Aloha spirit helped Vietnam POW Gerald “Jerry” Coffee heal from the experience

When U.S. Navy Capt. Gerald “Jerry” Coffee and his family arrived on Oahu in 1976 he was still grappling with his seven years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, where he was a cellmate at the “Hanoi Hilton” with the late John McCain.

In Hawaii, the wartime reconnaissance pilot reconnected with his children and made friendships in the community that helped him come to terms with his POW experience. He eventually became a renowned public speaker, wrote a memoir, and even ran for public office.

Coffee died on Nov. 13 at the age of 83.

He lived in Hawaii for 45 years, but spent the last years of his life traveling between the islands and John Hopkins Medical Center in Maryland as he battled a series of ailments, including a neurological condition diagnosed more than 50 years after he suffered a severe concussion when shot down and captured in Vietnam.

He considered Hawaii his home, said Jerry Coffee Jr., a Hawaii social worker. He said his father left an impression, and that he often meets people who ask him about his name.

“In Hawaii in particular, anytime somebody hears my name they will just have nothing but beautiful admiration and loving, fond memories of the message that he delivered,” Jerry Coffee Jr. said.

His father hadn’t planned on a military career.

Born in Modesto, Calif., Jerry Coffee Sr. enjoyed drawing and earned a degree in Advertising Art from UCLA in 1957. But just days after graduating he got his draft notice.

He was commissioned in the Navy in 1959 and became a reconnaissance pilot. By 1962 he was one of a handful of Navy pilots flying missions out of Florida. Near the end of one mission on his way back to the Florida Keys he banked suddenly and deviated from his flight path after something caught his eye.

That something turned out to be short-range Soviet nuclear missiles — known as FROGS — and Coffee got the first photos. During
subsequent flights he and fellow pilots continued
gathering intelligence that went straight to President John F. Kennedy and his staff as they negotiated with the Soviet Union throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In 1966 — by that time a father of three with a fourth on the way — Coffee got orders to go to Vietnam.

On Feb. 3, 1966, his RA5-C Vigilante was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Coffee made a high-speed ejection and was seriously wounded. He was almost immediately captured. He recalled being dragged through hamlets and tortured on the way to Hoa Loa prison — his home for the next seven years and nine days.

Hoa Loa was built by French Colonial authorities who used it to imprison and torture Vietnamese dissidents, and was later repurposed by North Vietnamese communist authorities. The Americans called it the
“Hanoi Hilton.”

The prisoners developed a “tap code” to communicate through the walls and cell blocks. During his time at Hoa Loa, Coffee would become a cellmate of fellow Navy pilot and future U.S. senator John McCain. Coffee forged a lifelong friendship with McCain and fellow POWs.

When the U.S. government secured Coffee’s release in 1973 he was reunited with his family and finally met his youngest son, Jerry Coffee Jr. He then spent two years at the University of California, Berkeley pursuing a master’s degree in political science.

As he grappled with his POW experiences while at Berkeley, he saw a country around him awash with social and political upheaval. By the time the last helicopters left Saigon, public trust in the military was at historic lows and within the military itself commanders were dealing with a morale crisis.

After earning his degree, Coffee returned to operational duty and was assigned to what was then Naval Air Station Barbers Point. When the Coffee family arrived on Oahu, the second Hawaiian Renaissance was in full swing and activists were taking the Navy to court over live fire training on the island of Kahoolawe.

Jerry Coffee Jr. said that despite the politically charged climate, his father quickly made friends in the community.

“We were always invited to pound mochi on New Year’s Eve with local people and made friends with a lot of Hawaiian people on the Waianae Coast, and people just really took my dad and my family under their wing,” Jerry Coffee Jr. said. “That kind of recognition and acceptance that he felt here in Hawaii in those early days was super important for his healing.”

The family briefly moved back to the mainland so that Coffee could attend the National War College in Washington, D.C., but afterward Coffee requested an assignment that would take them back to Hawaii. Coffee began speaking at community groups around the state about his experience as a POW.

His message was that he wasn’t special and wasn’t a hero — that anyone could endure what he did if they learned to have faith. By the time he left the Navy he had become a full-time motivational speaker, addressing a wide range of community groups and corporate clients.

“I considered him a friend and a mentor when it came to public speaking. He was one of the best communicators I ever heard,” said former Gov. Linda Lingle. “I think he could lift anyone’s spirits with his tale of capture and torture in Vietnam, his survival, and his life well lived.”

Coffee was a staunch Republican for most of his life and ran for office in Hawaii at Lingle’s urging. In 2006, he ran for U.S. Senate, but pulled out of the race after having a heart attack; and later ran unsuccessfully in a tight race for a seat in the state House of Representatives.

Though he at times argued with friends in Hawaii about politics, those who knew him said he never made his disagreements personal and that he committed himself to community building through civic groups and churches.

“He was an inveterate communicator, in trying to get people to talk to each other, without animus, without being defensive and to really find common ground. That was who he was,” said Coffee’s widow, Susan Page. “You know, we get defensive, our ego gets in the way, but his ego never did. He just wanted people to come together.”

A Hawaii memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu, at Ko‘olau Ballrooms, in Kaneohe. The celebration of life will be livestreamed at

A service will also be held on the mainland Tuesday at the United States Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Md.

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