Documentary Shows Spirit of Ex-POWs

Friday, November 10th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DENVER (AP) — A grainy, black-and-white image appears of a young, barefoot American being escorted through a Vietnam village, his head sloppily bandaged.

Later, there's a shot of rusted leg irons on a board bed in the hellish POW camp nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton.

Ron Bliss, with 34 more years on his frame, leans back a bit in his chair, solemnly describing the torturous prison. ``You could look at this place and understand and just hear the screams of about 50 years,'' he said.

Bliss, who was an Air Force lieutenant, is one of 20 former Vietnam POWs whose stories are told in the compelling documentary ``Return With Honor,'' a two-hour special that will air Monday, Nov. 13, at 9 p.m. EST on PBS as part of the ``American Experience'' series.

Unlike countless films and TV specials about the Vietnam War, this documentary sets aside the political tug of war over U.S. involvement and instead focuses on the indomitable human spirit that nourished the prisoners' will to survive, despite life-threatening wounds, torture and starvation.

``It's our full accounting. It's not `Hollywooded' up at all,'' said retired Air Force Col. Bill Baugh of Colorado Springs, who spent six years in five POW camps, including the Hanoi Hilton. ``You know how Hollywood wants to make something better out of something that wasn't much fun.''

The idea for the documentary grew out of a project coordinated by members of the Air Force Academy's class of 1965. The alumni recorded oral histories of graduates who were prisoners of war, producing 39 bound volumes that became the basis for the film.

They approached award-winning producers Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders and obtained a grant from the Boeing-McDonnell Foundation to underwrite the production.

The film skips between past and present, intertwining Vietnamese film footage and U.S. newsreels with the recollections of the men and their wives.

Crews shot in part on location in Vietnam, where they borrowed film from the Vietnamese archives, including some taken by North Vietnamese cameramen.

Other shots portray the Hanoi Hilton, the Hanoi power plant and Truc Bac Lake, where Navy Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, now a senator from Arizona, was shot down.

The film also displays drawings that depicted prison life and torture that were done by Navy Lt. Mike McGrath, who used his own blood to draw pictures on his cell walls.

The men who narrate the documentary keep their emotions just beneath the surface as they describe their capture, beatings, starvation and endless hours in dark, dank cells. There are no harsh words for the government or lingering bitterness about their ordeals.

Lessons learned? ``You aren't as strong as you think you are,'' said Baugh, who lives within a few miles of McGrath. ``You aren't John Wayne and you soon learn that and accept that.''

The men include McCain, retired Navy Cmdr. James Stockdale and retired Navy Cmdr. Jeremiah Denton, who blinked ``torture'' in Morse code when he was placed before newsmen during the war.

Navy fighter pilot Everett Alvarez Jr. was 26 when he was ordered to take off from a carrier off the coast of Vietnam on Aug. 4, 1964. ``My knees started to shake,'' he said. ``As we were leaving the area, I was hit. I said, `I gotta get out. I'll see you guys later.'''

It was 8 1/2 years before Alvarez was freed, the longest period of captivity of any American war prisoner.

When Air Force Capt. Pete Peterson was shot down on Sept. 10, 1966, he held a .38-caliber weapon to his head, trying to decide whether to live or die. ``I opted not to pull the trigger and frankly, it would have been easy to do,'' said Peterson, who became the first postwar ambassador to Vietnam in 1997.

As one Christmas followed another, the men set up a communications network using a block formation of the alphabet, five rows and five columns.

They also formed the 4th Allied POW Wing and took up the battle cry: ``Return with honor.''

``It was a matter of dignity,'' Bliss said. ``All we had left of what we were is our name and our honor.''


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MOVIE SALUTE: American Movie Classics marks Veteran's Day with a weekend film festival starting with the Academy Award-winning POW drama ``Stalag 17'' at 7 a.m. EST Saturday. The rest of the Saturday lineup (all times EST): ``All the Young Men,'' 10:30 a.m.; ``Kiss Them for Me,'' 12:30 p.m.; ``The Longest Day,'' 2:30 p.m.; ``Halls of Montezuma,'' 6 p.m.; and ``None but the Brave,'' 8 p.m. Also showing Saturday is ``Backstory: The Longest Day,'' a new chronicle of the film's production, at 5:30 p.m. and midnight. On Sunday, ``Battle of the Bulge'' is at 12:30 a.m., followed by ``The Negro Soldier'' at 3:30 a.m.