For Charlie Plumb, a retired Navy captain shot down after 74 successful missions, seeing many of the guys he was held with in a North Vietnamese prison was an indescribable experience on Tuesday, May 23.
“Seeing these guys I haven’t seen in a long time is really neat, especially when you’re in a prison cell with nothing else to do; you get to know these guys really well,” said Plumb, who spent six years in the “Hanoi Hilton” prison. “It’s a bond that can’t be replicated and can’t be broken. Some of the guys saved my life, and some guys said I saved their lives.”
Nearly 170 American prisoners of war, including Plumb, marked on Tuesday the 50th anniversary of their release following the Paris Peace Accords that ended U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War with a visit to the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda. It was the first day of what will be three days of events at the library.
Nixon’s administration negotiated the release of 591 American prisoners, who returned home in February and March 1973. On May 24, 1973, the president and his wife, Pat, hosted the largest dinner in White House history – still to this date – in honor of the POWs. This week’s reunion includes a formal dinner in the library’s replica of the White House East Room that is meant to recreate that state dinner, down to the menu items and centerpieces.
The reunion started Tuesday with a parade to the Nixon Library, a flyover and tours of the galleries, including a new exhibit on the POWs’ experience.
Plumb, of Westlake Village, was 24 when he was shot down on May 19, 1967, five days before what would have been the end of his tour flying missions off the USS Kitty Hawk. He was flying his F-4 with a group escorting bombers just south of Hanoi when his plane was hit with a surface-to-air missile from behind and went down.
Plumb said he and his radar man floated down in parachutes while being shot at by the North Vietnamese. Once they landed in a rice paddy, they were blindfolded and gagged, ultimately landing in the prison.
“They called us war criminals (instead of prisoners of war), and because of that, they felt like they didn’t have to abide by the Geneva Convention,” he said. “I personally knew of no executions, but I know guys who were tortured to death.”
Plumb said he and other prisoners spent years in 8-by-8 foot cells, shackled nightly to their beds and regularly questioned and tortured. The North Vietnamese quizzed the prisoners on military information in the early years and then shifted to propaganda, Plumb said.
“We all flew our missions thinking we were tough enough,” he said. “But the torture technique worked and many of us broke. The result of breaking was guilt. In solitary confinement, you’re alone all day and you blame yourself.”
Code became a lifeline for the POWs, helping them support each other in their solitude and build resistance against their captors, Plumb said.
When first imprisoned, a small wire appeared in a hole in his cell. Plumb said he thought it at first a cricket because it made a small chirping noise.
Two hours later it appeared again, with a piece of toilet paper introducing him to a code developed by the first American taken prisoner, Carlyle “Smitty” Harris.
“It was fairly easy to understand, and six years later, we could go 15 words a minute,” Plumb said.
Jim Stockdale, the prison’s senior residing Naval officer, was using the code to organize and encourage the American prisoners, Plumb said. Stockdale spent seven years imprisoned and was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
Stockdale asked the American prisoners to show resistance to their captors, Plumb said, including not bowing to the jailers when they came to their cells.
“It showed the enemy we had power and unity,” Plumb said, adding that Stockdale sent out messages of inspiration including that they were “not on the defensive, but the offensive.”
“We’ll pursue the war to our last dying breath,” Plumb remembered one coded message saying. “It absolutely worked and saved our lives to have this discipline. It gave us confidence that we’d make it. Once Stockdale took charge, it built morale and we became better people.”
On Tuesday, at the opening ceremony of the POWs gathering, Plumb, now 80, sat with Mike McGrath, who was 27 when he was shot down near Hanoi on his 179th combat mission.
McGrath, who retired as a Naval captain in 1987, flew an A4C Skyhawk off the USS Constellation. The two pilots shared some stories and then McGrath lead an impromptu tour of the Nixon Library’s newly opened exhibit, “Captured: Shot Down in Vietnam.”
Among the artifacts was a book, “Prisoner of War,” that McGrath wrote and illustrated and presented to Nixon during a previous POW reunion at the Western White House in San Clemente. The book had been found in Nixon’s archives and is now on display in the presidential library.
As McGrath toured the exhibit, explaining the secret codes used by the prisoners, he ran into other POW veterans, including Mike Brazelton, who invented another code used by the prison. An Air Force pilot, he was among the longest to be held captive.
“They kept watching us day and night to see if we were communicating,” McGrath, 83, said as he leaned on the exhibit wall and tapped a rhythm of knocks that spelled out how he was doing. “If they caught us, they would torture us.”
As he continued to look at artifacts in the exhibit, McGrath found a map of Hanoi that showed the various camps prisoners were rotated between. McGrath said he was at a camp dubbed Dog Patch, about 50 miles from the Chinese border, when he found out that he and the others would be freed.
It was the first time, he said, that he met many of the men he had been communicating with through their secret codes. The prisoners were flown from Vietnam in C-140s and landed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. From there they were returned to their respective towns across the United States.
“We all bounced back and many of us stayed in the military,” McGrath said. “We just got over it. We just happened to have a six-year prison experience. In a healthy life, you press on and you don’t harbor a grudge.”
The importance of the reunion event wasn’t lost to those who lived near the library. Dozens lined Yorba Linda Boulevard to see the parade of POWs, including 16-year-old Connor Udhus, who skipped a few classes to attend.
“I think there is significant importance to honoring the POWs; I think they went through hell,” the teen dressed in a patriotic shirt said. “It’s so important to show respect.”
Across the street, a group of kids in pre-school through high school from a local homeschool program belted out “God Bless America” as the POWs paraded by.
After the parade, a flyover and tours of the presidential library, the POWs and their families were treated to a barbecue and concert.
Among them was Brain Ward, an Air Force navigator “backseater,” who was shot down in 1972 with his pilot.
The San Pedro resident was looking forward to the replica dinner planned for Wednesday, remembering well the one 50 years ago that included celebrities like John Wayne and Irving Berlin. He also had a personal greeting from Nixon.
“It was grand,” Ward said, but added that he had mixed emotions because, unlike many Vietnam veterans, he was celebrated as a hero with an elaborate homecoming, while the others were shunned by an American population that had started to question the war and wanted troops withdrawn.
“No one wanted to hear their story, but they wanted to hear mine,” he said. “They had a different experience.”
The reunion was bittersweet for other as well; many expected it to be the last big gathering of the POWs.
“It’s almost a farewell; it’s bittersweet,” McGrath said. “I’ll never get to see these guys again.”