To really appreciate the mettle and ethical soundness of what America's service academies produce, one only need conjure up the likes of our own Jim Stockdale '47, Bill Lawrence '51, Ed Martin '54, John McCain '58, Paul Galanti '62, and Mike McGrath '62, among others. Their names evoke the depths of suffering at the hands of our enemies, and whose perseverance shall stand as exemplars throughout time.
Many of us can remember the grainy documentaries and news footage of the day, as well as print photography and articles, that depicted the POWs at various stages: when captured, during their incarceration, and at their release. Today, however, many people have absolutely no idea about that segment of American history. "Return with Honor" brings that part of the Vietnam war home, vividly transporting the viewer back in time, while listening to the riveting, first-person accounts of former POWs. Twenty Navy and Air Force pilots, "back seaters", six Navy wives, and one Air Force wife, gave their oral histories, which are seamlessly integrated with documentary file footage of the war.
"Return with Honor" is presented by actor Tom Hanks who has been deeply affected by the POWs extraordinary courage and sacrifice. He wanted all Americans to have a chance to see this story. The film was produced and directed by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, who won an Oscar for their film "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision", a feature documentary about "The Wall" -- the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Credit for getting this story on film, however, must go to three U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 1965 alumni who approached Mock and Sanders. They had recorded oral histories of Air Force Academy alumni who had been POWs. They then approached the USAFA Association of Graduates, which obtained a grant from the Boeing-McDonnell Foundation and underwriting support from MBNA. Their 39 bound volumes became the basis for developing "Return with Honor". USNA graduates had attempted similar efforts, but have been as yet, unsuccessful in getting projects underway.
The film is done in traditional oral history documentary style, focusing on interviews with POWs and their wives. Through superb integration of POW cameos and file footage from (then North) Vietnamese films from the U.S. archives, a powerful and unforgettable story unfolds. It starts with Everett Alvarez and ends 462 returned POWs later, with their arrivals at Clark AFB in the Philippines.
The production is marked by outstanding cinematography. It literally jerks the heartstrings and no one goes away unaffected. For Navy viewers, the only minor gripe might be that by opening and closing with Air Force Academy cadets, and its natural AOG flavor, some younger viewers may perceive all the POWs were Air Force personnel. This happened with one or two people at the screening I attended.
"Return With Honor" also includes historical details about America's role in Vietnam. In one interview, it was said that many aviators around Yankee Station did not find the Tonkin Gulf PT boat attacks convincing enough for President Johnson to have sought the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, a controversy that remains to this day. More importantly, the film explains how POWs continued to fight by other means, frustrating the North Vietnamese and their attempts to use them in the DRVN propaganda effort. Every POW had a breaking point that their captors were able to reach. But the issue is not that the POWs were "broken", but that they attempted to foil the North Vietnamese use of their ill begotten information. In written statements, in letters allegedly sent home, and appearances before the media, the great majority of POWs used keywords and gestures for disinformation, as well as for signaling to those in the know back home.
We also learn about how they passed information by the famous "tap code" which used a 5x5 grid for designating 25 letters of the alphabet. Implementation of the code helped overcome the sensation of seclusion and separation from their fellow prisoners. The North Vietnamese never were able to break their will to communicate. These POWs consistently always felt low whenever they had to give in, no matter how small or insignificant that was, but they were determined to do nothing that would preclude a "return with honor".
Some prisoners did attempt escape. One break down the Red River, dubbed the "swim to California", was the closest to success. Even in failure, the move forced their jailers to react. The Son Tay Raid further helped the POWs. They were all gathered at Hoa Lo which allowed better communication and a more accurate picture of the situation. This also improved the internal organization of the POWs greatly. A plan evolved whereby at early release, a young seaman would be ordered out by the senior POW to return stateside with the names of those at Hoa Lo memorized.
However, not all POWs served as honorably. Two senior officers took early release, leaving prison out of the established order -- first in, first out. When other POWs returned to the U.S., two top POW officers sought to have the two "early releases" court-martialed. Though the Secretary of the Army was adamant in his veto of such a course, stating that any court-martial would make them cause celebre and a boon to the political left, as well as become problematic in diplomatic affairs, the two were ordered out of the military for the good of the service, and were considered pariahs by former POWs and many servicemen. This censure underscores what it really means to "return with honor."
Many will recall the wives' side of the tale. Wives were officially told only that their husbands were missing in action, but then might receive a letter from her husband delivered through the Red Cross. POW wives played a major part in getting that reversed by pressuring the military services and the political leaders in Washington. When Defense Secretary Melvin Laird reversed the policy, the U.S. government then demanded the POWs' release.
With Ho Chi Minh's death, torture of prisoners stopped and food improved somewhat. As the Paris Peace Talks went on and the POWs were due to be released, the old-timers, so emotionally drained, said they would believe it when they saw it. Eventually, it happened. As they were reporting on the roll call to muster out of Hoa Lo, the POWs saw, for the last time, their chief torturer, who was the mustering out announcer. As the buses left Hoa Lo, observers could see many smiling, happy young faces; they were happy because this meant the American War really was over for the north and there would be no more bombing for a weary people.
All that remains today of Hoa Lo is the one side with the main entrance over which is inscribed "La Maison Centrale", and the main entry house with long wings off it paralleling the remaining front wall. One still gets the feeling of the oppressiveness of the place and is still shocked by the guillotine room, with its torture implements and a complete list of official executioners since its doors were first opened by the French. There is only one small room upstairs in a back wing that gives any evidence of the American POWs. Unfortunately, it is misleading. There are only two or three panels of media event pictures and iron cot on which POWs allegedly slept. There is not even a whiff of any aspect of their torture or mistreatment, just one small paltry exhibit. What remains of Hoa Lo is, in fact, a memorial to all the Vietnamese that were even more severely mistreated and tortured by the French, rather than how the American POWs were treated by their Vietnamese jailers.
Today, Americans are very much welcome in a land where more than half the population was born after 1975 and are treated as if the American War never happened. The French, however, remain hated. There can be no doubt that the great majority of Americans who fought in Vietnam, and especially the POWs, have truly "returned with honor".
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Return With Honor -
12 July 2000