Alcorn.”
TOUCHING DOWN IN NEVADA
Former Fallon Mayor Bob Erickson worked extensively with Alcorn, who was commander of NAS Fallon from 1987-1989. As a Navy captain, Alcorn was instrumental in the future establishment of the Naval Strike Warfare Center at Naval Air Station Fallon.
“We worked very closely during those years,” Erickson said. “He was very supportive of the city and county and encouraged people assigned to the base to volunteer and participate in the community.”
During Alcorn’s tenure at NAS Fallon, Erickson said the air station began a major construction project, building new BEQs (Bachelor Enlisted Quarter) that could house 750-800 sailors.
“For the time being, that was probably the largest project out there,” Erickson said.
Erickson added Alcorn oversaw much of the base expansion, and not only did he see the viability of the air station, but the captain also fostered the health and welfare of the sailors and civilian personnel under his command. After the Alcorns left Fallon, Bob and his wife, Mary Beth, kept in contact with them. When they returned to Carson City after his military retirement, the two couples would meet for dinner.
“We always enjoyed their company,” Erickson said.
As the years passed, though, and the Alcorns returned to North Carolina, Erickson said he lost contact with the former base commander.
Carson City resident Ray Frederick knew Alcorn on a more personal basis.
“He liked to fish, and I had a boat,” Frederick said. “We did a lot of fishing at Pyramid Lake.”
Their conversations bridged a wide spectrum of topics. Frederick learned more of Alcorn’s time in captivity in Hanoi, and how his friend dealt with the torture as a POW. After Alcorn told a war story, he didn’t discuss the specific incident in future conversations. Alcorn kidded his friend, who served in the Army in Vietnam.
“You were at the pointy end of the sword,” Frederick recalled Alcorn saying.
Being a radio-telephone operator in the jungle, Frederick and his fellow soldiers always moved in the front on their patrols.
Over the years, Frederick stayed in contact with Alcorn, even after he moved to Pennsylvania.
“It was a real honor to know this man,” he said.
Fallon Mayor Ken Tedford was the local Rotary Club president when Alcorn lived in Fallon and later worked with him on state veterans’ issues. Tedford said Alcorn worked hard to help veterans in Churchill County and around the state.
“In Rotary, he was very quiet, I thought,” Tedford said. “I respected him a lot, a very fine man. “
Tedford said Alcorn’s courage and survival in a POW camp was more than admirable and how the career Navy man continued to serve his nation after returning home.
“I knew what he had gone through and what he did for our country,” Tedford added. “It was nice to see what he had done after the Navy.”
Not only was Alcorn involved with Rotary but he also belonged to the Fallon Optimists Club. He also served as Navy League president after moving to Carson City.
SHOT DOWN OVER VIETNAM
In a memoir last updated in 2018 in his local newspaper, the Transylvania (Pennsylvania) Times, Alcorn, who was a 26-year-old lieutenant (j.g.) when he first arrived in Vietnam, described his 28th combat missions over North Vietnam on Dec. 20, 1965, when his A‐4 Skyhawk was shot down on a strike against a power plant complex outside of Haiphong, a major port city.
“We went in at 50 feet,” he wrote. “We had flights of four in tight formation and we all dropped when the leader dropped. Ours was the third flight through. Just as I was dropping my bombs, I was hit in the cockpit, a shell went through my oxygen mask, a shell hit me in the side of the neck and the oxygen mask blew up. I was temporarily blinded. At 500 mph, 50 feet and unable to see, I had to make a quick decision.
“I’ll always live with the question of whether I made the right decision because in a matter of seconds I could see again. But by that time I had ejected and was standing on the ground.”
Eventually, and after interrogation, Alcorn found himself being transferred to the Hanoi Hilton, a prison whose real name was Hoa Lo, meaning Hell’s Hole. One of the cellmates across the hall was Cmdr. Jim Stockdale, the same man who was the vice presidential running mate of Ross Perot in 1992. The North Vietnamese shot down Stockdale in October 1965, more than two months before Alcorn’s misfortune.
Life was hell for POWs like Alcorn and Stockdale.
“The Vietnamese were very skilled at their torture methods,” Alcorn recalled in his memoir. “About once a month you’d be called in for an interrogation session where you would get the harangue of the day. When the harangue was finished, the interrogator would ask you for something — a statement opposing the war, a letter to your congressman, a letter to the troops in South Vietnam, urging them to quit fighting. If you didn’t give it to them, you went back for another torture session until you did give them something, which we did. There was no choice.”
Crowell said the North Vietnamese held POWs in at least 14 camps. Alcorn said he lived in 11 camps including one near the Chinese border. In the fall of 1972, Alcorn returned to a camp near Hanoi. Another POW held at the Hanoi Hilton was the late Navy pilot and U.S. Sen. John McCain.
With the United States and North Vietnam agreeing to the terms of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, many POWs came home on Feb. 1 and Alcorn’s group of 199 prisoners left Hanoi on Feb. 12 and headed toward Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines before flying to the United States. Alcorn had spent 2,609 days as a POW.
“After three days we were flown back to the states,” Alcorn wrote. “I was returning to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington, D.C. so I flew into Andrews Air Force Base and a helicopter flew me around downtown D.C. I was met by my family at Andrews. What a perfect way to come home.”
Alcorn said a number of Americans remain Missing in Action or were killed in action but their bodies were never recovered. As of 2006, Crowell said 1,621 military personnel remain unaccounted.
A TRUE PATRIOT
Erickson said Alcorn was a patriot by serving in Vietnam and enduring seven years as a POW. “It took an exceptional amount of staying power to mentally and physically handle that,” Erickson said of Alcorn’s years as a POW.
Alcorn’s subsequent assignments included chief of staff for the Chief of Naval Air Training at Corpus Christi, Texas, from May 1985 to July 1987, and then at Fallon as commanding officer of NAS Fallon from August 1987 to July 1989. His final assignment was as Dean of Students at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where he served from June 1990 until his retirement from the Navy on June 30, 1992.
“After Feb. 12, 1973, Ray began his long recovery from having a seven-year hole in his life,” Crowell said. “He rose to the rank of Navy captain to command Naval Air Station Fallon. After 30 years of service, he retired in 1992.”
Before his years at Fallon, which at the time was a small air station in the middle of the desert, Alcorn served as chief of staff for the Chief of Naval Air Training at Corpus Christi, Texas, from May 1985 to July 1987. His last assignment took him to the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., from June 1990 until his retirement three years later.
Among his major awards were two Silver Stars for service in combat, the Navy Air Medal, three Bronze Stars with combat notation and two Purple Hearts.
Alcorn was predeceased by his parents Ruth Neil and John Alcorn. He is survived by his wife of almost 35 years, Karen Zefting Alcorn; his brother, Donald E. Alcorn of Montgomery, Alabama; sister, Lou Alcorn Shelley, and her husband, Michael, of Brevard; four nephews, one niece and several great-nephews and -nieces.
(Alcorn’s personal reflections were done in collaboration with the WNC Military History Museum and writer Michel Robertson.)