WASHINGTON -- This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the fateful day the first U.S. troops went ashore in South Vietnam. But by then U.S. aircraft had already been bombing North Vietnam for seven months and downed American pilots had fallen into a hell that would last for the rest of the war.
Hayden Lockhart was the first Air Force pilot to fall into North Vietnamese hands. A photograph of Lockhart shows him being paraded through the streets of Hanoi. Lockhart is still alive, although too ill to attend a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of his shoot down.
But in the audience were two former Navy pilots who suffered even longer.
"I was the first," Everett Alvarez told me. "I was shot down August 5, 1964."
Flying off an aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulf, Everett Alvarez was shot down on the very first day U.S. jets bombed the North.
"I thought I was going to, to die," Alvarez recalled. "I thought that they were going to kill me."
Robert Shumaker was shot down six months later.
"By the time the parachute opened, it was only about 35 feet above the ground, consequently I broke my back on landing," said Shumaker.
As the bombing continued, hundreds of American pilots were shot down and captured. Some died in captivity; others were brutally tortured, tied into impossible contortions or just left locked in irons.
"With Hayden they handcuffed his left wrist to his right ankle, and you can imagine how painful that must be after hours and hours, this went on for about two weeks," said Shumaker.
The only way to stop the pain was to tell the North Vietnamese something more than just name, rank and serial number.The first time Alvarez broke, he says, he felt like the "lowest form of human in the world."
"I tried to commit suicide to prevent giving more by banging my head against a wall," said Shumaker.
An alphabetical grid prisoners used to tap out messages to each other through the walls of their cells helped saved him.
"It was our lifeline," said Alvarez. "It was what kept us together and keeping together that was, that was the key."
Alvarez says he can still tap but admits he's not as good he used to be.
After eight years, Alvarez, Shumaker, and Lockhart -- along with 459 other pilots -- were finally released as part of the treaty which ended the war. By then Alvarez was known as "the old man of the North." He was not the oldest POW but he had been there the longest.