Col. (Retired) Benjamin H. Purcell, an alumnus of the University of North Georgia and a former professor of military science and commandant of cadets at the school, has died. He was 85.
Born in Clarkesville, Ga., Purcell served in the U.S. Army for more than 30 years in command and staff positions from platoon leader through brigade commander, including combat tours in Korea and Vietnam. During his career, Purcell was awarded 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, and the Parachutist and Combat Infantryman Badges.
Purcell graduated from then-North Georgia College in 1950 as a Distinguished Military Graduate with a bachelor's degree in physics. He commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and served two combat tours in Korea. Purcell met his wife, Anne Grant, of Baldwin, Ga., at the college and the two were married in 1951.
After Korea, Purcell earned a master's degree in public administration from Shippensburg State College in Pennsylvania and studied at the U.S. Army War College.
In 1968, Purcell volunteered for Vietnam and in February 1968, the helicopter in which he was a passenger was shot down outside of Quang Tri City. Purcell and the crew were captured by enemy forces. He escaped and was recaptured twice, spending 58 of his 62 months in captivity in solitary confinement. Purcell, the highest-ranking Army POW in Vietnam, endured interrogation, starvation and beatings during his captivity.
Purcell was released two months after the Paris Peace Accords were signed ending the Vietnam War and was reunited with his family on March 27, 1973. A sign above a storage building at the Purcell home bears the first words Purcell spoke publicly following his release: "Man's most precious possession, second only to life, is freedom."
Four years later, Purcell finished his military career where it began—at North Georgia College. His final assignment on active duty was professor of military science and commandant of cadets from 1977 until 1980. In 2012, the new formation plaza on the university's Dahlonega campus was dedicated in honor of Purcell as the COL Ben Purcell Formation Plaza.
After his retirement, Purcell served as president of several civic organizations and one term as a director of the Habersham County Chamber of Commerce. He also represented the Ninth District in the Georgia General Assembly from September 1993 until January 1997.
In the years after Purcell's release, Ben and wife Anne shared their story through a book called "Love and Duty," which was published by St. Martin's Press in February 1992.
Purcell is survived by his wife, Anne, and the couple has five children, David, Debbie, Clifford, Sherri and Joy, and numerous grandchildren.
Hillside Memorial Chapel in Clarkesville is handling arrangements. Visitation will be from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. on Friday, April 5 at Hillside Memorial Chapel, 5495 Highway 197 South, Clarkesville, Ga.; from the square in Clarkesville, take Highway 197 South to the funeral home.
The funeral will be 2 p.m. Saturday, April 6 at Bethlehem Baptist Church, 624 Highway 197 North, Clarkesville, Ga. From the square, take 197 North, which will turn left a short distance from the square.
Memorial gifts may be directed to the COL Benjamin Purcell Fund at the UNG Foundation, Inc. – Dahlonega, P.O. Box 1599, Dahlonega, GA, 30533.