Five years ago I wrote “Jack, Will You Sing Again?” — a story about Col. Jack Tomes, a POW for six and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton, a notorious camp for POWs in Vietnam known for its brutal treatment of American prisoners. Spence Field brought Jack to Moultrie in the 1950s. His beautiful baritone voice got the attention of Miss Neta Belle Scarborough, minister of music at Trinity Baptist at that time, who once gave him the lead solo in “The Seven Last Words of Christ.”

Ignoring the rules of the prison, Jack broke the silence on Christmas Eve by singing “Silent Night, Holy Night/ All is Calm, All is Bright …” The guards came and beat him unmercifully. The next year, Jack found the courage to sing again. This time, other prisoners joined him. Jack’s courage and spirit had become infectious. The camp guards were caught unprepared by such a large number of defiant prisoners. So many sang that the Viet Cong chose to do nothing. They let them sing.

Jack died several years ago but his witness still lives on. (And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead. Heb. 11:4 NIV)

Recently, Jack’s brother Bob was doing some Internet research on his brother and he came across my article. He was stunned by the find. The story about his brother was one he’d never heard. His sister, Jo Smith, from Phoenix, Ariz., traced me down. She also found Mel Henderson, a military companion of Jack’s at Spence Field, a man who kept up with Jack after he returned from Vietnam. They met at several military reunions through the years. Mel came to Moultrie several years ago and shared the story with me, which Jack had shared with him at one of their military reunions. At the end of my story, I referenced that Mel was my source. After Bob’s Internet find, the story was circulated among family members until one relative recalled Jack sharing such a story years ago.

Jo said it wasn’t surprising that the story wasn’t common knowledge because Jack didn’t like talking about those years of incarceration. In fact, she said, Jack was surprised at the amount of interest people had in POWs. He did on occasion share bits and pieces of those difficult years in public speeches. His sister, Jo, sent me a transcript of a message Jack delivered to the First Southern Baptist Church of Long Beach, Calif., on April 7, 1974. Here are a few excerpts.

“Psychological or emotional, the mental part of it is something else to describe. I’m talking about the frustration of loneliness, sometimes sheer boredom, the thought of having to go to interrogation, not knowing when you were going to go, wondering whether you would be physically tortured, abused, thinking of what you could be physically tortured for, which was the slightest of many regulations. …

“I think I can break it down to one guiding factor, the thing that lets a person endure these things, and that is simply — faith. Just faith, all these things can be overcome by faith. We don’t have enough faith; none of us do! We’re still seeking more. This is the one thing that helps overcome many problems, a deep abiding faith.

“I recall when I was a lieutenant; we had to give a certain amount of study to various subjects . … We were discussing codes, identifying certain characteristics which prisoners of previous conflicts might have had, such as political prisoners. We arrived at the conclusion, a simple basic faith, not only in oneself, but in one’s country, in your family, and in God. You simply had to have that faith to survive.”

Tomes spoke about how the interrogators attempted to undermine the prisoner’s faith and break it down. He said the prisoners consciously or unconsciously tried to do those things that would increase their faith, even little things like tapping out “GBU” that stood for “God Bless You” at the end of every one of their secret communication codes.

He mentioned the one time in 1970, four years into his incarceration, that they were allowed to have a Bible for just a few hours. They copied parts of the Bible on the brown paper they used for toilet paper. One passage that was copied was the Sermon on the Mount, which Jack later put to memory.

The one verse that stood out for him was Matthew 6:34, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (KJV)

Quoting that verse to the church family in California back in 1974 led Jack to use his baritone voice to sing again: “I Don’t Know Who Holds Tomorrow/ I Just Know Who Holds My Hand.”

The same God who held this POW’s hand through the psychological, emotional, mental, physical and spiritual battles of six and a half years of incarceration in the worst imaginable conditions is the same God who will hold your hand through whatever difficulties you experience today and whatever ones await you tomorrow. Remember Jack’s words: “You simply had to have that faith to survive.”

The writer of Hebrews agrees: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Heb. 11:6 (NIV).



The Rev. Michael Helms is pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie.

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