The first American Vietnam War POW on why we need to understand the war

The 18-hour film, “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick features dozens of interviews. Among them is former U.S. Navy Commander Everett Alvarez, Jr., the first U.S. pilot to be downed and detained during the Vietnam War. He spent more than eight years in captivity, making him the second-longest-held American prisoner of war.

The grandson of Mexican immigrants, Alvarez joined the Navy in 1960 and was selected for pilot training. On Aug. 5, 1964, during Operation Pierce Arrow, LTJG. Alvarez’s Douglas A-4 Skyhawk was shot down in the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The North Vietnamese held him captive at the Hỏa Lò Prison (known as the “Hanoi Hilton”) in which he was repeatedly beaten and tortured. Alvarez was released in 1973 as part of the first group of American POWs repatriated under “Operation Homecoming.”

Alvarez sat down with PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff to talk about the PBS documentary and why he decided to share his story.

“I always wanted to see if I could participate in any effort to help get the real story out of the true contributions and the true feelings of the guys that went and fought in the war,” he said. “What makes Vietnam so complex is (that it) wasn’t outwardly appreciated and the question is, “Why not?” And what was the attitude, what was the perspective. And that’s to me, still puzzling. Really not fully explainable. But one thing we can agree on is after it was over, we can come to recognize the Vietnam veteran was as loyal, as patriotic as his father, as his grandfather.”

Below is an excerpt from “The Vietnam War” featuring Alvarez, who went on to graduate school and later worked in the Naval Air Systems Command in Washington, D.C. until his retirement from the Navy in 1980. He later earned a law degree and served as deputy director of the Peace Corps and as deputy Aadministrator of the Veterans Administration. Alvarez is the recipient of the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, two Bronze Star Medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Purple Heart Medals.