On August 4, 1964, a 26-year-old Navy fighter pilot was shot down over North Vietnam. The first American airman to be captured by the Vietnamese, Everett Alvarez was a prisoner of war for eight and a half yearsthe longest period of captivity of any American war prisoner in North Vietnam. Alvarez, along with 461 other captured American airmen, would not be released until the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973.
American Experience presents "Return With Honor," the story of these captured airmen, featuring rare film footage from Vietnam's archives. This two-hour special from Academy Award-winning filmmakers Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders represents "a major shift in the screen image of the Vietnam veteran," according to The New York Times. More than 20 veterans describe their captivity and their struggle to survivementally, physically, and spirituallyand to return with honor. The film is introduced by Tom Hanks, who says, "I am fascinated and moved by these stories of extraordinary courage, sacrifice, and heroism."
Return With Honor is a testament to the ingenuity and endurance of these extraordinary men. Through riveting first-person accounts, the film describes their sudden transformation from self-confident "top-gun" aviators into prisoners of war. The men recall the harrowing moments of their shoot down and capture, the many years they were kept in solitary confinement, and the repeated bouts of excruciating torture. And it is also the story of the women left behind who for years did not know whether they were wives or widows.
In addition to Everett Alvarez, among the men and women in Return With Honor who tell their own stories, in their own words, are:
Comdr. James Stockdale, USN. Along with other POW senior ranking officers, Stockdale was in solitary confinement for much of his seven and a half years of captivity. Back in the States, his wife, Sybil, and other wives of POWs formed The League of Families of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action, in an attempt to change the "keep quiet" policy of the US government, which kept the plight of the POWs secret.
Lt. Ed Mechenbier, USAF. During captivity, Mechenbier held "wine tastings" for other prisoners, pouring imaginary vintages and vividly describing their žavors. Mechenbier was a prisoner of war for five years, eight months.
Lt. John ("Mike") McGrath, USN. A self-taught artist, McGrath drew his first picture on a prison wall with his own blood. He vowed to remember everything he saw in prison so he could draw it if he got out; all the drawings in Return With Honor were made by McGrath after his release.
Lt. Ron Bliss, USAF, was shot down September 4, 1966, the same day as his friend and fellow Air Force Academy graduate Tom McNish. Their capture was extensively filmed by the North Vietnamese. He was a prisoner of war for six and a half years, most of them at the Hoa Lo Prison (built by the French and nicknamed by the American POWs the "Hanoi Hilton") where, he says, "You could hear the screams of about fifty years. It was a hard place."
Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, USN, was shot down October 26, 1967; he ejected and landed in a lake in the center of Hanoi. Seriously wounded in the bailout, McCain was not expected to live. After he refused an offer of early release, his interrogator told him, "Things are going to be very bad for you now." McCain adds, "He was right."
Return With Honor was filmed on location in Vietnam and in communities across the United States. The production team received unprecedented cooperation from the Ministry of Culture and Information in Vietnam to film in Hanoi and was given access to their film archives and never-before-seen footage of the POWs being shot down, captured, and held in captivity. Production began in June 1997 in the United States and Vietnam with the filming of more than 25 former POWs and their wives, including Senator John McCain, Congressman Sam Johnson, and Pete Peterson, now US ambassador to Vietnam, whose current residence is just three blocks from the "Hanoi Hilton," where he spent six and a half years in captivity.
Return With Honor is a universal story of honor, love and duty.
For more information on the film, go to the film producers' Web site.