WEST LIBERTY – Paul Kari was serving as an Air Force fighter pilot when he was shot down over North Vietnam on June 20, 1965. He spent seven years and eight months as a prisoner of war, which was approximately half the time he was in the military. Today he lives in West Liberty on a farm, which he says will be his last despite his career restoring 26 farms over the last 40 years.
Kari signed copies of his memoir “A Strength to Endure” Nov. 24 at the West Liberty Town Hall.
“I wrote it two years ago,” he said. “It’s a memoir, the story of my life. I sold the first thousand in three weeks and the second thousand a month later at six weeks. Hadn’t had any for two years, finally decided to order 3,000. Now one of my missions is to give some away and sell some … I thought I could have a book signing.”
Kari notes that the signing was on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the day before his 82nd birthday. All proceeds from this event went to the West Liberty Historical Society to restore the second floor opera house in the Town Hall.
“It’s about my whole life. Probably a little more than a third of it is about the military,” he said of the book. “We alternated the chapters, the first chapter for example is the day I got shot down, and the next chapter is growing up on a farm in Medina County, and then the third chapter is back to the military, and flip flop. Many, many dozens of people have told me that because of that they had a difficult time putting the book down.”
Prisoner of war
During his time as a POW, Kari said, he was moved 26 times in and around Hanoi and spent years in solitary confinement off and on. There were 662 total POWs and he was the 12th one captured, which also meant he was the 12th one released on Feb. 12, 1973.
“Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with the Vietnamese in Paris and they came up with the Paris Peace Accords,” Kari said. “They argued for three years over the shape of the table and finally settled with a round one. The Vietnamese wanted a rectangle where they were on one end and the U.S. was on the other, where they were equal partners to the U.S. and we wouldn’t agree to that. So we sat there for three more years and rotted. And then Nixon bombed a one-mile-wide swath right through their capital of Hanoi in December of ‘72, and they decided it was OK to talk.
“Homecoming was wonderful,” he said. “The first landing was at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and we had thousands of people cheering us. The POWs were treated very, very well, unlike the typical GI coming home. They were spit on and cursed and called baby-killers and everything; it was very unfortunate.”
Kari said the torture was the worst part of being a POW, along with food and sleep deprivation, but that the isolation alone wasn’t as bothersome to him.
“First you think about how you can try to beat the enemy, but you’re at a disadvantage because they’re the ones with the gun,” he said. “Then you try to escape if you can; I tried the first night but got caught. In my case, I was raised on a farm where we had nothing to read or write with so you just did it all in your head. I tried to set up the perfect livestock feeding operation, something that would be minimum labor and maximum return. I got tired of that so I started designing houses, what I would like, and this house is kind of a result of that because of how open it is. I learned French, German and Spanish in prison from another POW. You thought about what you’d do when you came home, spend more time with your family. Life’s more precious than you think.
“It doesn’t bother me to talk,” he added, “but when I think about it a week before if I’m trying to get some thoughts I can’t sleep, so I guess it does bother me subconsciously.”
During his imprisonment Kari tore his shoulder and acquired vision problems, which are among the 13 health issues the Air Force said he had when he retired. He returned home as a major, then pleaded his case before the Secretary of the Air Force to let him stay in until he made Lt. Col., even though he knew he wasn’t fit for worldwide duty. Then, 16 years and three months after receiving his commission, Kari retired from the Air Force and went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration for the next eight years.
During his career with the FAA he moved from Washington, D.C., to Denver, then to Seattle before deciding that he no longer enjoyed the work. Instead, he returned to his hometown of Spencer, Ohio, and cleaned up an old farm that he describes as a disaster when he bought it. After selling it for a profit he bought another, more expensive farm, and continued cleaning up farms until a year ago when he moved from Bloomington, Ohio, to West Liberty.
“I love the area and plan on settling down here and retiring,” he said. “The people here in West Liberty – this whole area – have accepted me better than anywhere else I’ve been. I’ve cleaned so many farms up in Colorado, Nebraska and all over Ohio. They just love me more than anywhere else and it’s really a nice feeling. I just wanted to give back to the community by doing this book signing and giving them all the proceeds.”
Kari is a lifetime member of both the American Legion post in West Liberty and the VFW in Urbana. He continues to speak where he is invited. He attends Grace Baptist Church in Urbana, largely, he said, because he loves the pastor and the other people who go there.
“When I came home a lot of people wanted me to speak, and I’d spoken hundreds of time, and every time at the end people would ask when I’m going to write a book,” he said. “I said I’ll write a book when I can figure out how to give God the glory for getting me through that hellhole, and not to pat myself on the back for what I accomplished, and finally figured out how to do that a couple years ago.”
He now lives alone, but has a son who is a veterinarian currently residing in Bolivia and three daughters with similarly impressive academic accomplishments. His grandson is graduating from college the week after he turns 18. Kari says he is blessed to have such intelligent children.
“The three most important decisions you’ll ever make in life are 1) the relationship you have with God, 2) the vocation that you will choose that will pay your bills and raise your family. Whatever you do in a vocation, find your passion and get a job that fulfills your passion, don’t worry about the money. The money will come if you’re really good, and you will enjoy going to work instead of hating it. And 3) is the mate that you will choose to spend the rest of your life with, who will be the mother to your children. I can tell you in a couple minutes how to find one better than you will find if you date for two years, and that is if she likes her father she will like you, if she hates her father you are an extension. And if she does love her dad then find out what she thinks of her brother.
“Furthermore, I’ve hired a lot of people and I tell them work starts at 8, and you’ve got to be here 10-15 minutes early. If you’re here right at 8 you’re already 10-15 minutes late,” he said. “If you’re there 15 minutes early you’re already better than 90 percent of the people that they hire.”
Christopher Selmek can be reached at 937-508-2304