Giants Among Heroes
Prisoner of War Speaks on Eight Years in Captivity
The sky is blue, the sun is bright, and the Sailors manning the rails are gleaming in their dress whites. On the pier, between USS Stockdale (DDG 106) and USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110), the official party approaches the stage.
They are gathering at Naval Base San Diego in honor of National POW/MIA Remembrance Day, in between two guided-missile destroyers named for two of the most notable POWs of the Vietnam War, Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale and Vice Adm. William P. Lawrence.
Lastly, an older man in a dark gray suit makes his way past the side boys and to the stage. His white shirt gleams as brightly as the uniforms where it peeks out from under his jacket, as does his white hair. But what shines out most bright and most clear, is his confident and easy demeanor. He seems very calm, at peace with himself.
He is retired Cmdr. Everett Alvarez, Jr. And he spent eight-and-a-half years in captivity in North Vietnam, the second-longest tenure of any POW in American history.
"Today's ceremony has a personal meaning, because it gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to two good friends," said Alvarez.
His voice breaks a little with his next words.
"Both now deceased," he said
A little more than a year after he was shot down, then Cmdr. James Stockdale joined him in captivity, and then Cmdr. William Lawrence a few months after that.
God must have had a plan when these two officers joined the group.
- Retired Cmdr. Everett Alvarez, Jr.
By that time, the North Vietnamese were putting into place their policies on how they would treat the prisoners of war.
"And things were getting tough," he said, a terse understatement.
"The North Vietnamese's policy was that the war was illegal, and that they had never signed the Geneva Accords anyways," said Alvarez. "Therefore, American service members were criminals and the purpose of detaining them was to rid them of "anti-social tendencies" or "bad attitudes" that criminals were supposed to have."
There are chuckles from the audience. Many of those gathered are former POWs, or members of their families.
"We could be cured, they said, if we only saw 'American Imperialism in its true light,'" he continued. "And if we could just see that, and admit it, freely and honestly, over the radio broadcasts, tapes, even preach it to our fellow POWs, under any circumstances that they demanded, if we did that then we would be considered cured and we could go home."
But on the other hand if they didn't repent and show "progress," then they were demonstrating a "bad attitude," and were therefore hardened criminals and subject to the severest punishments.
This was when the torture began. And this was also when leadership stepped up.
Among those present is retired Capt. Charles Plumb. The day before the ceremony, he spoke to the chief petty officer's mess and wardroom of USS Stockdale, telling them about his experience.