Surface Warfare Magazine
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1/1/2016
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.

Cmdr. Everett Alvarez, Jr. (USN Ret.)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,” said Alvarez.

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."

 

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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.

Plumb:

"The first prison cell we were all introduced to in Vietnam was eight feet long and eight feet wide," said Plumb, who spent nearly six years as a POW during the Vietnam War.

He could remember perfectly the dimensions of his cell. Three steps in one direction before he ran into a wall, and then having the opportunity to turn around and walk three more the other way.

"Inside my new home I had nothing to do, no books to read, no window to look out, no TV, telephone, video, Blackberry, Bluetooth- I didn't have a pencil or piece of paper. For 2,103 days. And I was a short timer," he said.

When he first communicated in prison with another prisoner, he was already in immense physical pain from the harsh treatment he'd received. But he was in worse pain mentally.

Plumb wondered if he could ever go home. He felt that he had besmirched his country. He could never face his fellow fighter pilots, who must have been stronger than him. Could he even face his family?

A small wire was poking through a hole of his tiny desolate cell, scratching and demanding attention. He knew it must be another American. He desperately wanted to speak with someone, but at the same time, the shame was so overwhelming that he just wanted to sit in squalid isolation in the corner.

He remembered thinking: I bet that guy is tougher than I am. I bet he didn't spill his guts. He didn't want to face that, to compare that with his own experience, and how weak that would make him.

Eventually, he broke down and reached out. The need for human contact was too strong. But he still felt the guilt, and as he communicated, slowly and tediously in code, the guilt finally overflowed and overwhelmed him.

"I have a confession," Plumb said to the other POW. "You may not even want to speak to me after I tell you what I've done. I broke. I spilled my guts. I wasn't nearly as strong as I wanted to be."

From the other end, expressed laboriously and determinedly through the same code, came a reply that split through his guilt like lightning.

"Hell, everybody's spilled their guts. None of us was as strong as we thought we could be," said the other POW.

He told Plumb there was good news in the camp. They had great leadership. Guys like Stockdale and Lawrence. They weren't prisoners. They were still fighters. It was a new, redefined mission, but they were not on the defensive.

"We're still fighting this war."

Stockdale and Lawrence:

At the ceremony, Alvarez is trying to put into words what it was about their resistance that strengthened their spirits as it also broke their bodies.

In his earlier days, Stockdale had studied the writings of those who'd survived the gulags of the Soviet Union. He understood the importance of physical resistance.

"We had to try by making them hurt us, because we learned soon enough that compliance that is extracted by brute force is in no way damaging to the human spirit," said Alvarez.

Those hurts may have physically broken their bodies, but their spirits remained unharmed by not giving in to mere threats.

In this new theater of operations, their heroes included many of the former POWs in the audience, he said.

“Ordinary guys who made the prison guards torture them for submission one day, and then come back and make them start all over again the next time, and again the next, and this went on for years.” Alvarez said.

He said that in his opinion, for this situation at least, it was the right tactic.

"It enabled us to return home with the important elements of our personal character intact. Our self-respect, integrity, loyalty, patriotism, and honor," he said.

And he said they were able to do this because of leadership. These were men who put the best interest of others ahead of themselves.

"Men who would themselves do first what they asked others to do," he said.

Men like Stockdale, who came perilously close to dying in the struggle of physical resistance.

"He was the rock," said Alvarez. "As the senior naval officer he accepted full responsibility and he never wavered."

Men like William Lawrence. Athlete, scholar, aviator, and poet, he composed a poem about his home state, "Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee," while in solitary confinement. It was adopted by Tennessee as its official state poem in 1973.

He not only memorized the rank and name of every POW, he also developed the "tap code" that they used to covertly communicate without the knowledge of their captors.

"One of the finest persons I have ever known. In my view, he was the model of what a Naval officer-and a gentleman- should be," Alvarez said.

After the war, both Stockdale and Lawrence stayed close to all of those who were held captive.

"They never forgot us, and they were always there to help," he said.

Beyond Heroes:

"There are ceremonies being held all over the country today," said Alvarez. "It is a demonstration of the gratitude and the respect that we as a nation have for those who served and sacrificed under the most difficult circumstances."

For the crews of the two vessels, Alvarez wanted them to know that their ships bear the names of two of the finest and ablest leaders in the history of the Navy.

Alvarez said that there was nothing particular about himself that made him more qualified to speak at the ceremony than any of the other former POWs present.

"I think we had many heroes, some that are sitting out there in the audience," he said. But he qualified that statement.

"Our heroes were not John Waynes," he said. "They were ordinary guys, just like yourselves." And they endured years of horrific treatment, fighting their new war, maintaining their integrity and sense of self through it all.

All ordinary guys. All heroes.

But for Stockdale and Lawrence, there were no qualifications. For them, Alvarez required only three words to describe their stature and significance:

"Giants among heroes." Surface Warfare Magazine

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