Charles G. Boyd, an Air Force fighter pilot who was held captive as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for nearly seven years, rose to the rank of four-star general and later forged a civilian career as an expert on homeland security and foreign policy, died March 23 in Haymarket, Virginia. He was 83.
His son, Dallas, said the cause was complications of lung cancer.
In 1966, Boyd, who was a captain at the time, volunteered for a dangerous mission in Vietnam — attacking surface-to-air missile sites around Hanoi. After repeated passes through enemy fire, his F-105D plane was hit and set ablaze. He had to eject, and, shortly after landing in a rice paddy, he was captured.
He spent the next 2,488 days enduring torture, isolation, malnutrition and interrogation in various squalid prisons, including the so-called Hanoi Hilton; for 18 months, he was imprisoned in a cell next to Navy flyer John McCain, who would go on to become a U.S. senator and presidential candidate.
But once Boyd was released in 1973, he was determined to focus on his future, not his past.
“This is behind me,” he told NBC News of his captivity. He said he did not want to “spend the rest of my life as a returned POW and be recognized for that and nothing else.”
He swiftly ascended in the Air Force chain of command, becoming the only former prisoner of war from the Vietnam War to achieve four-star rank. He also was director of plans on the Air Force staff and commander of the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. He finished his much-decorated 36-year Air Force career as deputy commander in chief of U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, where he helped oversee the drawdown of forces at the end of the Cold War.
After he retired from the Air Force in 1995, he took on several civilian roles that built on his expertise in homeland security and foreign policy.
Among the most notable was his tenure as executive director of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, also known as the Hart-Rudman Commission, headed by former Sens. Gary Hart and Warren Rudman. Barely eight months before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the commission warned — in a report that was largely ignored — that the gravest threat to the United States was the likelihood that a terrorist attack would take place on U.S. soil and would kill large numbers of people.
The panel put forth a blueprint for the creation of a government entity that was similar to what would become, after the attacks, the Department of Homeland Security.
On Sept. 12, 2001, The Washington Post published an opinion essay by Boyd in which he wrote, “While we may feel at the moment as though we are in a trance, we are, in fact, awakening.”
His prescience made him what one Washington group later called “one of the intellectual pioneers of homeland security.”
Charles Graham Boyd was born April 15, 1938, on his family’s farm outside Rockwell City, Iowa. His father, Henry Graham Boyd, ran a corn, soy and dairy farm. His mother, Vernal (Staton) Boyd, was a homemaker.
Chuck, as he was called, was not enamored of farm work. He was much keener on airplanes and, at the age of 7, cajoled his father into buying him a 15-minute ride in a crop-duster.
“From that moment on there was no turning back,” Boyd said in a 2019 oral history interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies & Training. “My single, undeviating dream was to fly.”
He enrolled at Baylor University in Texas in 1956 and stayed for two years until he learned about the Air Force’s Aviation Cadet Training Program, which did not require a college degree. He joined in 1959, graduated the next year as a second lieutenant with pilot wings and entered the Air Force in 1961.
By 1965, he was running bombing missions from Thailand to North Vietnam and Laos. On April 22, 1966, he undertook the mission that would earn him the Air Force Cross, the branch’s second-highest military decoration after the Medal of Honor.
While attacking a surface-to-air missile site, he evaded two missiles that streaked toward his aircraft.
“As he made a second pass through the intense flak which filled the sky around him, Captain Boyd’s aircraft received a direct hit by anti-aircraft fire,” according to his citation for the Air Force Cross. The citation went on to cite his “extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship and aggressiveness in the face of hostile forces.”
While captive, he was a model of “impenetrable resistance” to the enemy, according to assessments by his superior officers. “He is a high-level deep thinker,” Lt. Col. Elmo Baker wrote, adding, “Because of his superior ability to memorize long lists of classified material, he served as a memory bank.” At the same time, he helped his cellmates maintain morale.
By his own admission in the oral history, he had been a hard-drinking hotshot fighter pilot with a wild streak before he was captured. While in prison, he vowed that when he returned home to his wife, Millicent (Sample) Boyd, a schoolteacher he had married in 1960, he would be “a different and better man.”
The day after his release, they renewed their wedding vows. He said their marriage “remained solid” until 1994, when she died of cancer.
Because he was malnourished while in captivity, Boyd’s eyesight was damaged and he could no longer fly for the military, although he flew private aircraft for many years.
Still, the Air Force wanted to keep him and said it would send him to college. He chose the University of Kansas, where he majored in Latin American studies. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1975 and his master’s in 1976. He then rose through the Air Force ranks, serving at the Pentagon and in increasingly high-level posts around the world. He was made a four-star general in 1992.
After he retired from the Air Force, he was invited by Newt Gingrich, who had just engineered the first takeover of the House of Representatives by Republicans in 40 years and become speaker, to help him implement his strategic vision.
In 1998, Gingrich and President Bill Clinton created the Hart-Rudman Commission to examine the nation’s security apparatus in a comprehensive way for the first time since 1947. Boyd, the commission’s executive director, said in the oral history that had its report been taken seriously earlier in 2001, “we would have had at least an even chance of preventing the disaster that befell us on 9/11.”
He later became president and CEO of Business Executives for National Security, a nonprofit organization through which top business leaders, including Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Fred Smith of FedEx and Hank Greenberg of AIG, offered their expertise to help improve efficiencies at the Pentagon and in homeland security.
In 2002, as President George W. Bush prepared to invade Iraq, Boyd and Jessica Mathews, then president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foreign policy research group in Washington, put forth an alternative to war. They proposed what they called coercive inspections, in which United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq would be backed up by a U.S.-led multinational inspections implementation force. These inspectors would demand compliance by Iraq “or else,” which could include pursuing a policy of regime change. The United States ultimately did invade Iraq, but their proposal was discussed at the highest levels in Washington.
Over the years, Boyd tended to stay out of electoral politics, quietly backing Republicans. But in 2020 he signed a letter, along with nearly 500 other military and civilian leaders, saying he was supporting Joe Biden for president over President Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump’s assault on the rule of law that makes a democracy possible has been so egregious I’ve decided to speak out,” he said in a video on Twitter.
Boyd and Mathews married in 2005. She survives him. In addition to his son, Boyd, who lived on a farm outside Marshall, Virginia, is also survived by a daughter, Jessica Van Tillborg; four granddaughters; and his sister, Shirlee Bouch.