A year ago Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. There was a brief paroxysm of self-examination in the U.S. about the nation’s role in the Vietnam war, but most Americans quickly tucked its memory out of mind.
Not so the 650 prisoners of war who returned to the U.S. (the Defense Department still cannot account for 831 missing GIs). Eight of the POWs are revisited on these pages. Some of them have fared well since release; others have struggled through marital, job and personality crises. All former prisoners, however, share one common view: just as they can never erase the impact of the Vietnam war on their own lives, neither do they think their countrymen should forget the conflict of almost nine years that cost the U.S. 56,769 lives and $140.8 billion.
The Beak still gets the willies
I should’ve gotten an Oscar,” says Richard A. Stratton of his celebrated appearance at an enemy press conference. It was in Hanoi in March 1967 that the captured Navy flier, playing a drugged automaton, bowed submissively to his Communist captors. The resulting photo (right), as Stratton hoped, heightened suspicions that U.S. prisoners were being mistreated. “The picture still gives me the willies,” he says. But it may have saved his life: “They couldn’t afford not to produce me at the end of the war.”
After 2,251 days in captivity, Stratton was released in 1973. Today the 44-year-old captain—nicknamed “The Beak” for his prominent nose—supervises naval recruiting in New York City and its suburbs. Politically, he is a hard-liner. “If we have a qualified military force, the U.S. won’t be pushed,” asserts Stratton, a Quincy, Mass. native who holds a master’s degree in international relations from Stanford. “The Communists won’t rest,” he adds, “until they put someone of their ilk in the White House.”
Stratton, who once studied for the priesthood at Oblate College in Washington, lives in a modest Garden City, N.Y. home with his wife, Alice, and sons Patrick, 14, Michael, 12, and Charlie, 10. “Society had more trouble adjusting to us than we did to society,” he says. “Near the end of our captivity, some of us had group therapy among ourselves. That got rid of a lot of our frustrations.” Alice, a social worker, recalls, “We were prepared for basket cases. We were almost disappointed. Getting used to the kids was Dick’s biggest problem.”
Stratton has scars on both arms from torture and peridontal problems from vitamin deficiencies, but his 5’11½” body, down to 140 pounds in captivity, now is at 177. “I’m told,” he says, “that my frame and those of the other prisoners are five to ten years older than normal. But I don’t feel it.” He follows his daily prison regimen of pushups, sit-ups and running in place. His only nightmare, remembers Alice, was “when there was a sound in the street like the rattling of keys. It was the sign in camp the guards were coming to break someone down.”
Some prospective Navy recruits tell Stratton they doubt they could survive his kind of ordeal, but he tells them: “You’ve got to be tested, like a new airplane that needs a test pilot to push it to its limits. The American has real spine and a unique sense of humor—we can find the pony in the horse manure no matter how big the pile.”
Admiral Denton sounds an alarm
When Navy Capt. Jeremiah A. Denton Jr. appeared in the doorway of the plane that brought the first group of Vietnam POWs to California on Feb. 14, 1973, the relief on his face mirrored the nation’s. When asked how the men had managed to endure their captivity, he replied, “It was faith in God and, second, faith in country.”
Today, Rear Admiral Denton, commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va., professes some forebodings about the U.S. “When Vietnam went down the drain, I went through mental turbulence,” he recalls. This led to a four-day hospital stay. And now Denton, a prisoner for seven and a half years, is “alarmed and shocked by the deterioration of morality in America. I think for our country, this could be the beginning of the end.”
Denton is crusading to reverse the trend. “I feel my life was given back to me on a silver platter for some purpose,” he declares. As a result, the 1946 Annapolis grad has written a book on his ordeal, When Hell Was in Session. The work, to be published this fall, will stress the religious beliefs of Denton, a Catholic. “I wanted to call it Under God, Indivisible,” he relates, “because we guys thought about God so much during our confinement.”
Denton, 51, occupies Norfolk Naval Station’s Illinois House with his wife, Jane, and four of their seven children. Once below 100 pounds, the 5’10½” admiral is back to 160. “I trained myself to eat again,” he says. “When you’ve been without food so long, it is a real effort.” Prison brutality left scars along his Achilles tendons, but they haven’t hampered his tennis game. “I can beat anybody,” he boasts.
Denton is haunted by prison memories. “There are night dreams that will never go away, but they don’t give me trouble now,” he says. “And every so often I’ll be in an environment that brings on a bad mood. I’ll wonder why and realize I’m feeling claustrophobic. Those cells were very small.”
Colonel Guy is still a hawk
Col. Theodore Wilson Guy, USAF (Ret.), dislikes long hair “and the lack of discipline it seems to convey.” He also criticizes detente—”a Commie stalling tactic”—and President Ford’s amnesty program.
Ramrod-straight, Colonel Guy, 47, came back from North Vietnam bitter not just toward his captors. In May 1973 he charged eight fellow inmates at Hanoi’s “Plantation Gardens” camp, where he was senior U.S. officer, with conspiring with the enemy. “I’d have been willing to sweat more time until we won,” he says today. “There were 108 of us. One hundred agreed with me. The eight who didn’t”—all enlisted men, none from the Air Force—”were just traitors.” The Army and Navy dropped the charges five weeks after Guy filed them.
