On this day in 1964, a U.S. Navy pilot arrives at the soon-to-be-infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” LTJG Everett Alvarez, Jr. would spend a stunning 3,113 days in captivity, making him one of America’s longest-held POWs.
Alvarez’s troubles began on August 5. His plane took a hit during a bombing run, and he was forced to bail out. Mere minutes later, he was captured by Vietnamese fishermen.
Alvarez found himself in a rather tricky situation. Was he a prisoner-of-war with all the protections of that status? The North Vietnamese claimed that he was only a common criminal. (War had not been declared.) Similarly, how should he answer questions? At first, Alvarez gave only his name, rank, and serial number. But he soon realized that Vietnamese authorities had information obtained from the American media. How did that change what he could or couldn’t say?
For months, Alvarez had nothing to rely upon except his own wits. There wasn’t even another American POW around. He was barely surviving in a small cell on a starvation diet.
“Sometimes I lifted the cover off a plate and found a chicken head floating in grease,” he wrote, “or in a slimy stew or soup smelling of drainwater. At other times an animal hoof . . . . More than once a blackbird lay feet up on the plate, its head and feathers intact and the eyes open.”
Alvarez implemented strategies to sustain himself. He scratched a cross into a wall and hosted his own Catholic Mass. He etched the passage of time on walls. He did complex math problems and played chess against himself, just to keep his brain working. He had daily cleaning rituals, which (sort of) warded off the cat-sized rats that roamed around.
Other POWs began to arrive in 1965.
Their arrival made Alvarez’s life better—and worse. On one hand, he had companionship. The men developed a tap code that worked through walls. Their communications system, Alvarez would say, “became our lifeline . . . . It fueled our morale and stiffened our backbone. Above all, it kept us informed . . . . To be forewarned was to be forearmed.”
On the other hand, interrogations got a lot worse.
The North Vietnamese wanted letters and recordings for propaganda purposes. Americans were tortured if they refused to cooperate. On one occasion, Alvarez was told to write an apology. His arms were contorted and painfully bound until he finally complied. “For the first time in my life,” he later wrote, “I felt sheer hatred . . . . It took a few hours before I could hold the pencil and when I did, my writing looked like a drunkard’s scrawl. . . . I took pains to misspell words to make the confession as phony as possible.”
The arm torture left the skin on Alvarez’s hands deadened and black. Natural color didn’t return for two years.
On another occasion, Americans were marched through a frenzied crowd. They’d been tethered to each other, defenseless, as the mob madly beat and kicked them. “Our emaciated bodies, lacking nutrition, sunlight and exercise for so long, were ill-equipped to withstand this kind of ordeal,” Alvarez concluded.
The treatment of prisoners improved, but not until after Ho Chi Minh died in 1969. Finally, in 1973, the POWs were released.
Alvarez had been a captive since the very beginning—but he’d also been a pillar of strength for everyone else. “[A]ll the POWs, looked up to Ev,” one said. “He was one of those optimists who always thought we would get out the next day.”
Unfortunately, homecomings weren’t always so rosy. For Alvarez, the difficult news concerned his wife. During his absence, she obtained a divorce—and a baby with a new husband.
Fortunately, this hero’s story has a happy ending: Alvarez remarried, earned graduate degrees, and founded a wildly successful company. Naturally, those are stories for another day.
For those interested in further reading, I recommend Alvarez’s own account of his captivity: Chained Eagle: The Heroic Story of the First American Shot Down over North Vietnam