“You will write a letter to American pilots flying missions in the south. You will tell them it is wrong and they are criminals. You will tell them to protest to their government.” With those words, Lt. Everett Alvarez’s North Vietnamese captors led him into a room furnished with a wooden table, stick pen, bottle of ink, and blank paper. It was November 5, 1966. For the next several days, his jailors deprived him of sleep, kicked him, and then withheld food in an effort to get him to write a “confession.” The ordeal was one of many Alvarez faced during his long captivity.
On August 5, 1964, while flying a mission against enemy torpedo boats, Alvarez had become the first American pilot shot down over North Vietnam. He soon found himself in the infamous prison known as the Hanoi Hilton. His starvation diet consisted of a chicken head floating in slimy stew, an animal hoof, or a blackbird lying feet up on a plate. Monstrous rats scurried across his tiny cell. More POWs arrived. The North Vietnamese often beat them, tied them up for days, or ratcheted handcuffs around their arms until it felt like hacksaws biting into their flesh. Not all survived.
Often held in isolation, the captives communicated by tapping a code on walls. “Contact with one another was essential,” Alvarez wrote in his book Chained Eagle. “Without it, we were doomed.” At the sound of pre-arranged taps, the POWs stood alone in their cells to whisper the Lord’s Prayer in unison, then recited the Pledge of Allegiance with hand over heart.
At the war’s end, after eight and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton and other prisons, Everett Alvarez came home. “Faith in God, in our president, and in our country – it was this faith that maintained our hope,” he said. “God bless you, Mr. and Mrs. America. You did not forget us.”