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Former POW Kerns passes away at age 77

By Edgar Kelley, The Inter-Mountain

ALDERSON, W.Va. — A former Vietnam POW from Randolph County — who became famous for kissing the ground at Andrews Air Force Base upon his return to the United States — passed away Friday.

Staff Sgt. Gail Mason Kerns, 77, died of natural causes at the Rainelle Healthcare Center, where he had been living for the past two years, according to his sister, Vesta Vandevender. 

“Gail was in a nursing home when he passed away,” Vandevender told The Inter-Mountain Monday. “He had been at the home for the past couple years and we learned that he passed away because of some heart trouble that he had.”

Kerns was a prisoner of war for nearly four years during the Vietnam War.

He was shot on the left side of his head when he and his fellow soldiers were ambushed March 27, 1969, on a reconnaissance mission in a remote region of South Vietnam, near the Cambodian border. He survived 1,439 days as a prisoner of war. 

“He was paralyzed on his right side after he was shot,” Vandevender said. “He had told us that other POWs had carried him for 500 miles on a stretcher when they would move from one POW camp to another.”

Kerns returned to the U.S. on March 5, 1973 as part of “Operation Homecoming.” Kerns insisted on walking off the aircraft when he arrived, and with the assistance of two nurses, he descended the ramp and captured the attention of the nation when he bent down and kissed the American soil.

Elkins resident John Lothes, who was involved in bringing Kerns and another POW, Joseph Rose of Morgantown, home from Hanoi, Vietnam, remembers the day Kerns walked off the plane.

“I went to Hanoi twice as a crew member and brought two different loads of soldiers back, and Gail and Joe were on one of those flights,” Lothes told The Inter-Mountain Monday. “But I didn’t know either one of them was from West Virginia at the time. The way I found out Gail was from West Virginia was when the story broke about him getting off the plane.

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