ON SCREEN TEXT: In 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, ending America's longest conflict, The Vietnam War. Four hundred and sixty-two American airmen held as prisoners of war in North Vietnam were released. This is their story told in their own words.
RISNER: To fly alone in the tops of the cloud, you come down and you touch a cloud, it's like you've just touched a cotton field or something. And then you pull up and do a roll, around the top of the clouds. Then you got these big billowing cumuli nimbus and you come along and you climb up the side of this. It's like going up Empire State Building. You roll over the top and you come back down. Uh, it -- it's -- it's such a feeling.
DENTON: I loved operating in another medium with the verve and acrobatism which is associated with ballet and flying trapezes and things like that and being able to do what I wanted in the air with this big heavy machine which could exercise an extension of my will.
SHUMAKER: We're control freaks and uh, sitting in that cockpit you know, you have the forty thousand pounds of thrust under your left hand and -- and about six or seven Gs in your right hand and so uh, maybe that's it. Control. But then you know, there's some really beautiful moments of flying too and you know, I have my memory of landing on aircraft carriers just as the sun's coming up.
BLISS: The phrase we use is pushing the envelope. Early on in pilot training they tell you what to do, where to move the stick. But over a period of years, and I didn't have too many years because I ended up in the North Vietnam but uh, you begin to play it like a violin, you know, just where to go and how far to go and that's all there is in the airplane. Don't do anything else, it's dangerous.
MCNISH: I read an article in -- in uh, National Geographics about this great new college out -- in Colorado and it looked beautiful and it had a great curriculum and oh by the way, they uh, if you graduate from that place you get to go fly airplanes and it just sounded wonderful to me as the little guy on a farm in North Carolina who wanted to fly airplanes.
DRISCOLL: Being a big city boy and never having been a Boy Scout and never having camped out or anything like that, it was quite a -- a shock for me. I wondered, you know, how did I ever get through that. Because uh, there were a number of times when I just really wanted to -- to quit.
MCNISH: When you stop to think about it, the whole purpose in the fourth class system and the harassment that you undergo throughout that whole year is to teach you to think and react in a controlled manner under pressure. And that ability and that training I sincerely believe made it easier to endure some of the very high pressure situations in the POW experience.
MECHENBIER: The first time you go up and you're flying by yourself and you look over and there's not an instructor pilot there anymore. You are really doing something at the end of a dream that you really, really enjoy.
MCMANUS: My understanding of the war at that time was that essentially it was you know, very much akin to -- to -- to the NATO concept. It was an opportunity for communist overrun of -- of free nations and uh, we had decided to hold the line of South Vietnam and we were over there to help them. I had no problem with uh, going over and fighting.
MCNISH: I was trained to believe that -- that uh, I had responsibility to -- to pay back my country for the opportunity to live here and enjoy the freedoms that she offered. And that service in the military was part of that responsibility. Now I figured out real early that if I was going to have to go fight, I wanted to do it from up in the air instead of slogging through the mud on the ground being shot at.
ALVAREZ: I was the first person in my family ever -- ever to go to college better yet, ever to finish high school. And when I decided to go into the military it was sort of well, it's sort of disappointing.
PRES. JOHNSON: The initial attack on the destroyer Maddox on Aug 2, was repeated today, by a number of hostile vessels attacking 2 US destroyers with torpedoes.
ALVAREZ: We were one of the first to launch from our ship. I came down through thick, thick, thunder storms and when I dropped my flares I uh, I -- I lit up the sky. I could see our two destroyers uh, very, very clear, bobbing around in the pretty, pretty choppy sea out there. I didn't see any torpedo boats.
PRES. JOHNSON: This new act of aggression aimed directly at our own forces...
STOCKDALE: Johnson was stewing in Washington because he wanted to tell the American people that there had been an attack and he was taking reprisal action and the planes were at the very moment he spoke bombing the targets. Now I was supposed to be the -- the first plane off the ship for these great bombing raids and I was sitting in my ready room chair when he actually told the American people.
PRES. JOHNSON: Air action is now in execution in North Vietnam.
STOCKDALE: So we took off knowing that the Vietnamese had been alerted that we were coming.
ALVAREZ: As we were doing this the realization struck me and I remember my knees started to shake. Uh, I -- I says holy smokes, we're going into war. And what's the rest of the world going to think about this? We went in first. They were fully waiting for us. All of a sudden the whole world opened up on me and I could see the flack. The world was just black of flack and -- and by this time uh, I realized holy smokes, they're all shooting at me. As we were just leaving the area I was hit. I said I've got to get out and see you guys later.
ALVAREZ: The initial days was a learning experience for me and for the North Vietnamese. It was the first time they had somebody, I don't feel they really knew what to do. How to handle me. As a POW, you know, you're not supposed to give any name, rank, service number, date of birth. So I wasn't answering anything else. And so they said why don't you answer? And I said well according to the Geneva Agreements, I'm not supposed to. Well, low and behold, why not? Well, as a prisoner of war. You're not a prisoner of war. There's no war. There are no diplomatic relations between your country and my country. you don't think that there's somebody going to come in here and represent you? He says you're in our hands now. We consider you a criminal. A war criminal. So I remember my thinking was, oops, so what do I do now?
MECHENBIER: The war in Vietnam was going to be so quick. If you want to get any -- any ribbons you want to get any combat experience, you want to be anybody in the Air Force, you better get over there before it's over.
MCGRATH: You're anxious to go. You want to get involved. I was right in the middle of that pack and I could -- I could hardly wait to get the training out of the way for the A4 and get on the carrier and get over there and -- and contribute what I could contribute.
BLISS: When we stepped off the airplanes at Taka Li, at the far end of the runway, turning initial was a missing man formation of three thuds. The 105. I looked at McNish, he looked at me, and I looked up. Nodded my head and then right after that comes a second flight in turning initial and it had a missing man in it. I looked at him, he looked at me and said, well, I guess we're here.
INSTRUCTOR: Two targets today. Our primary again is in the Hanoi area and your first alternate if the weather is bad, will be down in the Southern area in North Vietnam., just North of the DMZ
RISNER: By trying to cut the supply line between North and South Vietnam where the regular North Vietnamese were coming down to fight. Bridges were one of the prime targets.
MADISON: We'd go in before the strike force and suppress their radars and also their missile sites so that the strike force of fifty airplanes or whatever could go in and do their job.
DENTON: We had an extensive set of ground rules. We had uh, uh, rules that were put out in bit -- books that thick about what we could do and what we couldn't do. Where we could bomb, where we couldn't bomb.
BLISS: You've heard the stories about fighting with one hand tied behind your back. Well we had both hands tied behind our back. Mr. MacNamara had a hard job but uh, he apparently thought he knew more about targeting than anybody else in the world.
BLISS: They're shooting. They knew where we were coming from. They knew the headings. They knew the altitudes. They -- before we ever got there, they were laying in at eight ten and twelve thousand feet. All the eighty five and hundred millimeter uh, fire.
RISNER: I could see the tracer and it looks like tennis balls, big red tennis balls coming.
MCCAIN: I rolled into the dive and just as I released the bombs, I was struck in the right wing by a surface to air missile.
MCGRATH: And I flipped and flipped and flipped and flipped and I was pinned against the cockpit. I couldn't move and it flipped over and it was going straight down to the ground.
MCMANUS: We got hit, you know, within a second of bomb release.
MECHENBIER: And you feel it teetering and then boom!, all of a sudden it went over again. And it went over six times
MCMANUS: We were pretty well corkscrewing through the air
MECHENBIER: And eventually there was nothing left to be seen of an airplane. There was this -- this huge orange fireball in the sky. Last airspeed I saw was six hundred and twenty knots and we were going down through forty five hundred feet and this wonderful gentleman sitting about six feet behind me said Ed, I don't think we're going to make it. As a fighter pilot, you'll never -- you can fix anything. Nothing is ever going to go wrong, I'm in complete control here! Don't bother me! Ed, I don't think we're going to make it. Snapped me right out of my thing and I said bail out Kevin and I started to say bail out the second time, he said sayonara Ed and we went out together.
