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Vietnam's last POWs gather for perhaps a final salute

(CBS News) YORBA LINDA, Calif. - This weekend, nearly 200 former prisoners of war gathered in California for a double celebration.

They marked 40 years since their release from North Vietnamese prisons, and the heroes' welcome they received at the White House.

It may have been the last large reunion of American POWs from the Vietnam War.

Everett Alvarez
Everett Alvarez CBS News

"In many ways it's going to be a final salute to the guys because we are losing them," said Everett Alvarez, who was the first American shot down in Vietnam.

He was beaten and tortured in captivity.

"[I was in captivity] a total of eight and a half years," Alvarez said. "We had a code: It was return with honor. Our dignity, our character that brought us through."

When Alvarez and 590 other POWs finally came home in 1973, it was a moment a war-weary nation could celebrate.

"Those are the last known prisoners of war," Walter Cronkite said at the time. "That part of the Vietnam tragedy is over."

Family members reunion with POWs in 1973.
Family members reunion with POWs in 1973. CBS News
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Navy Captain Jerry Coffee had been locked up for 7 years.

"The return of the POWs symbolized for our nation the end of a very painful chapter," Coffee said. "For that reason, we got the homecoming every Vietnam veteran should have had."

President Nixon held a dinner for all of the POWs on the south lawn of the White House. It remains the largest dinner ever held at the White House.

Nixon said at the time: "Never has the White House been more proud than it is tonight because of the guests we have tonight."

"It was huge," Alvarez said. "Lots of celebrities. I sat with John Wayne at our table. I thought, 'Oh man, this is it...I'm sitting with the Duke.'"

Vietnam veterans gather at a reunion in Yorba Linda, Calif.
Vietnam veterans gather at a reunion in Yorba Linda, Calif. CBS News

Despite the smiles, it was not an easy week for President Nixon. The Watergate hearings began six days before the POW dinner.

This weekend they gathered for dinner again, this time at Nixon's Presidential Library, where a new exhibit honors their experience and their memories.

"Together we stepped into the dungeons and we faced the dragon and we came out of it," Alvarez said.

It is a bond that time has only made stronger.