Four decorated veterans reflected on their harrowing experiences of survival while imprisoned in North Vietnam and shared their perspectives on the past fifty years of freedom in a panel on May 25 at the Nixon Library. The audience included leaders of the local Vietnamese community as well as many Vietnam veterans. This event culminated a week of festivities hosted at the Nixon Library as part of the 50th anniversary reunion for Vietnam POWs and their families.
Panelists were U.S. Navy Commander Everett Alvarez, Jr., U.S. Navy Captain Jack Ensch, U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel Tom Hanton, and U.S. Air Force Colonel Tom McNish.
Moderator Jim Byron, President & CEO of the Nixon Foundation, opened the program by asking the panelists to describe their feelings when they arrived to kickoff their reunion this week in a welcome parade with thousands of Southern Californians lining the road outside of the Nixon Library waving flags, cheering and holding patriotic signs. Commander Everett Alvarez shared, “It was so uplifting to see the kids out there waving their flags. It just gave you a realization that the heart of America is like that.”
The panelists, all of whom were imprisoned in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp, then went on to discuss the challenges they faced during their captivity, including physical and emotional torture, as well as the bonds of brotherhood and faith that helped them to endure. As described by Colonel Tom McNish, “The strongest steel is welded and made in the hottest fire and our friendship was melded by an intense sharing of an extreme, if you will, hot fire of bitterness, evil by the enemy.”
The panelists also shared their homecoming experiences, including memories of the historic White House dinner hosted by President and Mrs. Nixon in their honor, how their time as POWs shaped their lives and their hopes for future generations of Americans.