MECHENBIER: Now how close did we come? Before the parachutes opened, the airplane hit the ground, that's one and three quarter seconds.
BLISS: I started operating at about two levels at that time, my conscious was saying alright, we're going to the target. My subconscious was telling me it's over Ron, you better start thinking about plan B here pretty soon.
BAUGH: I realized at that point that uh, there was no more flying in this airplane. I was strictly a passenger.
BLISS: You train all of your career for this. You go through practice shots on the ground and everything else. Got the elbows in, the spinal column straight and the head back and squeeze the triggers and that's the last thing I remembered.
STUTZ:. This thing of uh, your entire life passing before your eyes in a matter of seconds really does happen. You -- you think about your wife, your kids, your uh, what you used to do, what are they going to do without me and there you are, floating down the parachute. The United States Air Force had seen fit to send me to Survival School, to Water Survival School, to Jungle Survival School. all the training that I needed for escape and evasion and I came through the trees and landed right in the middle of a small village and I escaped and evaded for about five seconds.
MCMANUS: I popped my chute off and stood up and about that time I saw at least a hundred rifles just gun barrel right -- right to my head. And uh, I calmly put my hands up.
MECHENBIER: The golden bebe that took Ed Mechenbier and Kevin McManus and five hundred plus other guys from being invincible, Sir Lancelots uh, you know, charging windmills, wonderful, world's great fighter pilots. But all of a sudden you're not that, and you're scared. You know? (sound fx) What a change in status!
BLISS: And so there I was uh, this very uh, proud and vainglorious fighter pilot, the peacock of the services uh, walking down a dirt road on the outskirts of Hanoi barefoot in my skivies and a T-shirt with a hole right where my naval was and I thought you know, I really look good here don't I?
MCNISH: They came down off the hill of this little drainage ditch that I was in and uh, surrounded me and when they decided that I wasn't going to do anything horrible to them except just sit there in the mud they immediately relieved me of knives and guns and all the other things. That first day I went through the same thing that everybody did. I got stoned and spit on as I walked through little villages and -- and uh, that evening, they had a big convocation out in the local soccer field and put me up on a flatbed truck and threw rocks at me and yelled and screamed.
MCMANUS: They keep you there not much more than fifteen, twenty minutes and you'd run another four or five uh, miles to the next village. The people would poke you with uh, with uh, bamboo sticks and everything. And uh, and the -- the worst part was uh, the -- the little kids would come up and put little slivers of bamboo into you
JOHNSON: They took me out to a firing squad and, five guys and uh, pointed rifles at me and you know, pulled the clips and jammed them home and he said fire and they all went click, click, click, click, click, and I laughed at them at that point, but I have to tell you that it was the first time that i'd realized, and I had been praying real hard, that the lord was on my side.
GALANTI: We'd had an intelligence briefing and they read a quote from apparently something the north Vietnamese army put out to all the peasants that said, If you capture American air pirates don't kill them, keep them and you'll be generously rewarded.
MCGRATH: This guy kept looking at me and he could see I was in pain. My leg was crooked, hanging out. I received the one act of kindness. I kept saying s'il vous plait and s'il vous plait, merci, do anything I could think of and I -- I took my fingers and I -- I indicated that he should take my leg and pull it out straight. That's all I could do was just this motion right here and point to him and do that. This guard looked around, nobody around. Put his rifle up against the tree, sat down, put his foot in my crotch, put my -- my foot underneath his armpit and gave a big mighty shove and popped my leg back straight. And then laid it down.
PETERSON: I was rather severely injured. I had a broken arm, broken shoulder, and a broken leg. My first decision was whether or not I wanted to live or -- or to die. It was a conscious uh, process. I had my thirty eight there and I had it out. I opted not to uh, pull the trigger and frankly it would have been easy to do so.
DAY: I'd made up my mind that if I could escape I would get out of there as soon as it got dark I was going to untie myself, and head for South Vietnam. I got uh, over into the de-militarized zone in the ballpark of two weeks without any substantial food. I'd eat a few berries and uh, and a couple of frogs. Was within about a mile of uh, Dong Ha when these Vietnamese popped up out of a hole and yelled at me and uh, I just thought I didn't come this far to surrender to these people. And uh, took off running. And they uh, shot me down and recaptured me.
RISNER: And I drew my pistol and I stood up and when I stood up, I'm looking right down the guy's gun barrel and he's just a few feet from me and I got my pistol at an inclination about forty five degrees and the -- I remembered what I told the guys I would never be captured but you know, I -- I was kind of out gunned so I changed my mind. And it wasn't but just a few minutes until they had me tied and it became my seven and a half years as a prisoner of war.
MARLENE MCGRATH: There was the black car in Lemoore and it would go around, it would go around to peoples' homes and uh, you'd see the three people in the black car. And it was like the CO of the base, the CO of your squadron's wife and the Chaplin. Those three people in the black car and you knew someone was gone.
MRS. MADISON: I was getting dinner and the doorbell rang and my son, I told my son to go to the door. And he came back and he says mother, it's a General at the door. And of course I knew the General wouldn't possible wouldn't come to visit me but I went to the door and I saw my Minister and I saw the Post Commander and this other person I did not know. And I knew something had happened to Tom.
SYBIL STOCKDALE: I heard some talking in the living room and my best friend was coming up the stairs and I said what are you doing here? And she said, oh Sybil, Jim is missing. And she came and hugged me and I thought to myself, how can anybody be missing. A person can't be missing. God would know where he is.
MARLENE MCGRATH: They were two and three at the time he was shot down. I was telling them daddy's not going to come home for a while because he has to stay in another country, in another place. But it'll probably be a long time before he comes home and we're just going to wait for him until he comes home. But, you know, I don't remember. I think I was so upset myself that I'm not sure what I told those poor little boys.
LORRAINE SHUMAKER: The first picture that came out he looked strong so we knew that he would withstand anything and you just live from day to day waiting for information. I guess we just hoped that they weren't being tortured. That -- that was all we -- we -- you didn't want to uh, believe that uh, people would be cruel.
SHUMAKER: I couldn't see out very much cause they had me blindfolded and the Jeep was kind of blackened out but eventually I arrived at this place called the uh, Hao Lo Prison which we Americans uh, named the Hanoi Hilton so that was my uh, entry into Hanoi. This Prison was kind of a city block in size and it was surrounded by a tall uh, stone walls on top of which were embedded in cement broken bottles and then on top of that were uh, high tension wires. And I think the height of the thing was twelve or thirteen feet.
BLISS: They took me into uh, a little cell with uh, one bed board in it and uh, on concrete supports. Rusted leg irons permanently mounted to the bed. And I'll tell you the Hilton was built by the French for the Vietnamese when they had Indochine -- Indo China. And uh, this little separate group of cells that we called Heartbreak Hotel was -- is for the welcoming committee. Uh, uh, let you know that they had other plans for you and you could look at this place and -- you could look at this place and understand and just hear the screams of about fifty years uh, because it was -- it's a hard place. It really is.
MCGRATH: A light came in. I could see this knobby room which we later called the uh, Knobby Torture Room. And there were racks up above. There were meat hooks hanging from the rafters. There were old medieval type irons, manacles and stocks around the room. And I could see these things and I thought well this has got to be a storage room.
BAUGH: You're always sitting either on the floor or on a stool or concrete block or something low. The interrogator is always behind a table that's covered with cloth of some kind, white or blue or something. And he sits above you and he's always looking down at you asking you questions and they want to know what the targets are for tomorrow, next week, next month. You don't know. You really don't know. But he doesn't -- he's going to have to have an answer of some kind. Now the back of the room comes the -- the torture. And he's a -- he's a big guy that knows what he's doing. And he starts locking your elbows up with ropes and tying your wrists together and bending you.
