Luis Chirichigno and Diane Megargle were years, worlds and thousands of miles apart, but a metal bracelet connected her to him for decades.
While living in Berkeley, California, in the 1970s, Megargle bought a bracelet engraved with Chirichigno’s name, rank, military branch, and date and location of loss.
Chirichigno, an Army captain and Cobra helicopter pilot, was shot down during a reconnaissance mission in South Vietnam and taken as a prisoner in November 1969.
Megargle didn’t agree with the war, but she supported the soldiers who went.
“I wanted to show my appreciation in some way,” Megargle said. “I bought the bracelet and wore it for several years.”
For three years and four months, Chirichigno, now 80, was held as a prisoner of war. He spent the better part of a year on his back locked in a bamboo cage with his feet in stocks.
When he was released from the cage, Chirichigno was walked up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to Hanoi and spent the remaining time of his captivity in the “Hanoi Hilton,” the notorious camp for prisoners of war.
During that time, Megargle raised her two children in California. Years passed, and the bracelet ended up in a drawer.
Megargle didn’t know whether the soldier named on her bracelet had left Vietnam, whether alive or in a flag-draped casket.
“I didn’t have internet then,” Megargle said. “I didn’t know how to find out if he came back from war. I just hoped.”
About six months ago, a military organization toured a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Megargle lives with her husband. She looked for Chirichigno’s name on the wall but couldn’t find it.
“I thought if he’s not there, maybe that means he’s home,” she said.
She went back to the bracelet and researched the veteran online. She and her husband, Craig, found out he lived in North Naples. They found an article mentioning Chirichigno had donated his pink-striped POW uniform and Ho Chi Minh sandals to a military museum in Punta Gorda about 10 years ago.
The museum didn’t have the veteran’s contact information, but the couple reached out to Don Moore, a former journalist who previously wrote about Chirichigno and operates War Tales, a website that profiles veterans and their service stories.
Moore got the couple a phone number, and they reached out. The pair planned to visit a friend living on Marco Island and asked the veteran whether they could meet him.
“My husband talked to him. I thought I’d get too emotional,” Megargle said. “We told Luis we had his bracelet and wanted to give it to him.”
At Luis and Maria Chirichigno’s home in North Naples earlier this month, Megargle handed him the silver bracelet. He hugged her, and she held back tears.
His life and military career
The Megargles sat a while and listened to the stories about his life and military career.
He moved to the United States from Peru in 1959 and spent a year and a half at the University of Miami on a swimming scholarship before enlisting and leaving for his first Vietnam tour with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1960 to 1963.
When he came back home, he attended the University of Alabama, majored in electrical engineering and was a member of the varsity swimming and football teams.
He returned to active duty in 1966. After earning his master parachutist wings, attending Ranger and Pathfinder school, returning to Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces Group for a year and returning to the U.S. for flight school, he went back to Vietnam as a helicopter pilot with B Troop, 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry.
Helicopter shot down
During the 1969 recon mission, Chirichigno piloted one of two Cobra helicopters above two low-observation helicopters 8 miles south of Duc Lap, South Vietnam. The low-flying choppers were supposed to draw enemy fire, then fly off so the Cobras could strike.
The smaller helicopters drew heavy fire and crashed in a hilly area. The two Cobras fired along a tree line and tried to protect the four crew members on the ground.
Enemy combatants shot down Chirichigno’s attack helicopter. He suffered serious injuries to his hands; he lost the middle finger of his right hand and a knuckle of his left. He broke bones in his left hand and right arm.
His crew members separated to try to wave down other infantry helicopters. One man was badly burned after the crash landing and later died of his injuries.
When Chirichigno heard the nearby voices of enemy fighters, he hid in a ditch and covered himself with elephant grass. He slid in and out of consciousness from the pain of his injuries, Chirichigno remembered. At some point the next day, he was taken prisoner.
He remembers walking. And walking. And walking.
Locked in a cage
Chirichigno and some other captured crew members were taken to a prisoner camp in Cambodia and locked in cages.
Inside that bamboo cage, there wasn’t much to do other than sleep and think. He created an entirely different life for himself in his head to keep sane.
“In my mind, I became a millionaire,” Chirichigno said. “I bought a house, and then I would get more money from the bank and buy another house. A lot of houses to try to keep my mind busy.”
Chirichigno was imprisoned in a one-man cage, but about a dozen men were held in a nearby cage.
One man died because he refused to eat. An imprisoned private-first-class suffered from dysentery. Their captors made Chirichigno clean up after the private when the man became ill. Cleaning up human waste was supposed to be demeaning for Chirichigno because he was of a higher rank.
“What they didn’t realize was I looked forward to it,” he said. “It was the only human contact we were allowed. I could actually talk to someone.”
Another source of comfort came from a rat that would join Chirichigno in his cage when the captors brought out his meal of root soup and bread.
“It became my friend,” Chirichigno said. “At night, it used to sleep by my feet. Finally, a guard saw it. That was the end of the rat.”
Chirichigno spent the last several months of his captivity in the “Hanoi Hilton.” Rumors circulated throughout the camp that the prisoners would soon be released. He was among the last group of soldiers rescued from the camp, he said.
He and the remaining men boarded a bus that shuttled them to an airport. They couldn’t believe they were going home even after seeing the C-141 plane land to pick them up.
An Air Force captain escorted Chirichigno onto the plane. Both men cried and embraced.
“He said to me, ‘I can’t believe it. I’m holding you,’ ” Chirichigno said.
When the plane took off, he asked the Air Force captain to pinch him, but it wasn’t a dream.
When Chirichigno returned stateside, he spent a few years in and out of hospitals to receive treatment for his injuries. He met then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who Chirichigno said helped him get a job with the federal government.
He spent 30 years working for the State Department before retiring. He now lives in North Naples with his wife, Maria.
Megargle said she could never have thought the soldier whose name was engraved on her bracelet all those years ago would have the tales to tell that Chirichigno did.
“It was the strength of the man and what he went through that amazes me,” Megargle said.
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