June 4, 2023

For Charlie Plumb, a retired Navy captain shot down after 74 profitable missions, seeing lots of the guys he was held with in a North Vietnamese jail was an indescribable expertise on Tuesday, Might 23.

“Seeing these guys I haven’t seen in a very long time is admittedly neat, particularly once you’re in a jail cell with nothing else to do; you get to know these guys very well,” stated Plumb, who spent six years within the “Hanoi Hilton” jail. “It’s a bond that may’t be replicated and might’t be damaged. Among the guys saved my life, and a few guys stated I saved their lives.”

Almost 170 American prisoners of struggle, together with Plumb, marked on Tuesday the fiftieth anniversary of their launch following the Paris Peace Accords that ended U.S. involvement within the Vietnam Conflict with a go to to the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda. It was the primary day of what is going to be three days of occasions on the library.

Nixon’s administration negotiated the discharge of 591 American prisoners, who returned dwelling in February and March 1973. On Might 24, 1973, the president and his spouse, Pat, hosted the most important dinner in White Home historical past – nonetheless to this date – in honor of the POWs. This week’s reunion features a formal dinner within the library’s duplicate of the White Home East Room that’s meant to recreate that state dinner, all the way down to the menu gadgets and centerpieces.

The reunion began Tuesday with a parade to the Nixon Library, a flyover and excursions of the galleries, together with a brand new exhibit on the POWs’ expertise.

Plumb, of Westlake Village, was 24 when he was shot down on Might 19, 1967, 5 days earlier than what would have been the top of his tour flying missions off the USS Kitty Hawk. He was flying his F-4 with a bunch escorting bombers simply south of Hanoi when his aircraft was hit with a surface-to-air missile from behind and went down.

Plumb stated he and his radar man floated down in parachutes whereas being shot at by the North Vietnamese. As soon as they landed in a rice paddy, they had been blindfolded and gagged, finally touchdown within the jail.

“They known as us struggle criminals (as an alternative of prisoners of struggle), and due to that, they felt like they didn’t need to abide by the Geneva Conference,” he stated. “I personally knew of no executions, however I do know guys who had been tortured to loss of life.”

Plumb stated he and different prisoners spent years in 8-by-8 foot cells, shackled nightly to their beds and often questioned and tortured. The North Vietnamese quizzed the prisoners on navy data within the early years after which shifted to propaganda, Plumb stated.

“All of us flew our missions considering we had been robust sufficient,” he stated. “However the torture approach labored and many people broke. The results of breaking was guilt. In solitary confinement, you’re alone all day and also you blame your self.”

Code turned a lifeline for the POWs, serving to them assist one another of their solitude and construct resistance towards their captors, Plumb stated.

When first imprisoned, a small wire appeared in a gap in his cell. Plumb stated he thought it at first a cricket as a result of it made a small chirping noise.

Two hours later it appeared once more, with a chunk of bathroom paper introducing him to a code developed by the primary American taken prisoner, Carlyle “Smitty” Harris.

“It was pretty simple to know, and 6 years later, we may go 15 phrases a minute,” Plumb stated.

Vietnam POWs Mike McGrath, left, and Charlie Plumb at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library as they celebrate the 50th anniversary of the return of the Vietnam POWs in Yorba Linda, CA, on Tuesday, May 23, 2023. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Vietnam POWs Mike McGrath, left, and Charlie Plumb on the Richard Nixon Presidential Library as they have a good time the fiftieth anniversary of the return of the Vietnam POWs in Yorba Linda, CA, on Tuesday, Might 23, 2023. (Picture by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Jim Stockdale, the jail’s senior residing Naval officer, was utilizing the code to arrange and encourage the American prisoners, Plumb stated. Stockdale spent seven years imprisoned and was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

Stockdale requested the American prisoners to point out resistance to their captors, Plumb stated, together with not bowing to the jailers after they got here to their cells.

“It confirmed the enemy we had energy and unity,” Plumb stated, including that Stockdale despatched out messages of inspiration together with that they had been “not on the defensive, however the offensive.”

“We’ll pursue the struggle to our final dying breath,” Plumb remembered one coded message saying. “It completely labored and saved our lives to have this self-discipline. It gave us confidence that we’d make it. As soon as Stockdale took cost, it constructed morale and we turned higher individuals.”

On Tuesday, on the opening ceremony of the POWs gathering, Plumb, now 80, sat with Mike McGrath, who was 27 when he was shot down close to Hanoi on his 179th fight mission.

McGrath, who retired as a Naval captain in 1987, flew an A4C Skyhawk off the USS Constellation. The 2 pilots shared some tales after which McGrath lead an impromptu tour of the Nixon Library’s newly opened exhibit, “Captured: Shot Down in Vietnam.”

Among the many artifacts was a e-book, “Prisoner of Conflict,” that McGrath wrote and illustrated and introduced to Nixon throughout a earlier POW reunion on the Western White Home in San Clemente. The e-book had been present in Nixon’s archives and is now on show within the presidential library.

As McGrath toured the exhibit, explaining the key codes utilized by the prisoners, he bumped into different POW veterans, together with Mike Brazelton, who invented one other code utilized by the jail. An Air Pressure pilot, he was among the many longest to be held captive.

“They stored watching us day and evening to see if we had been speaking,” McGrath, 83, stated as he leaned on the exhibit wall and tapped a rhythm of knocks that spelled out how he was doing. “In the event that they caught us, they might torture us.”

As he continued to have a look at artifacts within the exhibit, McGrath discovered a map of Hanoi that confirmed the assorted camps prisoners had been rotated between. McGrath stated he was at a camp dubbed Canine Patch, about 50 miles from the Chinese language border, when he came upon that he and the others could be freed.

It was the primary time, he stated, that he met lots of the males he had been speaking with by means of their secret codes. The prisoners had been flown from Vietnam in C-140s and landed at Clark Air Pressure Base within the Philippines. From there they had been returned to their respective cities throughout the USA.

“All of us bounced again and many people stayed within the navy,” McGrath stated. “We simply received over it. We simply occurred to have a six-year jail expertise. In a wholesome life, you press on and also you don’t harbor a grudge.”

The significance of the reunion occasion wasn’t misplaced to those that lived close to the library. Dozens lined Yorba Linda Boulevard to see the parade of POWs, together with 16-year-old Connor Udhus, who skipped a couple of courses to attend.

“I believe there’s important significance to honoring the POWs; I believe they went by means of hell,” the teenager wearing a patriotic shirt stated. “It’s so necessary to point out respect.”

Throughout the road, a bunch of youngsters in pre-school by means of highschool from an area homeschool program belted out “God Bless America” because the POWs paraded by.

After the parade, a flyover and excursions of the presidential library, the POWs and their households had been handled to a barbecue and live performance.

Amongst them was Mind Ward, an Air Pressure navigator “backseater,” who was shot down in 1972 along with his pilot.

The San Pedro resident was trying ahead to the duplicate dinner deliberate for Wednesday, remembering effectively the one 50 years in the past that included celebrities like John Wayne and Irving Berlin. He additionally had a private greeting from Nixon.

“It was grand,” Ward stated, however added that he had combined feelings as a result of, in contrast to many Vietnam veterans, he was celebrated as a hero with an elaborate homecoming, whereas the others had been shunned by an American inhabitants that had began to query the struggle and wished troops withdrawn.

“Nobody wished to listen to their story, however they wished to listen to mine,” he stated. “That they had a special expertise.”

The reunion was bittersweet for different as effectively; many anticipated it to be the final huge gathering of the POWs.

“It’s nearly a farewell; it’s bittersweet,” McGrath stated. “I’ll by no means get to see these guys once more.”