FER: They tied me in knots uh, with this nylon strap cutting off the circulation to my arms and my wrists and the pain is getting very great. And so uh, I gave out a great big holler and I said okay, okay, okay. I'll tell you what you want to know. I says you know, you've been trained, you've been raised to be a -- a real -- a tough resister. This is embarrassing. You have given in John Fer, you have given in in a very short period of time. Now it wasn't that bad uh, and so when he said what's your unit again, I said uh, I can't tell you that. Well he got very upset and he said something very sternly to this guy and he really tied me up this time and really cinched it down tight uh, when the pain got so great this time, they didn't come back right away.
BAUGH: There's a point where you've completely had it. Where you lose control of your bowels, you throw up, uh, you'll sell your mother down the river uh, in a heart beat. And there's a point everybody reaches that you decide I've had it. I've got to do something to get out of this program. And like me like most everybody we started telling them stories. We made up targets. I had em bombing footbridges in China over creeks which I knew weren't real targets.
MCMANUS: The beatings were going to occur for a specified period of time almost regardless of what happened. Again, it was to establish uh, the rules of the game. They were in control. That they were the masters. Uh, uh, and -- and you were subservient to them and you'd better be careful.
STOCKDALE: They walked me into a room uh, with senior officers on both sides. Now the man in question was in civilian clothes. I knew who he probably was. Vin Quak Vin. I'd heard that name at Stanford. He was the propaganda expert of North Vietnam. He was totally fluent in English and we we talked. And he was not hostile. He was picking my brains and I was picking his. But here was the punch line. And there was nothing dramatic or irate, he said you know about the war as a matter of weapons. He said the Vietnamese people know that we cannot compete with you on the battlefield. But he said it's not that that wins wars anyway. It's national will. And when the American people get the idea of what this war is all about, they will lose interest in pursuing it. He said we are going to win this war on the streets of New York. And when the American people understand the war and you and your fellow prisoners are going to help them understand it, you will be their teachers. Then the war will go away. We were a major factor in the strategy of the Vietnamese and we would be sort of a branch of the American anti war movement. That's what they had in mind.
BURROUGHS: They wanted propaganda. They wanted us to denounce our leaders. They wanted us to denounce capitalism. They wanted us to praise Ho Chi Minh. They wanted us to praise the communist initiative. They would put the standard communist glowing terms on every little thing that happened.
RISNER: One reason I was singled out was my picture was on the cover of Time Magazine. The interrogator in my first interrogation had a copy. He said we know who you are Officer Reiner. And there's only three people we would rather have captured than you, that's Johnson, MacNamara and Rusk. So they really camped on my trail throughout my imprisonment.
CHERRY: They focused on me a little more so than they did some others because I was relatively senior and I was black and later in the war especially most of the people fighting in the south were blacks, like 40% or so and there we go. If they can get the senior black African- American to speak out against the war that this would have a very very detrimental influence on these young African-Americans fighting in South Vietnam.
MCMANUS: They did a lot of beatings but beatings are easy. Uh, the -- the body responds to a beating very well you know, for that point where your body can't take it anymore, it just shuts down and you go unconscious. So I mean there's very little a person truthfully can do to you by beating you. Uh, but the -- the ropes were -- they were scary because they you know, you'd been put in a position whereby if you did something, you'd choke yourself.
MCGRATH: I was in terrible, terrible pain. They were using the rope trick. The Vietnamese -- we called it the Vietnamese rope trick and that was to take the arms behind your back, tie your hands together, tie them up real tight and then rotate your arms behind and over your shoulder until your shoulders dislocate. Well this one is already broken and dislocated so that was easy. And I remember this one starting over the top and I can remember the cracking and breaking and my elbow also dislocated. I was in terrible pain. Trying to scream. Wishing I could die. I finally said I can't live. I can't live another day. And no -- no food, no water, no sleep uh, twenty four hours a day of this and I started talking. And I broke what we call breaking, I broke past name, rank, serial number.
RISNER: Some guys had been hurt, they'd been tortured. They were scared. Now think of this for a moment. Although we had pretty much the cream of the crop as pilots, they had to be highly educated and highly motivated to get there. Now how do you train? Well still you've got -- you got uh, a variation in humanity. One guy told me, he said I can't even stand unpleasantness let alone being tortured. He said in the court, when the interrogator pounds the desk he said it just shrivels me up inside. What if you have a man that's claustrophobic and they put him in a black cell. He's going to lose it. He's going to go crazy probably.
DENTON: I put out the word Roll back, bounce back. That was the first time that was initiated. It was very important to last us the rest of the time. You could be tortured to give something, but then you don't just lie back and continue to give them things as they just gradually exploit you. You stop and don't give them anything, you make them torture you again and again and give them as little as you can the next time. In other words, they never advance their indoctrination of you to the object they wanted was you become a slave without torture to do anything they want to help their cause.
STUTZ: I really thought before I was shot down and when I was first shot down that I was the toughest fighter pilot in the world. That I was John Wayne uh, Superman all of them rolled up into one and by God, they couldn't break me. I was one tough son of a gun. Uh, I found out real fast how weak I was. Uh, pain may cleanse but by God, it also hurts. And uh, and I'm telling you, when your shoulders rotate in the sockets and you're hanging there and -- and you cry and you -- you bleed and you pray and you scream and when you scream, all they do is pick up a dirty rag and stick it in your mouth so they don't have to listen to you, and the thing that affects you, at least me, affected me the most was, God, I don't want to die here and nobody even know it.
BLISS: You get isolated. That's when the trouble begins. You have to communicate a virtually any cost. If you get caught and tortured for a little while, that's just the overhead. But you do it anyway.
SHUMAKER: We used the tap code. This became our second language and through next eight years we were able to communicate probably at the rate of 5, 6, 8 words per minute tapping through the wall. Imagine the alphabet arranged into a box that has five rows and five columns.
GALANTI: If you could picture across the top row A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, we left out K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z. And if you needed a K you used a C. So uh, to tap it out, A was the first row, first column and it was tap tap. B was the first row, second column and you go tap tap tap. F was the second row, first column and you tap (tapping). And you got to be pretty fast.
BLISS: The building sounded like a -- a -- a uh, a den of runaway woodpeckers. It was just awesome sometimes everybody tapping.
GALANTI: To call someone up to get them tapping you'd tap on the wall (tapping) and all Americans tap (tapping) but the Vietnamese if they were listening and trying to intercept it would tap back (tapping) and they would hear another tap and couldn't figure out what they did wrong.
MCNISH: We passed the equivalent of War and Peace several times over through different methods of communication.
DAY: People swept in code. They shoveled in code. Uh, flashed pans across halls in code. Pushed pieces of paper out from under a door or through a crevice uh, using the tap code.
DENTON: The number one you go (sound fx) depending how far you are from somebody. For the number two you go (sound fx). Two of those sounds cough or sniff. The number three was (sound fx). Number four was (sound fx) and the number five was spit or sneeze depending on how far you were from the person. And it was beautiful. We used that. They could hear it but since we often had colds and other kind of problems like that, we got away with it.
BLISS: But most of the heavy news was passed uh, orally through the wall. You could wrap your blanket around your mouth or put your cup up there to muffle it. Your roommate or the people next door would look under the door through a crack in the wall and clear for you. Later on we got pretty good at it. Uh, we were communicating from building to building with uh, visual code with hands.
