SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of American prisoners of war being released from their prison cells in Hanoi Vietnam.

The American prisoners’ release happened after months and even years of some of them being beaten and tortured in unimaginable ways. One Utah Air Force veteran shares the life lessons he learned as he looks back 50 years ago.

“I’ve lived 50 years since the time I was released, and I’ve been through tough things in those 50 years, but that made me stronger,” said Lieutenant Colonel Retired William A. Spencer.

Spencer said he’s grateful he is here to tell the tale, one that broadened his shoulders rather than broke him, but one he would never want to relive again.

It was July 5, 1972, and 29-year-old Spencer was assigned to yet another combat mission. His assignment was to fly over North Vietnam in their F-4E Phantom Mach 2 fighter aircraft and break down important infrastructure making it difficult for North Vietnam to get supplies from China.

“This wasn’t just another combat mission, because it was in North Vietnam, so it was more dangerous than another combat mission,” Spencer said. He then said the enemy did a maneuver below his aircraft through the clouds, firing a heat-seeking missile at him and hitting his left wing and tail.

“The fire lights came on; the stick wouldn’t do anything. I started to feel some heat. We are trained to pull the handle, so the back seater goes out on a rocket, then my canopy blows, and I go out. It’s all in a matter of seconds. I told my flight when in the shoot, ‘This is Bass-Zero-Two Alpha, I’ll see you after the war,’ because there was going to be no rescue here,” Spencer said.

As he drifted to the ground, Spencer saw his aircraft crash and burn and saw muzzles flashing below. He was being shot at already.

“I knew I was either going to be killed by these people or prisoner of war,” he said. He hit the ground about 30 miles east of Hanoi, a no-rescue zone, an area with some 19-thousand guns protecting it.

Spencer described the moment he was captured, saying, “People were coming from all 4 directions. I took my pistol and threw it away and got on my knees and put my hands up so when they came over the rise, they would see my hands in the air and at least give me a chance to not get shot. The men wanted to show me off to other villages, stripped me down to my underwear tied me up, and mistreated you a bit.”

But the worst of his nearly nine months as a prisoner of war was not the torture methods, sleep deprivation, or malnutrition, it was the uncertainty of it all.

“Not knowing when we would be released was one of the worst things. Not having any communication at all with our families was a terrible thing not knowing what was going on at home,” Spencer said.

Spencer knew some men had been prisoners in Hanoi already for more than 6 years and counting, little did he know he would be released after nearly 9 months. Spencer said he will never forget the day he was told they would be released.

“The day before we were released, I was in a room with two other men. I was a senior ranking officer there between the three of us. Some filming crew came in with cameras. I said guys put our faces against the wall, we are not going to be a part of this. Then I heard the distinct voice of Walter Cronkite, and he walked into the room. And he said ‘guys you want to talk to me’ I turned around and there was Walter Cronkite. It was Walter Cronkite who told us I would be going home.”

Now 50 years later, five decades removed from the pain, torture, and endless uncertainty, Spencer says he can see the powerful life’s lessons learned.

“I don’t think people appreciate freedom until they live in a room with no doorknob on the door. I was incarcerated for 9 months by an enemy and during that time I learned the value of freedom in a way I could never learn another way. And for that, I am grateful, truly grateful,” Spencer said. “The times we learn the most is when we are going through the hardest trials. When we are being tested and tried, we are learning, and we can look at it in a positive way or we can look at it in a negative way.”

When asked what is something he still chokes up about 50 years later, Spencer said, “We lost a lot of men. I lost friends. And that wasn’t entirely necessary. We could have avoided that. The war was won militarily in 9 months. The war lasted 9 years. Didn’t need to do that. We made decisions in D.C. that lengthened the war. “

In honor of the hundreds of American prisoners of war in Hanoi, the American Heritage Museum in Hudson Massachusetts is set to open a tribute exhibit, using actual materials from four Hanoi Hilton prison cells disassembled in the mid-’90s.  The museum reconstructs these cells, giving the world a glimpse into the isolating conditions so many endured in the name of our country.

Robert Collings, President of the American Heritage Museum said, “To tell that story is incredible because the first time you come in contact with it and you hear tapping of a tap code on the concrete and your hair stands up. These stories are priceless. There are very few things that can convey the horror, sacrifice, perseverance, and survival as much as the Hanoi Hilton. We are blessed to create an exhibit to honor these heroes. This has to be carried on this story has to be told for future generations.”

Spencer traveled to Massachusetts to take part in the exhibit’s preview day along with other fellow prisoners of war. The opening ceremony took place Saturday, Feb. 11, with the exhibit officially opening to the public Sunday, February 12, the day of the 50-year anniversary.