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Retired Col. Ben Purcell, highest ranking Army POW during Vietnam War, dies at 85

Retired Col. Benjamin Purcell, the highest ranking Army POW during the Vietnam War, died on Tuesday. He was 85.

After serving a combat tour in Korea, Purcell volunteered for a tour in Vietnam.

In early 1968, the helicopter he was riding in was shot down near Quang Tri City. He and the crew were captured - and at least one of the American soldiers was executed on the spot.

Purcell was taken as a prisoner of war by the Viet Cong and spent the next 1,874 days as a POW in Laos - more than 5 years. During that time he escaped twice, but both times was recaptured. He spent much of his time in captivity in solitary confinement, enduring starvation and beatings.

Purcell was released two months after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, and was finally reunited with his family in late March, 1973.

The first words Purcell spoke publicly following his release were reportedly, "Man's most precious possession, second only to life, is freedom."

Purcell and his wife, Anne, later wrote a book together about how they endured those long years apart, called "Love and Duty."

After leaving the service in 1980, Purcell ran a Christmas tree farm, because, as Stars & Stripes reported in 2004, after spending so much time in the Army he wanted to be his own boss.

Purcell's funeral is scheduled for Saturday, in Clarkesville, Ga.