MCKNIGHT: I uh, tapped to Commander Denton almost uh, three years uh, tapping to a man that I had never seen his face or his body. And uh, I thought my uh, uh, what a strange thing it is that I had uh, tapped into his mind and he into mine without ever having seen each other's face so that we knew each other's moods, uh, we knew uh, when we were happy by the uh, sounds of the tap or the way it was tapped or -- or uh, sad or mad or whatever. As the conversation went, if the next word coming up uh, you knew what it was going to be by the first two letters or so, you give two quick taps and many a time all we uh, did was sort of two quick taps cause I knew what the next word and what the next word and what the next word uh, was going to be. And I haven't had too many conversations like that in my life.
MCNISH: They wanted to keep us from communicating they wanted to break us up. They wanted to split us up so that we couldn't gain strength from each other. And they were never able to for the entire time that we were there. That was our one major victory.
SINGLETON: They tried for more than seven years to completely subdue Risner and Stockdale and Denton and other later senior leaders. They hurt them very badly. Uh, physically and emotionally. Uh, each time they bounced back and each time they were uh, in the position of leadership again, the policy was exactly what it had been before and they -- they exercised those same policies knowing what the consequences were going to be to them.
DENTON: One night was very memorable to me, it may have been two two thirty in the morning quiet and uh, the guard was a pretty decent guy I thought, a kid named Smiley about eighteen years old. He did his duty, but I don't think he liked it too much. And obviously the Camp Commander had told him to come in there and break me. was telling the guy going more, more, more and I said lord, I -- I've thought of every prayer that I know by heart, I've thought of everything that just sort of uh, uh, expresses my will and -- and beg you to help me and I -- I -- I've run out of things. I'm totally without resources for even prayer. It was the first time I'd ever said okay God, you've got it, I'm just gone. . And at that instant, I -- I breathed that total surrender I was relieved of all pain. And I had felt as if a blanket had been placed over me. A warmth and comfort I had absolutely not only no fear but the greatest feeling of comfort and total confidence that nothing could happen to me bad the rest of my life in this condition I was in. And that's when Smiley looked at me as he was pulling and I looked at him and my face must have said well Smiley what are you doing? You're not hurting me. I -- you can't break me. And at that point his face just broke and he -- tears started coming down his face. He let go of the line. Went out and started screaming at the Officer.
DENTON: Having tortured me for my confession they were going to hope they could carry over to an interview in which I would say the words they wanted me to say. But I decided I'd -- for -- for what it was worth, just say the opposite of what they briefed me on. And uh, saw the lights of the TV cameras. . And -- and I saw the lights, I decided I'd blink my eyes in -- in Morse Code and -- and -- and spell out the word torture over and over again. In case they fitted words into my mouth, that were apologetic on my part. In other words, faked it. I would at least let them know I'd been tortured by the T-O-R-T-U-R-E.
MCGRATH: For a -- a year, I just laid on the floor trying to make my parts move. It took me -- took me a while to get up. Finally I got a hold of a window sill and I stretched and I relocated my own elbow. Got this shoulder straight. And then began a long, slow, healing process. And I was covered with boils and infection and as a diversion, as my mind is racing, I can't -- I can't sleep, I'm in delirium. But I started squeezing pus out of my boils and I started painting a picture on the wall. And I painted a big beautiful stag with these big set of horns and this was the first painting I did in -- in prison was with -- with my own blood. and over the years I made a dedication, I said I know I can draw this. I know I can capture it. So I memorized everything with the intention of drawing it one day when I got out.
DRISCOLL: We began to talk about the war. How long are we going to be there and everything and I -- I was thinking well I'm only going to be there about six months or so. And then uh, Charlie says oh, we're probably going to be here about two years. Two years? And when I -- I finally came to that realization, my God, that's going to be a long time. And when I - it just kind of hit me all at once. And I just took my blanket and kind of balled it up and I just buried my head uh, in this -- in this blanket and just literally screamed with -- with this anguish that it's going to be that long. Two years. And then when I was finished, I felt oh, okay. I -- I -- I can do that. I can do two years. Of course, as it turned out, it was two years, and it was two years after that, and two years after that. Uh, until it was about seven years in my case. You know? But who was to know at that time.
ALVAREZ: We saw them bringing in the uniforms and when we saw this, we said hey, they're getting ready to take us home, see they're putting numbers on it. Then they loaded us into the truck so we had high spirits. But we thought okay, we're getting ready to go home. . So when they unloaded us and then they finally took us -- took the blindfolds, you know, here this crowd in a square and uh, you said oh no, this is not release. I was tied to uh, Robbie Risner, who said, do not make a gesture of -- to any -- anybody. Just march.. Each of us had guards posted along each side and just going marching through the -- through the streets. First thing I hear is the -- the -- the uh, people with -- with the megaphones working the crowds up. And the crowds start chanting and we passed through grandstands where the you know, it's like a football game, you know, and you had the cheerleaders up there except go team go they're saying Alvarez, Alvarez son of a bitch and the crowd go Alvarez, Alvarez son of a bitch, you know. The more they worked them up, the greater the frenzy. But the more they pushed you and the guards were trying to pull the crowds off but you know, the next thing you know you had shoes flying and bottles flying and people coming in to -- to show the anger and all of this for the world's cameras.
DENTON: It was uh, propaganda thing, the crowd was supposed to be held in restraint just be shaking their fist and screaming. That was the scenario. They were hitting us in the back of the head with uh, rifle butts to get us to bow our head and I passed the word keep your head up. So we tried to keep our heads up to look like you know, proud Americans.
DRISCOLL: The guards are -- are getting uh, pretty scared too because the bayonets that they had pointed at us are now turned to their own people. Somebody was able to -- to break through and get a pretty good kick on Tom and I just picked him up by the handcuffs and said hey come on Tom, we've got to keep going. We can't stop now.
DRISCOLL: But that particular evening, I feel I was probably closer to dying than the day I was shot down.
MECHENBIER: The most fearsome sound in all the world was keys. When you hear the guard coming with keys. He's coming to get somebody.
FER: The guards come around the middle of the night just rattling the lock on your door. That's a terrifying thing because they may be taking you out for a torture session. You don't know.
SINGLETON: The hardest time that I had in North Vietnam and obviously this is an emotional thing to me, was listening to the screams of other American prisoners while they were being tortured. And being locked in a cell myself sometimes uh, in handcuffs or tied up and not able to do anything about it. And that's the way I've got to spend the night. And even though we could uh, we could sit down and write something for them and avoid a lot of the pain, uh, our marching orders were different. The war was still on. The enemy was still the enemy. And our job was either to defeat him or make his victory as difficult as possible.
ALVAREZ: And when you come back and you're full of bruises and my arms turned black and hands turned black and you're starved and you know, you've been gone and you get back together with your roommate and he's gone through hell and you've gone through hell, and -- and you've -- and -- and when you go through this and you have to -- you finally say okay, I've had enough pain, I'll stop. I'll -- I'll write. I -- you - you feel so low because you gave in. Uh, something that you never thought you would do. And you realize that they can make you do things you don't want to do.
SHUMAKER: My options were kind of running out and I knew I couldn't stand the pain. This had gone on for hours and I tried to commit suicide by banging my head against the wall and they uh, stopped me from doing that and after they pulled me away from the wall, I realized they had to uh, comply with their demands, writing a confession or something. And -- and after I did it, they put me back in -- in my cell and I just cried like a baby for a long time. Because uh, as I said earlier, you think you'll -- that you let your country down.
MCGRATH: And it's kind of a scale. From zero to ten, this guy went all the way to ten and he died in torturer, never gave a class, rank, serial number. This guy you just slap him one time and he gives you everything. So we're all on a line somewhere there. And it just depends if you're on a high end or low end and everybody's different. You can't predict where they are. And it doesn't really matter. You just all do your best and -- and your best is that's all you can give.
