WASHINGTON — Kenneth L. Coskey, a retired Navy captain and aircraft pilot who served five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, died June 29 at the Avalon assisted living facility in McLean, Va., where he had resided for the last four months. He was 83.
He had Alzheimer’s disease, his wife, Rosemary Coskey, said.
According to the Naval Historical Foundation, a nonprofit group he once helped lead, then-Cmdr. Coskey was flying a night reconnaissance mission off the aircraft carrier America on Sept. 6, 1968, when his A-6A Intruder was shot down over North Vietnam and crashed on an island in the Song Ca River, southeast of the city of Vinh.
He ejected from the aircraft before it crashed and landed in thick brush, twisting a knee. His bombardier-navigator was rescued by a U.S. helicopter, but Coskey was captured by the North Vietnamese.
He later told the Baltimore Sun that he had a broken kneecap and was beaten by villagers before being driven in the back of a truck to Hanoi and imprisoned. He spent a year and a half in solitary confinement.
“I was hungry more than anything and lonely,” he told the Sun in 1997, “but mostly hungry.” He grimly called himself a “junior member” of the captives he met. Floyd Thompson, who spent nine years as a prisoner in Vietnam, is widely acknowledged as the longest-serving American prisoner of war.
Coskey was released with 590 other Americans in Operation Homecoming in the spring of 1973.
He returned to Navy duty and retired in 1982 as deputy director of the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard. From 1987 to 1999, he was executive director of the Naval Historical Foundation. He lived in Arlington, Va.
Kenneth Leon Coskey was born in Detroit on Dec. 26, 1929. He began his Navy career in 1951 and received a bachelor’s degree in 1965 from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and a master’s degree in business administration from George Washington University in 1975, following his release as a POW.
He was a Navy pilot in the first half of his career, serving in Florida and California. Later assignments included service as the Defense Department’s representative to the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia and command of the Navy ROTC program at Northwestern University in Illinois.
His first wife, Donna Harris Coskey, whom he married in 1954, died in 1985. Their daughter, Carolyn Brack, died in January.
Survivors include his wife of 27 years, Rosemary Backus Spitzen Coskey of Arlington; a son from his first marriage, Kenneth E. Coskey of Centreville, Va.; and a granddaughter.
Coskey’s decorations included the Legion of Merit with combat “V,” three Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
According to the citation for the third Bronze Star, during the years when he was a POW, Coskey, “through his ceaseless efforts, in an atmosphere of enemy harassment, threat of torture and brutal treatment . . . established and maintained intracamp communications.”
“At great risk and in spite of further cruelty,” it said, “he continued to devise many unusual and ingenious methods in communications, resulting in American and Allied prisoners resisting the enemy’s demands and at the same time improving the prisoners’ morale.”
Rosemary Coskey said her husband told her that tapping on walls in code, spitting, coughing and clearing of throats were among the means of communication in the POW camps. “They were told they’d be tortured if they did it, but they did it anyway,” she said.