The museum hosted a local observance of National POW/MIA Recognition Day, complete with a bagpipe rendition of "Taps" and a flyover by two F-16s from Eglin Air Force Base.

EGLIN AFB — Flying a C-130 gunship along the Ho Chi Min Trail during the Vietnam War, now-retired Air Force Maj. Ken Leone and his aircrew had to be careful where they were firing.

The trail connecting North Vietnam and South Vietnam, meandering through Laos and Cambodia, was a vital North Vietnamese supply line. To protect trucks stopped along the trail, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong personnel would place American POWs, secured in bamboo cages, next to the vehicles — knowing that American aircrews would not fire on the trucks.

"Knowing that they were there, that was very upsetting," Leone told the dozens of people gathered for Thursday's National POW/MIA Recognition Day at the Air Force Armament Museum. The annual observance honors prisoners of war and military personnel who remain missing in action.

"That, to this day, is why I have this on the back of my vehicle," Leone said, holding up the well-known stark black-and-white POW/MIA remembrance decal featuring a POW, a guard tower and a strand of barbed wire.  

Leone, whose work in Vietnam also included flights into North Vietnam for POW exchanges as the war wound down, also told the story of two downed American flyers whose situation was broadcast over military radios for three days before at least one of the men apparently made the decision to fight to the death rather than be taken as a POW.

The radio transmissions began with five words — "Beeper, beeper, come up voice" — which let the downed flyers know that their distress signal had been heard and they could begin talking on their radios. For the next three days, Leone said, he and others listening in could monitor the situation on the ground.

On the third night, Leone said, one of the men was faced with "a horrific decision" as North Vietnamese troops closed in on his position.

"I can see them coming, a few yards away," Leone remembered the man saying. And then, before the radio went dead, the downed flyer's last words were, "They're not going to take me."

"Just put yourself in that situation, and think about what you would have done," Leone, still shaken at the memory, asked the crowd at the Armament Museum, which included former POWs, POW families, Purple Heart recipients and people paying their respects on the day of remembrance.

"I'm just churning inside, thinking about these situations in this much detail again," Leone confessed.

Thursday's observance also included the Eglin Air Force Base Honor Guard presiding over an empty table, featuring place settings capped by hats from each of the U.S. military services, to recall those taken prisoner or missing in action. Also participating in the local observance were Niceville High School's Opus One Chorus, the Niceville High School and Crestview High School Junior ROTC units, Eglin's 96th Communications Squadron and 96th Security Forces Squadron and the Patriot Guard motorcycle group.

The event included a bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace" by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Leslie Matheson, and a flyover of two F-16s from Eglin's 96th Test Wing.

Among the people attending the National POW/MIA Recognition Day observance at the Armament Museum were Marine Corps veteran David Borders and his wife, Margo.

"It's very patriotic to realize what they've been through," David Borders said as he and his wife waited for a wreath-laying ceremony outside the museum.

Moments before, the couple had walked through a cordon of Patriot Guard members holding American flags, which for Margo Borders added a special dimension to the observance.

"It gives you a lump in your throat," she said.