MECHENBIER: There's an area where you say okay, I'm going beyond name, rank, serial number and date of birth. I'm fabricating. I'm lying. I'm cheating and I'm stealing. All those things you don't want to do. But -- but you can rationalize cause you're not giving away anything that endangers your country, the cause or your fellow, uh, prisoner of war. Uh, so then we kind of boil it down to and this is a very popular phrase now, return with honor. Don't do anything that you wouldn't go back and tell somebody else in your cell I did. And be ashamed.
CHERRY: We were determined to return to the U.S. with honor no matter how long we stayed there. We were not going to collaborate with -- with the enemy. And uh, we were going to look out for each other.
BLISS: But all we had left in our immediate world out there was each other. All we had were our reputations. We were being tortured to say far less than what senators and congressmen were saying on the house and senate floor as they have a right to. Uh but the newsp -uh--what they played for is after a while for propaganda, were speeches by uh, by politicians. They didn't have to make up anything.
GALANTI: They wanted me to talk to them and be interviewed. I refused to do that but they -- they set me on this stool under our big uh, big sign over my head that said clean and neat. . It looked like I was in solitary. Uh, sitting on this single bed and I extended my middle fingers so I knew that anybody that saw these films would know that I was not doing this voluntarily. Life Magazine I think to uh, uh, keep me from getting in trouble or maybe it was against the code back then, they couldn't put pictures like that on the cover, airbrushed my fingers out and for years my nephew thought that uh, they -- the Vietnamese had cut off Uncle Paul's middle fingers.
STRATTON: When I appeared the Vietnamese Communists though they had made a great coup. When they put me out there I played the Mancherian candidate trying to pretend that I was drugged or brainwashed and bowed ninety degrees, bowed to the audience, and then I bowed to the head table. It turned out to be a disaster for them.
ALICE S.: Someone from Washington called me and said the -- the magazine's out so I went to the drugstore to try and find it and I -- and there it was and I opened it up and there he was. And that was a real shock because he didn't look like himself obviously. But at least he was there. He was alive.
SYBIL S.: He was missing for eight months and the way I heard about the fact that he had survived was by getting, two letters from him in the mailbox. And the second one he started out by saying one thinks of Vietnam is a tropical country but there is cold and darkness, even at noon. And of course, I knew right away that was a signal about the book Darkness at Noon which is a horrible account of the communist treatment of prisoners.
MARLENE M.: April of 1970. This was the first time I really knew for a fact that he was alive. Some of the things he said was like uh, Dear Marlene, JJ and Rickie. He called our son John that we always have called him John. Uh, he called him JJ. And I thought on my God, he's nuts. Something's wrong. He doesn't even remember our son's name. I didn't know that this was something he was trying to get through or across. And of course Mike's writing was very, very tiny. Certainly was not his normal writing. And uh, I think when I finally received something and got something from him, I wanted it to be normal. I didn't want it to be anything other than normal.
LORRAINE SHUMAKER: At first I had a little black and white TV. And when that broke down, I -- I didn't replace it. I bought uh, a set of encyclopedia uh, for Grant. And I -- I just didn't want him to see all the pictures in the newspaper and on TV so we -- we didn't get a daily uh, local newspaper.
MRS. MADISON: It bothered me a lot that uh, the pilots were called pirates. And -- and the people who were so negative about the whole thing. So Steven and I chose to basically not tell anyone that Tom was -- in Vietnam. I didn't want the children to tease him or taunt him or for him to feel like he was different in any way because his father was a prisoner of war. So it did not bother me to be quiet about it. Cause I wanted to protect my son.
MCKNIGHT: I know there's somebody else in the uh, in the same uh, building area as I was so I took out my little uh, lock pick and took off my handcuffs and uh, raced down the hallway looking for my uh, fellow prisoner and uh, looked in about three or four cubicles and there's uh, Ensign George Coker and I woke him up and I said it's me. My name is George McKnight and Coker looked up and he says uh, what -- what -- are we -- is it -- are we being freed or what, you know, he's about half asleep. From then on, we started talking about you know, this -- this place would really be easy to get out of. And uh, and it would have been sort of uh, but uh, then what do we do? Uh, where are we? I mean we're somewhere in the middle of Hanoi but we had no idea where to go uh, after we got out of that particular prison. We're in a box and you get out only to find you're in another box and out of that you're in another box. So one day I was taken out to get the uh, drinking water for the prison. And as I went around the corner, I looked in the distance and could see the end of a big bridge and I had knew about the Dumar Bridge and figured it uh, that must be it, so-uh-when I came back I said-uh-well Georgie-uh-I've figured out where we are we could be here for the next twenty years. Uh, let's at least give it a -- a try. That night uh, we decided to go so I sprang the lock uh, we uh, climbed up on the roof of our prison block and uh, jumped over to another roof., jumped over the wall. Ran down in the direction of uh, the Tanwa Bridge and then we tied ourselves together so we wouldn't get separated in the dark and then we jumped in the river and we proceeded to swim to California! We got about fifteen miles down the river , the sun when it came up uh, we were still swimming down that river and uh, didn't have any really good place to hide. The first place we could find was part of the bank that had separated. And we jumped in there. I was facing George and he uh, all of a sudden looked above me and he said well that's it. I says what do you mean that's it? Says well this fisherman just came by and uh, threw his line in the water and uh, just happened to look down and saw us. Sure enough uh, in the distance, uh, we could see these people running towards us. So we just uh, stood there and held our hands over our head. Both George Coker and myself uh, were taken to a little prison which had about eight uh, other people including Commander Denton and uh, Commander Stockdale called Alcatraz in which we spent the next uh, two plus years in solitary confinement.
RISNER: Let's suppose you took one of the rules of th fighting man code of conduct, it says you will escape at every opportunity and you say okay, can you escape without involving the ones you left behind? Can you do it all on your own? Now if you escape, can you get back to South Vietnam and two hundred miles through enemy territory? Can you get back there and carry information that you have? That you have attained while you've been sitting in a seven by seven foot cell. How will this escape affect all the rest that are left here? So there was one time when the policy was you will try to escape only if you have outside help.
BAUGH: We had an escape planned for over a year but we had canceled it because once you drop over the wall you're -- you're history because walking around in heavily populated Hanoi uh, six foot four in my case don't look like a Vietnamese, you sure can't speak their language. You know your chances are -- of making it are gone. But one night, I decided to go and -- and it cost us dearly. John Drameci and Ed Atterbury were the two that left. Uh, the seven remaining were taken out into individual uh, interrogation rooms that morning and put through the torture program again. Hard torture. Irons, ropes, beatings, this went on for two weeks. At first day they caught them and brought them back and they killed Ed that first night in torture. Ed Atterbury. He died that night. Then they went to the other rooms, took the senior ranking guys, put them through two weeks of hard torture. Put them in leg irons. Then they went to the other camps, pulled the senior guys out, did the same. They went through the whole prison system and pulled people out, tortured them, broke them to find out if any -- they had any escape plans, how the communication systems were set up and things like that. So it -- it hurt us a lot of people were hurt. And uh, it wasn't uh, it wasn't worth it.
STOCKDALE: I was morose and I decided to cut my wrists and did so -- and finally passed out in the blood and uh, the next thing I knew, I was awakened. I was rolled over on my back. The room was full of soldiers and officers. Uh, and saying why did you do it? Why did you do it. The thought kind of haunted me. Why didn't they just let me die?
MCCAIN: I would just like to tell my wife that I will get well, that I love her, and I hope to see her soon. and I'd appreciate it if you told her that.
DAY: John McCain became my second roommate. He was uh, absolutely on the verge of death when I first saw him. He'd been terribly wounded. Uh, broken up in a bail out. His knee was very dysfunctional. He was in a body cast that was just grotesque. His arm poked out of his cast like a twig sticking out of a snowman.
