Alderson’s Gail Mason Kerns, survivor of the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ passes away at age 77

By Autumn Shelton, RealWV

 With the passing of Staff Sergeant Gail Mason Kerns, West Virginia has lost one of its most iconic residents. Kerns passed away on May 10 at Rainelle Healthcare Center in Greenbrier County. He was 77.

Kerns became inadvertently famous in 1973 after a photo was taken of him kissing the ground at Andrews Air Force Base. He had just returned home from Vietnam – where he had been a prisoner of war for four years, from March 27, 1969 – March 5, 1973. 

His story is one that will always stay with me. 

When I first started out as a news reporter some 15 years ago, I loved writing feature articles about people, and I still do. One day, a friend told me about Gail, who lived in Alderson. After hearing a little about his story, I knew I had to meet him. After making all the necessary plans, I drove to his home, not realizing the impact or the importance of whom I was going to meet. 

I remember having a seat in his living room as he began to tell me about his background, and the injuries he sustained in the war. Those injuries were serious, both mentally and physically.

Kerns had been shot in his head prior to being captured, and he was placed in a small cage with other prisoners of war, who took the best care they could of him when he needed help the most. 

He couldn’t walk or talk for months, his wound received little treatment, and he wasn’t provided with adequate food. 

At some point, Kerns and his fellow soldiers were moved to the infamous Hanoi Hilton. 

He discussed how he was so happy to finally be back on American soil, after years of captivity, that he kissed the ground the moment he stepped off the plane. A photographer was present and captured the moment. Kerns said he never dreamed that photo would become as well-known as it has.

Even though Kerns had obvious physical impairments, he got around pretty well. At least he did that day I met him. He was a kind person, especially to a young reporter who sat on his couch crying as he told his story. 

I remember him gently handing me a box of tissues as I wiped away the seemingly never-ending stream of tears from my face – apologizing every few minutes for not being very professional. He said he didn’t care. He knew it was a tough story to hear. 

Kerns’ obituary states that, following his medical retirement from service, he was awarded a Bronze Star with a V-Device and Oak Leaf Cluster, and a Purple Heart with First Oak Leaf Cluster. Services are scheduled for Thursday, and he will later be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

I hope many West Virginians will take the time today to learn more about Kerns and his service. A great place to start is an article published in The Inter-Mountain newspaper, which is where I first read of Kerns’ passing. 

Also, it might be worth considering making a donation to a local VFW in lieu of flowers, as Kerns’ obituary asks. 

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