Mr. Speaker, this week I was honored to meet one of Texas’ heroes, Navy Lieutenant Michael Gene Penn, who served during the Vietnam War. He, like many in my district, lost his home and many priceless possessions during the disastrous flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey.
Last month my office was contacted by Lt. Penn’s brother-in-law, Ralph Massengill, asking if I could help replace the treasured medals and ribbons that were lost during Hurricane Harvey. In his heartfelt email, he expressed his desire to present the awards and medals to Lt. Penn in a shadow-box as a Christmas gift. He felt this would be the perfect gift, as Lt. Penn hopes to be back in his home by Christmas. I was honored to help fulfill his request.
Lt. Penn was born in Dallas, Texas on March 13, 1946. He attended the University of Texas at Arlington and graduated in August of 1969, all while working as a full-time police officer for the City of Fort Worth, Texas.
As a young boy, he would watch the fighter jets take off and land. He decided then that he wanted to be a pilot in the Navy. His dream was to land a jet on an aircraft carrier. And that he did.
Lt. Penn volunteered to serve in the Navy at a time when many people in our country were protesting our government and military; when the anti-war sentiment was high. The Vietnam War, also known as the second Indochina War, started on November 1, 1955 because of a conflict that pitted the Northern communist government of North Vietnam and its allies, against the government of South Vietnam and its principal ally, the United States. Of course, that didn’t deter him from enlisting. With his wife and family’s full support, he went to the Ft. Worth Naval Air Station and told them that he wanted to fly jets. The only obstacle in his way was he had to finish college.
So, after graduating college, he entered the Navy Jet Flight Training Program in August of 1969. He received his Wings a year and a half later. His first duty station as a Designated Naval Aviator was at the Naval Air Station in Lemoore, California, where he was assigned to Attack Squadron 56.
On April 10, 1972, he departed the Unites States on his first cruise via aircraft carrier, the USS Midway. Most cruises are six to nine months, but with the ongoing war, President Nixon extended his to 11 months. His squadron brought a total of 13 jets on their mission to Vietnam. Only one of the original 13 returned. He went through two jets, as did a couple of other pilots. Lt. Penn’s first aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire, which gave him limited control of the jet, forcing him to land on to the USS Midway’s barricade. His second aircraft was hit by a surface to air missile. Back in the day these aircrafts cost three million dollars apiece, and it was then that Lt. Penn became known as the six-million-dollar man.
Lt. Penn flew a total of 75 combat missions over Northern Vietnam. Mr. Speaker, imagine 75 take offs and landing from an aircraft carrier!
On his 75th mission, a SAM (surface-to-air) missile hit his A-7 Corsair II aircraft. He was shot down over Haiphong. He was forced to eject from the aircraft, suffering several broken bones. After being ejected, he deployed his parachute, which quickly became impaled by bullets from enemy fire. Seconds after he hit the ground, he found himself surrounded by the enemy. It was then, when a villager, about 10 feet away, began running at full speed with a knife in his hand towards Lt. Penn, in an attempt to kill him. Although Lt. Penn tried to dodge the attack, the villager cut the side of his neck open. A North Vietnamese Army soldier subdued the farmer and took Lt. Penn captive, using Penn’s own bootlaces to restrain his hands behind his back before taking him to the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
He was a prisoner of war (POW) at the brutal Hanoi Hilton for eight months. He lived in a 9x4 concrete cell. His meals consisted mostly of bread and water. The solitary lightbulb above him stayed on 24 hours a day. Twice he was given rice, which had roaches in it. In the beginning, the captives would pick the roaches out of their food, but after starving for so long, they eventually ate everything they were given.
After spending eight months in captivity, the war was over. He returned home on March 29, 1973, as part of the last group that was brought back during “Operation Homecoming”. 591 American POWs returned home during the operation. This was a direct result of an agreed ceasefire following the Paris Peace Accord, ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. For Lt. Penn, it wasn’t easy returning home. His son was six months old when he left, and was 1.5 years old when he returned. He didn’t know who he was. It didn’t take him long, thankfully. As he was getting to know his son, he was trying to acclimate to normal life. For the first three months he couldn’t sleep. Since he, like many other POW’s, slept on the floor in his concrete cell, it was some time before he was comfortable in his own bed.
Lt. Michael Gene Penn honorably served the United States Navy for 11 years. Nine years on active duty and two in the Navy Reserves. Lt. Penn’s military service was remarkable. When he came into my office, I presented him replacement medals for:
- The Distinguished Flying Cross (the second highest award next to the Congressional medal of honor) for his extraordinary achievement while participating in a heavy combat aerial flight in Southeast Asia,
- The Bronze Star with a combat V (for valor) for his heroic achievements and meritorious service in a combat zone,
- Two Purple Hearts for having been injured twice while serving our nation,
- The Air Medal, for an act of heroism and meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight,
- The Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with gold star and combat V (valor) for his sustained acts of heroism and meritorious service,
- The Combat Action Ribbon for his active participation in ground and surface combat,
- A Presidential Unit Citation for Gallantry, Determination, and Esprit de corps in accomplishing a mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions,
- The Prisoner of War Medal for his honorable service in the Armed Forces while being held against his will during the Vietnam War for eight months,
- The National Defense Service Medal for his military service during periods of national emergency or a periods designated by the Secretary of Defense,
- The Vietnam Service Medal for his service in the geographical theatre area of Vietnam from July 4, 1965 through March 28, 1973,
- An Honorable Discharge Button for his impeccable and admirable service in the United States Navy.
Lt. Penn resigned his commission from the Navy in 1978 and went to work for a commercial airline to fly 737s out of Houston, Texas. He quickly became the chief pilot, supervising over 700 other pilots. Today, he continues to serve the veteran community as a PTSD mentor and as a civilian inspirational speaker. He travels the world and tells his story of endurance and survival. His patriotic legacy of military service and giving back is one of the best examples of a remarkable generation in American history. Lt. Penn is a unique warrior that never renounced duty, honor or country. He was unbreakable. I asked him how he felt about his service, and he said, “It was an honor to serve under difficult circumstances. I’m glad to be back in one piece.” Always a humble man, he said to remember that, “It’s never a bad day as long as you have a door knob on your side of the door”.
Mr. Speaker, Hurricane Harvey took a lot from Texans. It destroyed many of our businesses, some of our historic landmarks, and 100,000 homes; and with it, it took many Texans’ valuable and sentimental belongings. It has been an honor to meet Lt. Penn and a pleasure to replace the medals that recognize his commendable military service and personal accomplishments. Lt. Penn is of the rare breed, the remarkable breed of an American Patriot.
And that’s just the way it is.