MCCAIN: I believed that I was, uh, that I was dying. They had said that there was no medical treatment given unless you provide military information. And I wouldn't do that. About some hours later because I went back in unconsciousness the door of the cell came open and the interrogator said your father is an Admiral. A big Admiral. And I said uh, yes, my father is an Admiral. And he says we going to take you to the hospital where they gave me some blood transfusions. My condition didn't improve. And so they took and put me in with uh, two other POWs.
DAY: And I was just positive when he came into the room, I said to myself you know, they've dumped him on us to make it look as if we let him die. We had an Air Force Major named Norris Overly who was uh, sort of acting as nurse for both of us. So this fellow was basically feeding John and washed him for the first time I'm sure since he'd been in Hanoi. John was determined that he was going to live and determined to try to move and get his body going and -- and that in itself was just excruciating for him but uh, one of those things that -- that you have to do if you're going to survive.
MCCAIN: They took very good care of me. And I view the fact that I lived to their care.
MCMANUS: We did start to get an inkling that an early release was being discussed with certain prisoners. That's when Hervy Stockman who was uh, the senior guy at the -- at the plantation at that time uh, he'd passed the word, make sure everybody understands that -- that there is no early release. Let sick and wounded go first and then order a shoot down.
OVERLY: Do you know why you were chosen to be released? We had no idea.
DAY: They were looking for a propaganda counter to their awful publicity over the Hanoi march.
GALANTI: Ed Alvarez got shot down twenty two months before I did. There were several who were in horrible pain and from some of the war wounds they had. There was just no way I was going to uh, uh, go early before they did.
CHERRY: They did make statements uh, how well the Vietnamese were treating them and us and they -- that was wrong.
BLACK: Captain, how were you treated? Uh, very good sir. Sir, how many prisoners are there over there? Gentlemen, we'll have to break this up.
MCMANUS: Ed and I used to be tasked with, uh, cleaning the pig sties everyday and uh, Metheny's cell was right next to the pig sty so we actually, with one of us looking out, the other one was able to -- to talk to Metheny through his door. We'd tell him the word was, don't go.
DAY: That's -- that's what the code is supposed to foster is the idea that any kind of a special favor is the wrong thing. Regardless of how that's applied to you. Whether it's an early release, better living conditions, more food or getting something that other prisoners do not get is not acceptable.
MCCAIN: I was called up to interrogation. The uh, head of all the camps was there, a fellow we called The Cat. He said uh, would you like to go home? I said I'd have to think about that. The question on my mind was whether I could survive. On the morning of the fourth of July, he said what's your final answer, and I said uh, my -- my answer is still no and he said to me in English, they taught you too well. And uh, kicked the chair over behind him and left and the interrogator looked at me and said things are going to be very bad for you now. He was right.
BLISS: It was a matter of dignity. All we had left of what we were is our name and our honor. And I don't know if that makes any sense the way I'm trying to describe this or not but that's just all you have left and you won't give it up. So no, you're not going to take an early release under less than acceptable conditions. You won't do it. At least I wouldn't do it.
STRATTON: A young man by the name of Douglas Hegdahl the III, a seaman apprentice who fell off the U.S.S. Kembara was one of twelve early releasees and he was the only legitimate releasee. He had the names of 256 aviators memorized.
HEGDAHL: I was put in with an Air Force officer Joe Craga. He thought that if anybody would be released it would probably be me so I started to commit all names to memory. And at first I thought it be an impossible task. He said make it a rhythm or a jingle so it was like this, I'll give you an example. It was two hundred sixty eventually. I used to have a little skit I'd go through. It was like this lieutenant colonels Korjem, Used in the Margo, (Unintelligible). And when I got back I told uh, I was telling my debriefer and he says can you slow it down? I said no, it's like riding a bicycle, you know, you tip over. You know?
STRATTON: Doug was ordered to go home. I passed the order to him myself so I know it's a fact. Because he had those names. And he says I don't want to go. And I said this is a direct order, you don't have a choice. You will go home. You will accept early release.
PHYLLIS G.: It started around somebody's kitchen table in San Diego.
ALICE S.: The goal really was to increase public awareness and to get the support of the -- the public to write and to wear the bracelets and that sort of thing.
STOCKDALE: We very much wanted the policy to be changed. This keep quiet policy we called it where you never talked to the press and never told anything about your husband
PHYLLIS G.: We were trying to personalize it. I told the story about Paul, showed his picture, told about his life. Our goal was to have the world know what was going on and so hopefully they would exert pressure on the North Vietnamese to improve the treatment.
MRS. SINGLETON: We are in Paris where we hope to be able to meet privately with North Vietnamese representatives at the Paris Peace Talks. Our husbands have been missing from eight months to four years and we are hopeful North Vietnamese representatives will tell us if we are wives or widows.
SYBIL S.: On May 19, 1969, Melvin Laird who was then Secretary of Defense made the declaration that the prisoners were not being treated humanely. That was a great satisfaction to me and to all of us wives who had been working so hard just because the policy was changed.
BLISS: There were two seasons there. Winter and Summer. Spring is twenty four hours in Vietnam. It rains right up until the end of April sometime and then the sun comes out and it burns you alive. And uh, the thing I remember the most, it got so hot, I mean it really got hot, your eyes would swell shut, you wouldn't get enough salt. Your heat rash. And the sun would radiate all day on these rooms and then the walls would radiate all night.
MECHENBIER: And you lived twenty three hours and forty five minutes a day in that room. And when you're outside which is probably the accumulation of time to empty your honey bucket which is a two and a half gallon can which was your latrine facility, to go outside and get your meals twice a day, ten o'clock in the morning, two o'clock in the afternoon. And to go down to bathe out of a well. And then the rest of the time you're back in that room. And it's -- it's kind of what you call closed quarters.
STOCKDALE: But when you first are locked up for a month or so you -- you think that uh, I'm going to lose my mind. I'm going to go crazy. But then suddenly it dawns on you uh, uh, tough luck. Uh, you're -- you're going to have to get to know yourself. Uh, and -- and you do. And you -- you -- you discipline yourself. You don't just slop around. When you get out of bed you have something to do. You have time set aside for exercises. You have a time set aside to memorize -- to go over your list. The lists of the names of the prisoners. You have to recite them to yourself at least twice a day. And we had lists that were like five hundred people on them by the end. You have time for prayer. There is no time when you're just lounging around. You've got to keep your mind active. You've got to think about your tactics. You've got to think, think, think!
SHUMAKER: I would lose myself in -- in thought of -- of building a house for example you know, I knew how many bricks would go into this house. I mean this was a project that would go on for months and months. I was an engineer by training and so I would go back and calculate you know, the value of the sine of eight degrees to you know, to six decimal points or so and you didn't have pencil or paper. You do this all in -- in your mind.
MCKNIGHT: I wrote this poem uh, the Voices of God uh, the mournful wail of a distant train, the rooftop patter of a soft spring rain. The crash of thunder in the skies above, the words I love you, from the woman I love. Not bad huh?
MCGRATH: The only time I ever cried in prison was when I would dwell on my wife and my children and what are they doing and what's going on and how tough it must be for them. And uh, and it turned out some people said I don't want to think about my family, it's just too tough. And they'd think of something else. They'd go watch spiders or try to trap a rat or try to do something else but anything to keep their mind off their family.
BURROUGHS: We knew very little about what was happening in the world. All of it came second hand for instance the man landing on the moon was discovered because someone got a letter that had a postage stamp with uh, Neal Armstrong's picture on it. On the Moon.
CHERRY: They would bring film in that was made here in the states, the burnings of the cities and all of that. We got to see that. And uh, just about every one of us was very upset. We couldn't understand what was happening to the American people.
DRISCOLL: We felt that well okay, this is the American way. You can -- you can demonstrate but uh, a lot of us were uh, a little dismayed as to why are they doing this.
SHUMAKER: They'd tell us you know, oh, there are all kinds of parades in Washington, D.C. or you know, the anti war protests you know, just tuned all that stuff out. And uh, because certainly if we -- as military people, if we didn't question the value of the war as we went into it, you know, sitting in prison wasn't the time to start re-examining whether we ought to be there or not.
