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Highest-ranking Army POW in Vietnam dies

Purcell led cadets at University of North Georgia

POSTED: April 4, 2013 12:12 a.m.
/For The Times

Retired Col. Benjamin H. Purcell of Clarkesville died Tuesday at age 85.

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Retired Col. Benjamin H. Purcell of Clarkesville, who was the highest-ranking Army POW in Vietnam, died Tuesday at age 85.

Purcell, an alumnus of the University of North Georgia and a former professor of military science and commandant of cadets at the school, served in the U.S. Army for more than 30 years. A native of Clarkesville, he held command and staff positions from platoon leader through brigade commander, including combat tours in Korea and Vietnam.

“He was not only an outstanding cadet, he was an outstanding officer,” said retired Col. Ed Nix, who had known Purcell since they were both students at then-North Georgia College.

“Purcell graduated in 1950, and I graduated in 1951,” Nix said, “and we both wound up in Korea as combat platoon leaders.”

Although they never served together, Nix said, their paths crossed frequently during their careers.

Purcell was awarded the Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Purple Heart and the Parachutist and Combat Infantryman badges.

After graduating from North Georgia College in 1950 as a Distinguished Military Graduate with a bachelor’s degree in physics, Purcell was commissioned as a second lieutenant and served two combat tours in Korea.

Purcell met his wife, Anne Grant of Baldwin, at the college. They married in 1951.

After Korea, Purcell earned a master’s degree at Shippensburg State College in Pennsylvania and studied at the Army War College.

In 1968, a helicopter in which he was a passenger was shot down near Quang Tri City, Vietnam, and Purcell and the crew were captured. He escaped and was recaptured twice, spending 58 of his 62 months in captivity in solitary confinement. He endured interrogations, starvation and beatings during his captivity.

Nix’s path crossed that of the Purcell family as he was settling his wife at Fort Benning before deploying to Vietnam.

“We came to find out Anne was on the street next to us, as she came over with a plate of cookies,” Nix said. “During the two weeks before I went to Vietnam, we visited frequently. It was hard on her, not knowing whether (her husband) was alive or dead, and with the five children.”

Purcell was reunited with his family on March 27, 1973. A sign above a storage building at the Purcell home bears the first words he spoke publicly following his release: “Man’s most precious possession, second only to life, is freedom.”

Four years later, Purcell finished his military career at NGC. His final assignment on active duty was professor of military science and commandant of cadets from 1977 until 1980. In 2012, the new formation plaza on the university’s Dahlonega campus was dedicated in honor of Purcell as the Col. Ben Purcell Formation Plaza.

Col. Rich Crotty of U.S. Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., was a cadet at North Georgia while Purcell was commandant.

“He groomed us for an Army career,” Crotty said. “He mentored us. He was a professional Army officer.”

Crotty said Purcell emphasized family, faith and love of country to the cadets at North Georgia.

“His experience in Vietnam really showed that,” Crotty said.

“He was a superb human being.”

Mike Hyams was dean of students at North Georgia while Purcell was commandant.

“We’ve lost a great American and a great leader,” Hyams said. “He had three real loves in his life: his family, his country and North Georgia College.

“He suffered and endured some things nobody can imagine, and he inspired many young men and women,” Hyams said.

“He was an outstanding gentleman and a great family man. It’s a loss to North Georgia College.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Purcell family.”

After his retirement, Purcell served as president of several civic organizations and one term as a director of the Habersham County Chamber of Commerce. He also represented the 9th District in the Georgia General Assembly from September 1993 until January 1997.

In the years after his release, Purcell and his wife wrote a book, “Love and Duty,” published by St. Martin’s Press in February 1992.

Purcell is survived by his wife, Anne. The couple has five children -- David, Debbie, Clifford, Sherri and Joy -- and numerous grandchildren.

Hillside Memorial Chapel in Clarkesville is handling arrangements. Visitation will be from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Friday at Hillside Memorial Chapel, 5495 Ga. 197 S., Clarkesville.

The funeral will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at Bethlehem Baptist Church, 624 Ga. 197 N., Clarkesville.


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