Cheers, shouts, thumbs up, 'V' signs and general jubilation shows in the expressions of the released POWs in March 1973 as their C-141 plane lifts off from Gia Lam Airport taking them to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. (Air Force via AP)
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President Richard Nixon gives thumbs up on May 24, 1973, as he addresses about 450 former POWs and their guests at a White House dinner in Washington. (AP)
YORBA LINDA, CALIF. — Navy Lt. Mike McGrath was just 27 years old, with a wife and two toddler sons in the U.S., when he was shot down and taken prisoner on his 179th bombing mission during the Vietnam War.
McGrath spent almost six years in North Vietnamese prisons, enduring torture and beatings before he was released in the spring of 1973 with nearly 600 men whose plight united a nation otherwise bitterly divided by the drawn-out war.
On Thursday, McGrath and 200 of those men, almost all of them former pilots, will reunite for a three-day celebration at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum that coincides with the 40th anniversary of a star-studded White House dinner hosted by President Nixon to honor their sacrifice.
At the time, Nixon was embroiled in Watergate, but the former prisoners — now in their 60s and 70s — credit him with their freedom. Nixon resigned a little more than a year after the dinner as he faced near-certain impeachment.
“He was a hero to us. He will always be revered by us as a group because he got us home, and we didn’t know how we were going to get home,” said retired U.S. Marine Capt. Orson Swindle, who spent six years and four months in Hanoi prison camps.
Reminding Americans of that legacy — and not Watergate — will be front-and-center this weekend at the POW reunion, which begins Thursday with a motorcade and military flyover, a wreath-laying ceremony and tours of a special museum exhibit that focuses on the POWs’ homecoming.
The private Richard Nixon Foundation, which is hosting the event, has also recreated, down to the menu, the elaborate black-tie dinner that the president hosted for the POWs and their spouses 40 years ago this weekend. This weekend’s special POW exhibit includes White House staff notes about the dinner that stressed the psychological importance of a menu of sirloin steak, fingerling potatoes and strawberry mousse because “many POWs dreamed of good American food constantly” while in captivity.
The notes also suggest Nixon crack a joke about banning turnips and parsnips from the menu, foods the captives learned to hate.
For Nixon, the dissonance between the POWs’ adulation and the mounting Watergate crisis was almost too much. In a private moment after the formal dinner, according to his memoirs, he asked his family if he should resign.
“As I sat before the fire, listening to the sounds of music and laughter coming up from downstairs, I felt that this was one of the greatest nights of my life,” he wrote.
“The contrast between the splendid lift of this night and the dreary drain of Watergate suddenly struck me with an almost physical force.”
POWs who attended the event, however, recall only the thrill of meeting the president, rubbing shoulders with movie stars and dancing to a live band until 2 a.m.
The star-studded event included some of the most famous celebrities of the day, from Bob Hope to John Wayne to Sammy Davis Jr., and Irving Berlin brought the men to tears with his rendition of “God Bless America.”
“The president and his wife said goodnight at midnight, but he said, ‘You can dance all night long,” recalled McGrath, who later became a captain and eventually retired from the Navy in 1987 after 24 years as an officer.
“What an evening, to dance until the band quits and have free run of the White House.”
The glamour was a far cry from what McGrath and his fellow captives endured in North Vietnamese prison camps. McGrath was shot down by anti-aircraft fire on June 30, 1967, after dropping bombs on a bridge. He ejected but fractured his back, dislocated a knee and dislocated and broke his left arm in the crash.
His captors tortured him for the first two weeks, he recalled, and used his injuries to their advantage as they pulled his arms behind his back and over his head in excruciatingly painful positions. The torture dislocated his other arm and elbow before his captors decided they would get nothing from him and stopped the beatings, he said.
“All they were trying to do was break us down. I couldn’t sit up, and I couldn’t move,” said McGrath, who still has limited use of his left arm.
Through it all, the POWs waited for years for an end to the war and a freedom that never seemed to come. Meanwhile, in the U.S., anger and discontent over the conflict grew.
“There were moments of stark terror when they were torturing you and to see no progress and no hope of winning was counter to everything we had grown up with,” said Swindle, who was held in 17 prison camps. “We were the children of people who had won a World War.”
In December 1972, as peace talks stalled, Nixon authorized the biggest bombing of the war against North Vietnamese ports and factories. A second massive strike, known as the Christmas bombing, dropped explosives around Hanoi, and the POWs heard the booming from their prisons.
A peace accord, formally signed in Paris on Jan. 27, 1973, called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, a cease-fire and the release of all POWs. Two weeks later, the first planeload of freed prisoners landed on U.S. soil.
The Christmas bombing was widely criticized at home, but the POWs believe it secured their freedom.
“When he sent the B-52s in, that’s when we got out,” said McGrath. “Scandals are scandals … but we don’t let it diminish our appreciation to Nixon for putting the pressure on strong.”
Nixon’s presidency began to unravel in 1972, when burglars who were later tied to his re-election committee broke into the Democratic headquarters to get dirt on his political adversaries. Nixon denied knowing about the break-in beforehand, but an 18 1/2-minute gap in a recording of a post-Watergate White House meeting led many to suspect a cover-up.
Faced with impeachment and a possible criminal indictment, Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, and retreated to his native California. The following month he was granted a pardon by President Gerald Ford.