MCNISH: All of us came up with our own exercise programs. Some people their exercise program was laying under a blanket and waiting for the war to go away. Some of the rest of us uh, got almost ridiculous with our -- our exercise programs. You -- you find that you can walk about uh, fifteen or twenty miles in a six foot long room if you just turn around enough times.
RISNER: The ten months that I spent in the blacked out cell I went into panic. The only thing I could do was exercise. As long as I could move, I felt like I was going to -- well, it was so bad I would put a rag in my mouth and hold another one over it so I could scream. That seemed to help. It's not that I was scared, more scared than another other time or anything. It was happening to my nerves and my mind. And uh, I had to move or die. I'd wake up at two o'clock in the morning or midnight or three or whatever and I would jump up immediately and start running in place. Side straddle hops. Maybe four hours of sit ups. But I had to exercise. And of course I prayed a lot.
DRISCOLL: The Sunday church service, it's a very simple happening on a Sunday morning where the senior man of each building would make some kind of a sound that we could all hear and we'd all stand up in the middle of the room, bow our heads and say the Lord's Prayer. And then a short time later, he'd make another sound, we'd all turn, face the east because we figured that was the shortest distance to the United States. Uh, we'd put our hand over our heart and we said the Pledge of Allegiance. We'd do this every single Sunday that we were in North Vietnam.
MADISON: I'd be saying that well maybe I'll be home by labor day. Or maybe I'll be home by Thanksgiving. So setting those short term targets was very helpful for me in order to keep my morale up.
BAUGH: Before you know it there's another Christmas here. Then you start counting Christmases and it gets to be four or five and six. And then you -- you know you've been there a while.
MCNISH: And I had an undying faith that uh, my country was not going to forget me. No matter how long I stayed there, no matter even if I died there, my country was not going to forget me. I was -- I was vital and as an individual I was a precious entity to my country. And I believed that. And so that helped sustain me cause I knew as long as I stayed alive, that I was going to get back.
ALVAREZ: When Ho Chi Minh dies, everything sorta started to improve from that period on.
STRATTON: At that point, torture as a general rule stopped. And torture came from the highest levels of command. It was not something, some drunken camp commander did. Because on one day they had authority to torture and the next day they didn't.
DENTON: I had the experience of Cat, who was promoted from Major to about Lieutenant Colonel while we were there. And he announced to me, a major policy statement. Some officers and some guards had become so angry at what the Americans were doing to their country that they had far exceeded the limits which the government had wished they would uh, observe in treatment of prisoners. That they had um, brutally tortured us. That was the first time they ever acknowledged that it was torture not punishment. They were in effect, without mentioning Ho Chi Minh's name, passing the knowledge that Ho Chi Minh had been so lax as to let this happen. Or maybe had even ordered it, but now that he's dead we're fixing things. They never went so far as to observe the Geneva Conventions, but they made life better for us, from then on.
MECHENBIER: On the night of the big raid, we could hear the helicopters. We could see the flares we could hear the fires going on we could hear the big booms of the larger caliber guns going off. Uh, -- somethin'- something's going on over there.
STRATTON: This raid where commandos came in and tried to pull us out. That took us from individual, isolated solitary confinement, isolation and stuff like that and slammed a whole mess of us together. And then we really got organized as the fourth allied P.O.W. wing.
SINGLETON: The motto, decided upon by our Senior leaders was, 'Return with Honor'. Returning by itself uh, without honor was not going to be satisfactory. Um, having the honor but never returning would be uh, something short of what uh, our ultimate goal was.
GALANTI: Of course we'd all known each other, everything about each other, but in a lot of cases, we hadn't seen each other. So, uh, the first few days it was unreal.
DAY: And just being in that room with forty other roommates was just the most wonderful medicine that anybody could ever give ya.
STRATTON: Resistance posture was unified. You were reinforced in trying to do what was right. And then, we educated each other. People were teaching Spanish and Russian and uh, quantum physics and you name it, we we're teaching international relations.
FER: We had evenings at the movies. I was the John Wayne guy. I used to tell all the movies I'd ever seen about John Wayne's adventures.
MECHENBIER: I'd- I'd tell the guys bring their cups to class, these little tin cups we had or porcelain cups we had. And I'd go around and I'd say I am pouring for you uh, Mozell, Vintiger Schlaben- Schlagen . Okay, and I am pouring for you now a uh, burgundy wine there from France. Now, when would I serve that wine.
MCGRATH: We had a uh, a bamboo stick that we used to, to uh, flush the uh, our- our body fluids down a hole outside. And uh, we called it, it was- it was a shit stick. And uh, we'd sneak that in at night and, and uh, a good golfer named uh, Keith Hall, would teach us how to play golf at nighttime and how to grip it and how to swing, how to play golf using this stick.
STRATTON: As strange as it sounds it was a quality life.
CHERRY: In this particular night we heard the roar of the engines. Little different from what we'd been used to. Just constant roar, but lotta engines.
GALANTI: We hadn't heard that since March of '68. And all of a sudden there's a lot of action.
CHERRY: The Vietnamese start firing missles. And they were going over the rooftops of the camp. We bombed them for ten days. And we saw aircraft being shot down. And there is this huge, burning flame falling out of the sky. And all we could say, we hope the guys get out, you know, we hope they made it.
ALVAREZ: All night the 52's would come in the area and all day the A6's and F4's and all and others. So I could fully understand the dismay the population musta had with continual bombing, bombing, bombing. The guards wouldn't even man the towers anymore. When finally Christmas '72 came around and uh, and uh, right after that the bombing ceased. We knew it was a real thing.
MCKNIGHT: One day, they took us all out had us line in military formation, which they had never allowed before. And they said well the uh, Paris Peace Talks have, come to a conclusion and uh, the war is over. Uh, you will all be leaving in about uh, thirty days or something like that. And I'd always imagined the scene uh, like in the movies where you break into wild, hilarious cheering and everything else. But instead it was kind of a quiet uh, somber uh, period.
ALVAREZ: A lot of us old timers uh, the ol- the old- the old guys, really were emotionally drained. There was no emotion. It was, I'll believe it when I see it.
BLISS: We already had our shoes and everything- I mean real shoes such as they were we were going to walk out in shoes. And they opened the door and they said make coal balls. We said what?! We're going home. He said no the cease fire is broken down, you violated it. That was my worst fear. Because we had had so many ups and downs. In the early days they would give you a banana you thought you were going home, it was a fattening up program. But the day finally came.
ALVAREZ: We were lined up to go out of the- outta the prison to go board buses. For the first time we were not blind folds, we were not handcuffed, we were just in our new garb.
FER: I walked out with just the clothes that the Vietnamese issued, I didn't take any souvenirs back. I- I said forget- this is a- been a nice experience, I can chalk it up. It's something I've- what is it? uh, been there, done that! Whatever it is, uh, I don't need anything to remind me.
BLISS: They had let all of Hanoi to watch us come out with our heads down. We marched out in step with our heads high. We actually managed to pull off a column right and halt right at the bus. It was uh, it was pretty impressive.
ALVAREZ: Personally, I was so emotionally drained I think, of so many expectations in the past and so many disappointments and failures. So many close friends you lost, people that you live with that you,- they went away and you never saw them again. You became cold, you developed a shield that was for protection. So that you wouldn't let your emotions run away.
DENTON: I can see this beautiful C-141, an American plane at close range with the American flag on it, U.S. Air Force. An American ci- uh, military, uniform personnel, fifty or hundred yards from me. You don't know the feeling it gave me and i'm sure everybody else.
RISNER: You know fighter pilots have a tendency to look down their nose at cargo plane pilots, but this was beautiful; had Red Cross and American Air Force on it.
