Last week the Nixon Presidential Library, in Yorba Linda, Calif., held a reunion of veterans – former prisoners of war held captive in North Vietnam – who were hailed as heroes, a word that still makes them uncomfortable.
"As POWs, we don't want people to honor us or call us heroes; we're not heroes," said Lieutenant Commander Mike McGrath. "We just served our country, and we got back with our families."
McGrath was a Navy pilot when he was shot down over Vietnam. He spent six years in captivity at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," enduring brutal interrogations. "They tortured us. They broke every single one of us," he said.
Lieutenant Jack Ensch, a Navy pilot who was shot down in 1967, said, "I had a wife and three little girls back home. I certainly wanted to see them again."
A captor amputated Ensch's injured thumb with no anesthesia. "He says, 'No need for that. You have caused pain in our country; now it's time for you to suffer,'" Ensch recalled.
Lieutenant Commander "Charlie" Plumb described the torture as "too painful. And so, I gave in. And I felt very guilty about that."
Evans asked, "Did you feel like you betrayed your country?"
"I did, I did," he replied.
Devastated, Plumb eventually confessed to a higher-ranking prisoner. The response? "'Hell, everybody broke. There's not a man in this prison camp who was as strong as he wanted to be.'"
They communicated at great risk through sign language and a complex Morse code. Tapping code on the walls, said McGrath, "was our line of resistance."
The unity, said Ensch, "was what got us through. One guy would be down, and you pick him up."
When the surviving 591 Vietnam POWs were released in 1973, they came home to ticker tape parades, much to their surprise. Plumb said, "It was somewhat confusing, you know, because, you know, we were the guys that didn't accomplish our mission."
Fifty years ago this month, they were the special guests of President Richard Nixon in Washington, invited to what is still the largest dinner ever held at the White House.
The reunions became a time-honored tradition for the group, and earlier this month the 1973 White House dinner was recreated this month (right down to the china and silverware) at the Nixon Library in California.
Now a retired captain, McGrath documented his time as a POW with drawings that he turned into a book, displayed along with other memories.
After returning home, 90% of the POWs stayed in the military, while many found success in civilian life.
"There's 27 of us made admiral and general," said McGrath.
Now mostly in their eighties, they worry about a country divided once again repeating mistakes. Ensch asked, "Didn't we learn anything from Vietnam?"
"We are certainly much stronger collectively than we are individually," said Plumb.
McGrath said, "And so, here we are 50 years later, we're still sticking together. We didn't give up."
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