By Joe E. Milligan, Colonel, USAF, Retired
Air Force Colonel Joe Milligan became a prisoner of war in May 1967 after being shot down over North Vietnam while flying his 113th mission. He spent 2,101 days in captivity, enduring torture and extreme isolation. He wasn’t allowed to write home for the first few years and didn’t know if his family knew he was alive. Recently, Joe shared with us how SKIPPY® Peanut Butter played a small role in bringing some humor and hope to his time in captivity. Here is the story he told us.
On Valentine’s Day 1970, one of our guards came to my cell and brought me to the dreaded interrogation room. After three years in captivity, I knew that meant I was likely in for a lot of pain. But that day turned out different.
I’m very excited that, after 52 years, the real SKIPPY® finally got my Valentine!Joe E. Milligan, Colonel, USAF, Retired
The officer interrogating me asked if I knew the significance of that day’s date in America. I said yes, it was Valentine’s Day. To my surprise, he informed me that in honor of that “great American holiday” he would allow me to write a letter to my wife or sweetheart.
I knew that the North Vietnamese often used American POWs for propaganda purposes, so I was very suspicious of the offer. We were trained to resist. We tried not to show weakness and to only give our name, rank, serial number and date of birth. You had to be on your toes not to be taken advantage of. Thinking quickly, I told the interviewer that I would like to send a letter. I said that my sweetheart went by her initials PN and her last name was Butter, but I like to call her Skippy.
As a New Jersey farm boy, I always had a jar of SKIPPY®, and I had memorized their company address, which was then in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
When I was given the card, I wrote:
Dear SKIPPY, I love you, and I miss you very much. I have fond memories of our days dining together at the RITZ! And I hope we can once again share that experience together someday.
I told my fellow POWs the joke I played, and the story spread throughout the prison camp. Everyone got a good laugh. Boredom was one of our enemies during those years, and little acts of resistance and individual creativity kept us going.
Initially, I didn’t know if the letter went out. But, a few months later, when we were allowed to get our first care packages from our families, mine contained a jar of SKIPPY® Peanut Butter and a box of Ritz Crackers.
It would be hard to fully describe just how wonderful it was to open that package. There was no hidden communication in the jar of SKIPPY® or the crackers. (I did look very carefully.) But those simple gifts carried a powerful message. They meant that there were people outside the prison, people back home who cared enough for me to make this effort. That story spread through the camp too and raised everyone’s spirits.
After Operation Homecoming in 1973, I went back to the family dairy farm in New Jersey to visit my parents. I asked my mother if she ever saw the letter I had written “SKIPPY.” She said no, but then she told me a story.
One day, while I was in captivity, she was sitting on the farmhouse porch and shelling a basket of green beans when a big black government car drove up the farm lane. Two men in black suits and ties got out and approached the porch. They told her that when she got a chance to send a package to me in Hanoi through the Red Cross, it must include a jar of SKIPPY® and a box of Ritz crackers.
With no explanation, they got back in their car and drove away. “I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about,” my mother told me, “but I did what they said!”
To this day, I usually have two jars of SKIPPY® on hand. One on active duty and one in reserve in the cupboard. The taste still transports me to memories of my childhood. When I was a POW that was a welcome break from the daily experience of pain and misery — a long-distance connection between heart and home.
In honor of Joe and his late wife, Air Force Flight Nurse Mary Ann Milligan who also served in Vietnam, Hormel Foods is making a $14,000 donation to the AirPower Foundation. AirPower provides support to veterans, and active duty, reserve and National Guard families.