MADISON: I said, well I guess we really are gonna go home. So they took us off the bus and lined us up. You know we have a de-marcation line. You're free when you cross the line. Your still theirs over here and you belong to the U.S. when you get there.
BLISS: I looked over and there's The Rabbit over there, the famous interrogator, calling off our names and that was our last look at The Rabbit.
RISNER: And as luck would have it when I stepped across the line and stuck my hand out, there was an old friend there to greet me. Someone I had known before.
MCGRATH: I saluted and I kept a very stern military face and I refused to let myself smile until I rounded the corner and went up the ramp into the C-141. And then the smile broke out and in inside everyone was pandemonium. I- it- we're all hugging and, not hugging, but guys don't hug, girls hug. But we were all just you know, shakin' hands and talkin' with the Air Force personnel. Now it was quiet again as we took off and rolled down the runway and everybody's real silent. And as the wheels broke the ground we just went into pandemonium.
RISNER: They almost tore the guts out of that airplane. You've never heard such shouting and stomping going on-- Here our first significant proof that we were free. We were in an American airplane, we're airborne now.
MCKNIGHT: The thing was that uh, that we were going from the Dark Ages uh, the depths of the Dark Ages to uh, sweetness and light in about an hour and forty-five minutes.
ALVAREZ: It wasn't until we got on the airplane and we finally broke ground, everyone's cheering. And I looked over at Bob Shumaker, I'm sitting next to him, and I says well I guess this is for real. And that's it. But those shields, those emotional shields that develop over a period of time because you know, - the agony uh, uh, of your family and you couldn't talk to 'em, you couldn't touch 'em you know, you know, you couldn't anything, you develop this, this protectiveness I guess. A way to cope with what it was. And it took a long time to break that shield out, to melt, so that you became a warm person again. It was hard to show emotion to - to the point where you shed tears. The first time I really cried was when my kids were born, you know, and it took a long time.
BLISS: We were told that something remarkable was about to happen because for all the good divisiveness of our country, the one thing that everybody could agree upon was that the P.O.W.'s ought to come home.
DENTON: I had no idea there was going to be anything like the media attention that was given to this event or the build up in uh, in anticipation on the part of the American public and all. So when I met Admiral Gyder and he went up took me the microphone, said do you- do you want to say anything, I said well I- yeah I got a couple cents. And I said the sentences and then the God Bless America just--
DENTON: We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander In Chief and to Our Nation for this day. God Bless America.
STUTZ: We got off the bus uh, they said does anybody have any medical problems that need to be taken care of right now? And I said, well it's not real bad, but I've had a tooth ache for about five years. I was in the dental clinic in five minutes and it was taken care of in another five minutes. It was- it was fantastic the way they took care of as there.
BLISS: We had a clean, soft bed with white sheets on it. It was hard to sleep on, we'd been sleeping on concrete so long, it was too soft. We got a hot shower, with real soap. And they had a stainless steel pitcher in every room with water in it with ice cubes. Now you're looking at me like, this man is crazy. Let me tell you, that was like breaking the sound barrier, we were home.
MCKNIGHT: There was food and there was dessert and there was clean sheets and there was soft music and there was pretty nurses and there was - oohf - it was uh, (laughs) it was really overpowering.
STUTZ: I walked into that chow hall at the hospital and uh, the cook standing behind the counter there said uh, what'll it be? And I said I want a steak and a dozen fried eggs. And he fixed it right up for me. I went and ate that, went back and got seven eggs. I had nineteen fried eggs my first meal at Clark.
MCCAIN: It wasn't that I wanted to eat, I wanted to read, I read and fall asleep and read, fall asleep. I wanted to know all the things that happened while I was away.
RISNER: And the next morning they brought articles in uh, Uniform would begin to fit them on. I had everything on except my blue uniform jacket and someone held it up I put it on and I started to button the buttons and I looked down, I couldn't help it, I had to cry. And I'm not the only one. That was our release.
BLISS: There was an elderly blond lady, very heavy, and she looked at me and uh, and she said I sink (as said) I know how you feel. I spent two years in Auschwitz. And I said you know what? You oughta be standing over here and I oughta be in on that side of the fence.
MADISON: They did a three-sixty around the Golden Gate Bridge and they ensured that all of us were satisfied that we'd had a good glimpse of the USA, The Golden Gate Bridge, tremendous moment.
MRS. MADISON: What went through my mind was that this is my husband and I haven't seen him for six years. So, that was a little bit scary for awhile until we actually spoke.
BAUGH: And I remember thinking, I'm not gonna be able to walk down these steps 'cause I'm tellin' ya, I'm walkin' about two inches or three inches off the floor. I remember Mary rushing at me and she grabbed a hold of me and I picked her up and took her off the ground and held her forever, you know, just held her forever. Kissed her good. And then my children, uh, came up to me and I met youngest daughter for the first time.
MCNISH: For six and a half years you- you dream and plan and try to survive for that some day when you get home, and then all of a sudden you step off the plane and some day's here, and uh, and it- it- there is nothing to describe the- the emotional highs that surrounded that -that-- event. I mean, you know, gettin' through sayin' that and runnin' over to the car where my mom was and seein' her for the first time, in, in uh, six and a half years.
SHUMAKER: I'd asked uh, Lorraine to be in a mini skirt, 'cause in the first years of my imprisonment, I guess, until that was the dress code of young uh, women in the United States. And here eight years later I'd missed all that.
LORRAINE SHUMAKER: That morning I was very nervous and mini skirts were gone but I dressed up in a mini skirt. Then all of a sudden, I was concerned about how Grant would react that morning and I was putting my make-up on and he was looking up at me and he was um, just a bright little kid, but uh, very shy and then I was concerned he wouldn't hug his father and that would hurt Bob, so I looked at him and I said what are you gonna do when you see Daddy? 'Cause I knew if I told him, kiss his father, that wouldn't work. He shrugged his shoulders and, kinda looked at me and, uh, well I said you know what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna run up and give him a big kiss, you know. And he kinda looked at me still with his big eyes and didn't comment and, then I looked back down and I said, and I'll beat you to him. Bob came out of the plane. I said, there's your daddy, and in front of thousands of people, Grant left my hand and ran up to his dad, you know, and I think Bob had a little speech to give and I don't think he was able to give it either.
ALVAREZ: We have so much more strength than we even dreamed of physically, mentally, to put up with all kinds of things. I think few people are rarely called on to use everything you have. And once you've gone through something like that, uh,. Listen, we go through these day to day ordeals and stresses, and uh, crises. They're not crises. They're nothing. I mean as long as you have your health and you have your uh, brain power, your mental power and you have um, your ability, physical ability, uh, you don't need anything else. I think that's the biggest lesson.
MECHENBIER: Wow am I lucky. How many guys will never have this opportunity? How many guys did we leave behind? Never got a chance to be a prisoner of war. What a great job. Beats the heck out of bein' killed in action. And I think that's one thing that all of us came away with. Not that we're heroes. We're nothing special. We were just the unlucky guys who happened to have the opportunity to serve in a very different circumstance, but we had that opportunity, and others didn't. Both in the South end of the country and in the North up in the air. To them, that's what this is all about. The people who never had a chance to come home.
PETERSON: I found that the idea of Vietnam uh, would not leave me. It was part of me, and so instead of trying to throw it away I- I ultimately embraced it and said well, okay, this maybe I can play a role.
MRS. STOCKDALE: I remember the first morning he was home he went out and got the newspaper and he came in, sat down at the breakfast table and started to read the newspaper and I thought hah! I've had that newspaper for seven and a half years, what is this all about? (laughs)
GALANTI: Number One, I'm not as tough as I thought I was, Number Two, I'm a lot more resilient than I thought I was, and um, Number Three is, there's no such thing as a bad day when you have a doorknob on the inside of the door.