Benjamin Harrision Purcell Jr., 85: Former POW forgave captors

Ben Purcell did not hesitate to tell people about his faith in God.

That faith saw him through a life fraught with challenging situations, including the emotional strain of burying a 4-year-old daughter and, several years later, spending 62 months as a POW during the Vietnam War.

“It was his faith that allowed him to return to Vietnam and shake hands with one of his captors,” said his daughter. Joy Purcell, of Clarkesville. “He taught me an huge lesson in forgiveness that day.”

Even during the time of his captivity, Purcell, who was an U.S. Army colonel, harbored no ill will toward the men who imprisoned him, his daughter said.

“As difficult as that time was for him, he said [his captors] were just soldiers doing their duty, just like he was,” she said. “I think that is how he was able to come home and make so much of these last 40 years.”

Benjamin Harrision Purcell Jr., of Clarkesville, died Tuesday from complications of Alzheimer’s and dementia. He was 85. A funeral is planned for 2 p.m. on Saturday at Bethelehem Baptist Church in Clarkesville. Burial will follow at the Level Grove Baptist Church Cemetery, Cornelia. Hillside Memorial Chapel is in charge of arrangements.

Purcell turned 40 six days after his capture. He had been aboard a helicopter that was shot down outside of Quang Tri City on Feb. 8, 1968. He escaped twice and was recaptured both times, spending 58 of his 62 months in captivity in solitary confinement, according to historical accounts of his imprisonment. Purcell and 31 other Americans were released on March 27, 1973, two months after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, ending the war.

Prior to his service in Vietnam, Purcell participated in two combat tours in Korea. He became a career military man after his graduation from the former-North Georgia College in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He also earned a master’s degree in public administration from the former Shippensburg State College (now university). He also studied at the U.S. Army War College, his wife said.

He retired from the military in 1980. At the time, Purcell was a professor of military science at North Georgia.

“His was a life of service,” Anne Grant Purcell said of her husband. “From the military to our church to our family, he wanted to serve all of his life. And he did.”

The Purcells, who married in 1951, were parents to six children. The couple’s eldest daughter, Clarice, died in 1959, two weeks after Anne Purcell gave birth to their second son. The Purcells were stationed in France and Anne was in no condition fly back to the U.S. to bury their 4-year-old daughter.

“So he escorted my sister’s body home, back to Georgia, and had to bury her without mom,” Joy Purcell said. “I can’t imagine how lonely and emotional that trip was for him. So, Vietnam wasn’t the only hardship my parents had to endure.”

In 1993, Ben and Anne Purcell published their story, chronicling their lives while he was in the military. “Love and Duty” is written in alternating chapters, Joy Purcell said, to offer a perspective of both their lives.

“It is a testament to their love, faith and courage,” their daughter said. “They wanted to encourage others and let people know, no matter what the circumstance, there is a source of strength beyond yourself. And my dad knew that to be true with all of his heart.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Purcell is survived by daughters Debbie Purcell and Sherri Purcell, both of Clarkesville; sons David Purcell of Alexandria, Va., and Clifford Purcell of Winston-Salem, N.C.; brother Vernon T. Purcell; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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