Retired Army Col. Benjamin H. Purcell, a decorated war veteran and University of North Georgia alumnus, died Tuesday, April 2, at the age of 85.
Purcell graduated from then-North Georgia College in 1950 before he commissioned as a second lieutenant and served combat tours in both Korea and Vietnam.
“He was not only an outstanding cadet; he was an outstanding officer,” said retired Col. Ed Nix, who knew Purcell since they were both cadets, according to the Gainesville Times.
While in Vietnam, the helicopter in which Purcell was a passenger was shot down. Purcell, along with the rest of the crew, was captured, and he spent more than five years as a prisoner of war.
During his time as a POW, Purcell switched camps three times, escaped twice only to be recaptured, and spent 58 months in solitary confinement. He suffered torture, interrogation and starvation. Purcell was also the highest-ranking Army POW in Vietnam.
Purcell was released two months after the end of the Vietnam War and reunited with his family on March 27, 1973. His first public words following his release were, “Man’s most precious possession, second only to life, is freedom.”
Purcell received numerous awards during his military career, including the Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Purple Heart, the Parachutist Badge and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
Purcell received his master’s degree in public administration from Shippensburg State College in Pennsylvania and, after Vietnam, returned to North Georgia as a professor of military science and commandant of cadets from 1977 to 1980.
Purcell retired from the Army in 1980 after 30 years of service.
In 2012, the new formation plaza was named the COL Ben Purcell Formation Plaza, in honor of Purcell.
Col. Rich Crotty of U.S. Forces Command at Forth Bragg, N.C., was a cadet at North Georgia while Purcell was commandant, according to the Gainesville Times.
“He groomed us for an Army career,” Crotty said. “He mentored us. He was a professional Army officer.”
Purcell emphasized family, faith and love of country to the cadets of North Georgia, Crotty said.
A native of Clarkesville, Purcell met his wife, Anne Grant of Baldwin, at North Georgia College. They married in 1951.
Purcell is survived by his wife, Anne, five children—David, Debbie, Clifford, Sherri and Joy—and numerous grandchildren.
Funeral services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Clarkesville.