POW tells story of survival

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Hailey Haux
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

When you first meet him, you would probably think he is just another veteran with an incredibly humorous attitude. However, after a few moments of talking and getting to know him, you find out there is much more to him than meets the eye.

While he is funny and charismatic, Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Paul Needham has been through a lot in his life and was willing to share his experience as a prisoner of war from November 1979 to January 1981 to a room full of anxious listeners here.

He was captured Nov. 4, 1979, by Iranian terrorists who took over the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, Iran.

"The 4th of November started out as a normal day for me," Needham said. "I was working in my office on the second floor, trying to write a letter to this auditor back in Los Angeles. At about 9 a.m., the Iranians came over the wall."

Needham explained what happened in the next couple hours at the embassy and how the U.S. ambassador told them to surrender.

"I didn't really want to surrender, so I went to the telecommunications vault in the embassy and locked myself away with nine other people," he said. "I was there shredding papers. The movie, 'Argo,' was about 80 percent accurate in what happened during that time."

Iranian children actually weaved most of the documents back together that Needham and the others had attempted to shred, he said.

"Being caught in the telecommunications vault, I was considered a spy and therefore treated like one," Needham said. "I didn't follow the rules about not antagonizing your captors very well. I did that once in a while. I needed those little uplifts now and then. I needed it for my own morale."

The first night in captivity, Needham was identified with nine other people, one of them being the CIA station chief. Needham said he knew he was in for "extra special" treatment.

"Feb. 4, 1980, these guys walked into the room,” he said. “Every time I saw these guys something bad happened. I took a deep breath and thought, 'This is not good.’

“We got lined up for a firing squad that night."

Spread out up against a wall, Needham said he was shaking uncontrollably and started reciting Psalms 23 to himself. He said he suddenly felt a calmness come over him and knew it was the presence of Christ and immediately stopped shaking. The Iranians chambered a round and took off the safety, yelled "fire" and ejected a round to scare them.

"My faith in God, my family and my country really helped me through my time in captivity," Needham said. "Knowing that God was with me gave me the strength to handle a lot more. The one thing that cannot be taken away is what is in your mind and your faith. That can never be taken away."

Counting in his head, beginning with day one in captivity, Needham said it was like counting to infinity. The unknown was difficult, and the Iranians were very good at playing with people's minds.

"It got depressing at times," he said. "We had to find the silliest things to laugh at sometimes, even something as simple as a cockroach. I tried to realize that I can't do anything to stop this, so somehow I need to get my act together and make it through one day at a time. Perhaps something will happen tomorrow. Maybe we will get released."

On Jan. 20, 1981, Needham was once again blindfolded and taken to a bus that took the group to a nearby airport. They got on an Algerian aircraft and were flown to Algeria, handed off and then taken to Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany.

"We had been released, and it was a sight I had never seen before,” Needham said. The moon was full and absolutely gorgeous. I thought, 'My God has provided this view for us to see, and I am so privileged to see it.'"

A piece of advice Needham said he would give to current POWs or those MIA would be to never give up hope. They are not forgotten. The U.S. has not forgotten and neither have their friends and family. Survive each and every day, and with God's help, they will get home.

Being able to tell his story to others was very cathartic to Needham, he said. He was able to tell the story instead of keeping it bottled up, and found there were groups to which he didn't mind talking. He said he felt like he was able to provide them some idea of how to survive and be resilient and, most of all, how to build up that inner strength everyone has in them.

"I thank the good Lord that we have the men and women in the military," Needham said. "I am very proud of the guys who tried to rescue us ... they tried. Odds were not on their side and there were people that thought a rescue attempt should never have been tried. I'm just glad that they tried and that we have people willing to do it against all odds at times."