Sunday, June 2, 2013

NAM POW's Reunion

They said when they heard the B-52's fly over head, they knew they were going home.  They had spent years in squalid captivity, but they never gave up and never gave in.  Navy Commander Everett Alvarez, the first pilot to be shot down, was the longest held POW.  He spent eight and a half gruesome years at the "Hanoi Hilton," where he was tortured and beaten.  Today Everett is a member of the Board of Director's at the Richard Nixon Foundation.  My husband, Ron Walker is Chairman of the Foundation, and the two long time friends collaborated on the 40th Anniversary Reunion held on the 23 and 24th of May, 2013.

As a special assistant to President Nixon, in charge of presidential travel, Ron was at the bottom of the ramp when the Vietnam POW's came home.  That's when Ron and Everett met.

President Nixon wanted to celebrate their homecoming and he hosted a gala dinner for 1300 guests on the White House lawn.  It is still the largest White House dinner ever held.  Irving Berlin led the singing of his song, "God Bless America,"  Bob Hope was MC and Sammy Davis, Jr. performed.  Everett got to sit next to John Wayne.

Forty years later the reunion took place at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace.  The POW's and their families arrived in eight buses and were moved to see the crowds that lined the streets in Yorba Linda, waving flags and saluting.  The California Highway Patrol provided an escort and so did fire trucks, police cars, and 100 Patriot Guard riders on motorcycles.  The POW's toured a new exhibit that tells their story and then attended a solemn ceremony featuring military salutes, four fly-overs by MIG jets and War Bird CJ 6s.  The grand finale was Robbie Britt singing the National Anthem, TAPS, and a 21 gun salute.
Patriot Guard Riders Salute the Arriving POW's

 A happy moment came when Tony Orlando sang, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" and the crowd sang every single word along with him.  The young musicians in the 1st Marine Division Band from Camp Pendleton watched in amazement as the entire "older" audience sang along to a song they'd probably never heard before, but began clapping in time and in appreciation.  The song had become a symbol of the joyous hostage homecoming, and the Gold Record it earned will become part of the Nixon Museum exhibit.
40th Anniversary Dinner at the Nixon Library

Tricia Nixon Cox, the president's older daughter, talked about the dinner at the White House, and how much it meant to her father.   Ross Perot spoke too.  The POW's love him.  He worked for years and spent a lot of money in repeated attempts to set them free.

While I can't begin to imagine the bonding those men must feel for each other, it was emotional and heart warming to be in their midst.  At the original dinner, a choir of the POW's sang a song they had written in prison, on toilet paper, to the tune of the Navy Hymn. They had to keep it hidden from the Viet Cong. Forty years later, we watched a black and white movie of their White House performance, and then the same men from that chorus got up and sang it again, in person.  What a moment!

They have had other reunions over the years, but many expressed the opinion that this one was probably their last.  Some are wheel chair bound and many walk with difficulty.  They were proud to say they always include a place at the table for President Nixon.  Retired U.S. Marine Capt. Orson Swindle, who spent six years as a prisoner, said, "He was a hero to us.  He will always be revered by us as a group because he got us home."

I am proud to say that here in Oro Valley, Arizona, we have a wonderful Veteran's Initiative, chaired by Sandy Briney, wife of our Pastor, Jim.  Along with their volunteers, they work hard to provide assistance to veterans, and their web site is full of good information and updated frequently.  It would be nice if every town in America had something similar to offer our very deserving veterans.

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