James F. Bell, a Navy captain and pilot who was held prisoner for seven and a half years during the Vietnam War, died Sept. 30 at an Alexandria care facility. He was 83.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Dora G. Bell.

Flying a reconnaissance plane on a mission north of Haiphong on Oct. 16, 1965, then-Lt. Cmdr. Bell was shot down by antiaircraft fire.

“I made it to the sea before ejecting, but after 30 minutes in the water my crewman . . . and I were picked up by local fishermen in sampans,” he recalled in a 1977 book about former POWs, “We Came Home.”

He was tied to the mast of the boat and taken ashore, where he was beaten and kicked by a crowd of angry North Vietnamese en route to the first of several prisons where he would be confined over the next 89 months. He was among the first American service personnel to be captured in the conflict and, on Feb. 12, 1973, was among the first group of POWs to be released as part of Operation Homecoming.

James F. Bell, former prisoner of war in Vietnam with John McCain, answers questions during a press conference at Bethesda Naval Hospital on March 13, 1973. (AP)

During his 2,677 days of captivity, Cmdr. Bell underwent beatings, solitary confinement and intense loneliness. His basic diet was rice with pebbles in it, a green soup that looked and tasted like weeds and tea that appeared to be little more than dirty water. It was almost five years from the date of his capture before he heard from his family in America.

He said in “We Came Home” that he “never doubted for a minute that the day would come when I would return. . . . Nor did I ever lose faith in myself and my abilities to withstand the physical and mental rigors of prison life.”

James Franklin Bell was born in Akron, Ohio, on April 29, 1931. He graduated in 1954 from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. While in the Navy, he received a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and a master’s degree in administration from George Washington University.

He flew reconnaissance and fighter aircraft early in his Navy career. In 1965 he was assigned aboard the carrier Independence off the coast of Vietnam and by Oct. 16 had flown about 35 missions over North Vietnam. He was anticipating reassignment to a test pilot school in England when, as he would later describe it, his “luck ran out.”

Twenty-three years after his release from prison, Capt. Bell wrote down memories of those lost years for a chapter entitled “What Did You Do in the War, Granddad?” for inclusion in a book his wife was writing.

It was a time “when the days all seemed 48 hours long,” he said.

For refusing to fill out an enemy questionnaire, which he thought might be used for propaganda, he “spent about two months in leg chains. My legs were tightly chained together at the ankles and to the bed. I was released once a week to take my toilet bucket outside for emptying.”

At one of the several prison facilities where he was confined — one called Briar Patch — he wrote, “Life was primitive. . . . We didn’t get to shave very often, maybe once a month, and baths were once a week or so.”

In a cell near Capt. Bell’s, another prisoner “had been lying on his back asleep when he was awakened by something on his chest. He looked down and there was a rat standing on his chest eating the soup drippings off his beard.”

Infractions such as trying to communicate with other prisoners by tapping in code on cell walls brought swift and harsh reprisals. For one such offense, “the camp commander sentenced me to three months in ‘the hole.’ The hole was a bomb shelter about two feet deep that had been dug out beneath a bunk in each of the cells. When serving out a sentence in the hole, you would take your toilet bucket with you to serve as a stool, and you would spend your entire time, day and night, in ‘the hole.’ ”

Sometime in late 1970, Capt. Bell later wrote, he received in the mail a picture of his three children. He recognized the eldest, who looked the same, only bigger. But the two younger ones “were strangers. And there was nothing to indicate where they were living or what was going on with their lives.” In 1972, he would learn in a letter from his parents that he had been divorced.

Among his co-prisoners in Vietnam were future Arizona senator and Republican presidential candidate John S. McCain III, whose Navy aircraft was shot down over Vietnam in 1967. McCain and Capt. Bell were in the same compound at one point and had given each other haircuts.

On his release, Capt. Bell weighed about 140 pounds, 30 pounds less than he had before his capture. For several weeks, he was in a rehabilitation program at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, where doctors worked to repair an untreated broken arm and shoulder suffered when his aircraft was shot down.

Among his decorations were two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, the Bronze Star with Combat V and the Purple Heart. After retiring from the Navy in 1979, Capt. Bell was an engineering consultant in the Washington area for A.T. Kearney and other consulting firms. He had been a resident of Alexandria for the last 40 years.

In 1988 he was injured in a scuba-diving accident in Cozumel, Mexico, that compromised his respiratory system and brought about his civilian retirement. His wife said he was diving with friends and remained underwater by himself when they surfaced. A few minutes later, he was discovered floating unconscious. He was hospitalized and revived but with an impaired respiratory system.

His first marriage, to Holly Hollister, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 40 years, Dora Griffin Bell of Alexandria, whose first husband, James F. Griffin, died as a POW in Vietnam; three children from his first marriage, Tom Bell of Wake Forest, N.C., Navy Reserve Capt. Matthew Bell of Fredericksburg, Va., and Ann Bell Rogan of Arlington; two stepchildren, James F. Griffin of Lawrenceville, Ga., and Dr. Carrie Griffin of Woodside, Calif.; and 11 grandchildren.

Grim as it was, Capt. Bell’s captivity was not without its moments of humor. In 1971, almost two years after U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, news of the lunar landing reached the POWs in North Vietnam. “I remember our taunting the guards about ‘Our Moon,’ ” Capt. Bell wrote.

“Sometimes at night when we’d be standing up at our doors talking to our neighbors and there’d be a big full moon up there, we’d hear a guard coming and we’d all start saluting the moon. The guard would give us a quizzical look, wondering, ‘What are you guys doing?’ We’d point at the moon and say, ‘That’s our moon, that belongs to the USA.’ The guards would skulk away shaking their heads.”