“I sometimes think of home and Western Kentucky University and possible retirement there.” So wrote Major Kenneth R. Fleenor (1929-2010), a Bowling Green native and 1952 WKU graduate, in a letter to his wife and five children in Hampton, Virginia. Four years earlier, on December 17, 1967, the Air Force pilot had been shot down during a combat mission over North Vietnam, seized by a mob, then beaten, tortured and starved almost to death. After spending a few weeks at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison, he had been transferred to a nearby facility nicknamed “the Zoo,” where he would spend more than five years as a prisoner of war. When Fleenor was finally released and returned to the U.S. on March 14, 1973, he was 30 pounds underweight and permanently damaged by the physical abuse he had endured.
But Fleenor’s priority on returning, he wrote, was “strictly on reestablishing myself as husband and father to my wife and kids, and to reintegrating myself into the Air Force as an Air Force officer.” This he did, serving at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas until his retirement. He never moved back to Bowling Green, but came home to WKU on April 15, 1973, when the University celebrated “Ken Fleenor Day.” After retiring, Fleenor went into business and held various public service positions, including mayor of Selma, Texas from 1987-1994.
The Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library was honored last year when Fleenor’s family donated a collection of correspondence, artifacts, photos, videos and other records focusing on his military career, and in particular on his years as a prisoner in North Vietnam. Included are letters between Fleenor (who often signed “Love, love, love Ken”), his wife Anne, his children and other family members, written over the years as they tried to support each other, manage their lives, and look forward to his freedom. Some of the letters bear the markings of North Vietnamese censors; one of them duly noted, perhaps for propaganda purposes, a correspondent’s hopes “for an end to this terrible War.”
Click here to download a finding aid for the Kenneth Fleenor Collection and to read some of his and his family’s extraordinary letters. For other collections about the Vietnam War, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.