Nixon Library honors Vietnam War POWs with new exhibition and 3 days of special events
Everett Alvarez Jr. spent eight years at the North Vietnamese Hỏa Lò Prison, a POW camp notoriously known as the Hanoi Hilton, during the Vietnam War. The U.S. Navy officer’s tenure there is recognized as one of the longest terms as a prisoner of war in U.S. military history.
“I was the first one in the Hanoi Hilton,” said Alvarez. “I was shot down on Aug. 5, 1964 … the second fellow came about six months later.”
On May 25, Alvarez was joined by fellow U.S. service members and former POWs Tom Hanton, Jack Ensch and Tom McNish at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda to discuss their extraordinary experience. The group spoke frankly about their hellish ordeal as POWs and at times with good humor.
“I used to tell the others, if you really wanted a good room, you had to come early,” Alvarez said.
The panel was presented by the Richard Nixon Foundation to commemorate the 50 years since the Nixon administration brought home nearly 600 prisoners of war.
“This year, 2023, is the 50th anniversary of the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War,” said Joe Lopez, vice president, communications for Richard Nixon Foundation. “The Paris Peace Accords were signed on Jan. 27, 1973, and within weeks, the POWs started coming home. The ones that were held the longest came home first.”
Alvarez was on one of those first planes home.
Other events hosted by the Richard Nixon Foundation included a Heroes Welcome Parade for 150 POWs and their families in front of the Nixon Library on May 23, and a recreation of the 1973 White House dinner the president and first lady hosted for the returning POWs on May 24.
“On May 24, 1973, they put up a big tent on the south lawn and they hosted almost 600 POWs and their guests,” said Lopez. “It is still the largest dinner ever held at the White House.”
The anniversary events at the Nixon Library led up to the opening of “Captured: Shot Down in Vietnam,” a new special exhibition about the experience of Vietnam POWs.
“It tells the stories of the American prisoners of war from the Vietnam War,” said Lopez. “Most of them were aviators that were shot down in enemy territory. They were then captured and taken to the prison camps of North Vietnam. The most infamous of those camps was called the Hanoi Hilton.”
The exhibition contains 75 unique artifacts and a recreation of a prison cell from the Hanoi Hilton.
“Using drawings that were done by one of the POWs named Mike McGrath, we were able to size it and recreate it for this exhibit,” said Lopez. “It gives you an idea of how small these cells were and what were in the cells.”
The concrete cell is tiny, furnished with nothing but a woven mat and copper teakettle. Audio of POWs telling their stories plays, and the cuff ports around the cell don’t look into other cells but screens playing footage of Vietnamese prison camps.
“As you are standing here in the exhibit, you can hear the POWs talking about their experiences, and you see some of the rare footage of the prison camps,” said Lopez. “It is really captivating to hear what the POWs were experiencing and how they moved and talked to each other using tap code, how they helped each other.”
During the panel the men explained how they used tap code to communicate and recalled memories from the White House dinner, where John Wayne, Henry Kissinger and Playboy bunnies made the guest list.
Lopez said the Vietnam POWs have never forgotten President Nixon for bringing them home, and as a result, the Nixon Library has hosted the 25th and 40th anniversaries of their return. Lopez said the foundation is honored to host their 50th anniversary as well.
“This is the golden anniversary of their homecoming. This is the third day that we have had events with the POWs, and these are amazing stories, and they deserve to be told,” said Lopez. “We wanted to curate this special exhibit to tell those stories and to give the public an idea of how courageous and heroic these men were.”
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