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Politics // Coffee Break
Jerry Coffee

A Reunion With Vietnam POWs

The author with his roommate at the Hanoi Hilton, Art Black. This was their first meeting in nearly 40 years | Photo from Susan Page

En route to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., the eight big, shiny buses (truly the limousines of tour buses) carrying returned Vietnam POWs and their guests – mostly wives or other close family members – made their way down Yorba Linda Boulevard to the cheers and waves of hundreds of local folks.

My enduring impression, through misty eyes, is of the dozen or so first-graders lined across the porch of the KFC all waving American flags and enthusiastically cheering us on.

As we pulled into the circular drive of the library itself, we were surrounded by throngs of local well-wishers and a hundred “Rolling Thunder” bikers who had escorted our buses the last several miles, most of them proud Vietnam veterans as well.

There followed a few short welcoming speeches and introductions by library officials, President Richard M. Nixon’s younger brother Edward – himself an ex-Navy helo pilot – and the president’s daughter Tricia.

The next few hours were occupied by staggered tours with 30 or so POWs with each guide, and separated by a golf tournament-style “shotgun start,” which made the most efficient use of our time.

The library, of course, featured Nixon’s achievements, such as founding the Environmental Protection Agency, opening up diplomatic relations with Mao’s Red China, and bringing the Vietnam war to an end with honor – later dishonored by a Democrat-led Congress refusing funding for promised continued material support for South Vietnam’s armed forces, thereby snatching defeat from the jaws of our victory.

Perhaps the most noteworthy section was the
library’s comprehensive coverage of the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s most unflattering and darkest hour, which ultimately led to his resignation of the presidency.

The day concluded with a terrific barbecue picnic, which featured Tony Orlando singing his hit song Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree, which has become not only the POWs’ but all returning veterans’ theme song.

The next day featured late afternoon and evening at the library, which reprised the elegant formal welcome -home banquet at the Nixon White House May 24, 1975.

That event – about which I have written separately – featured many celebrities of the day, and 30 or so POWs in an impromptu choir singing the POW Hymn, composed by a University of North Carolina music major turned Air Force fighter pilot turned POW, Col. Quincy Collins.

He composed the hymn in prison, using four fellow POWs (including yours truly) for his “piano” to get the harmony just right.

Well, we did it again for this occasion at the library. Dressed in dashing Navy and Air Force mess dress (formal), we sang:

Oh God to Thee we raise this prayer and sing from within these foreign prison walls

We’re men who wear the gold and silver wings and proudly heed our nation’s call

Give us strength to withstand all the harm that the hand of our enemy captors can do

To inflict pain and strife and deprive every life of the rights they know well we are due

We pledge unswerving faith and loyalty to our cause … America … and Thee … Amen … Amen!

During the four days of the reunion, we all stayed at Hyatt Regency Newport Beach, about a 45-minute freeway drive to the library.

There were welcome and farewell events at the hotel as well, but the best part was in the “Ready Room,” the center of the action for any military pilot.

The Hyatt had set aside a pool-side banquet room well stocked with hard and soft drinks, 24-hour snacks and information boards. A dozen round tables with chairs hosted many an animated group retelling favorite sea stories, war stories and dog fights – complete with appropriate “airplane hands.”

For me, personally, these unique bonds of friendship and mutual respect are unequalled in any other relationship.

It was true reunion, some had not seen old cellmates for decades – cellmates with whom they had spent more years than with their wives at the time.

Although arithmetic dictated the youngest of us was around 65 years old, there was a great deal of enthusiasm for a 50th anniversary reunion as well.

I’m goin’ for it!

coffee1776@gmail.com

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