Guy left the service last August after he was grounded. The flight surgeon had “picked up an erratic EEG, probably caused by Cong beatings,” which also left him with medical problems in his back and jawbone. His weight is back to his normal 138—upon release he was 87 pounds—though he has chronic indigestion from the prison “garbage diet.” (He spent four of his five captive years in solitary.)
In a sprawling, ranch-style house in suburban San Antonio, Guy lives on a pension of $1,785 a month with his second wife, Linda, a schoolteacher, and her daughters, Keta, 11, and Elizabeth, 15. His first marriage (he and his wife Sue had three sons) broke up seven months after repatriation. “She had just grown differently than I during those five years,” he shrugs. “We were strangers.”
“I made it with the help of my personal code,” says Guy. “It says death is preferable to losing one’s honor. I decided I could beat those bastards at their game—and I did.”
A captive dove now raises steers
We lost the war,” says Walter E. Wilber, “because we had no business being in Vietnam in the first place, and because the U.S. government did not have the support of the people.”
Wilber, a Navy pilot, was captured in June 1968. Seventeen months later, “pressure of conscience” led him to broadcast from Hanoi a call for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. As a result of his views, he met such visiting dissenters as Jane Fonda and Ramsey Clark. But Wilber’s dovish statements prompted another ex-POW, Rear Adm. James Stockdale, to bring charges of misconduct against him in June 1973. The charges were dismissed four months later when Captain Wilber left the Navy after 25 years.
Of his 56-month confinement in Hanoi, Wilber says: “A lot of people accused me of getting special treatment, but it was not substantially different from anyone else’s.” His sense of touch, once damaged, “has come back almost to normal,” and he has no ill effects from a prison bout with hepatitis.
Wilber, 46, and his wife, Jeanne, a former music teacher, live on a 250-acre farm in Columbia Cross Roads, Pa. Two children—Mark, 15, and Susan, 13—are at home; Thomas, 20, is a Penn State junior, and Bruce, 22, is married with a son and lives in Gillett, Pa. Wilber credits his family’s closeness and Methodist faith with smoothing his return. He also says he thrives on the farm’s “really rough work.”
“In this Bicentennial year,” he says, “it’s inconsistent to be proud of our revolutionary heritage and at the same time be proud of our actions in Vietnam, which were antirevolutionary and neocolonial—an imperialistic approach to world affairs.”
For one black, the memories are bad
When Army Staff Sgt. King D. Ray-ford Jr. emerged in 1973 from almost six years of captivity, he became a prisoner once again—to alcohol. Rayford, who had enrolled in an electronics course in Denver, recalls, “I started drinking a little. Then a lot. I couldn’t stay home alone. I had nightmares. I couldn’t eat. Sometimes I’d fall asleep in class because I’d been out late drinking. I quit school.”
Another problem was the charge of collaboration made (facing page) against Rayford and seven other enlisted men. Rayford calls the accusation “ridiculous.” He eventually went on the wagon, helped by psychiatrists and his wife, Carmen, the mother of their two sons, Alexander, 3, and Edgar, 3 months. Rayford now lives in a Denver suburb and works sporadically as an upholsterer. He draws a monthly Army pension of $840. He has never recovered his appetite. “I still get real nauseated. I can’t eat anything in the morning.”
Rayford, 30, continues to have nightmares, and declares bitterly, “If I had to do it over again, I just wouldn’t. Why do I want to fight against those people? They didn’t want to fight me. Sometimes I was treated better in North Vietnam than I am here.”
He does acknowledge one unintended benefit of his Army service. “Who knows,” he says of his hard life in Detroit, “if I had stayed there I might be dead now.”
Commander Alvarez rebuilds his life
Navy pilot Everett Alvarez Jr. was shot down twice during the Vietnam war. On Aug. 5, 1964, near Hanoi, his Skyhawk was hit, leading to his capture and over eight and a half years of imprisonment in North Vietnam. (Alvarez was the second longest-held U.S. prisoner. The longest was Maj. Floyd J. Thompson, who was detained nine years.)
The second hit occurred in prison camp on Christmas Day, 1971: “We had a turkey dinner. Afterwards I got a letter from my mother telling me that my wife, Tangee, had divorced me. I took it very hard.” Alvarez, who was then married eight years, adds, “It was quite a shock. I eventually realized I was still alive and coming back to a lot of future—but it took a long time.”
Released on Lincoln’s Birthday in 1973, Alvarez remembers, “I wanted to do things and taste what I wanted. I lived more in those next six months than I had the whole rest of my life.” He also found an antidote for his heartbreak. She was an airline employee from Pennsylvania named Thomasine Ilyas. Married two and a half years ago, Comdr. Everett Alvarez, 38, and Tammy, 36, now have a son, Marc, who will be 2 in June. Next month another baby is due. The Alvarezes live in Monterey, Calif., where he studies operational research and systems analysis at the Navy Postgraduate School. He expects to move to Washington when he receives his master’s degree in September.
Alvarez found that his family had changed during his absence. His quiet sister, Delia, had become an outspoken dove. And after his return his mother, Sally, divorced his father, went back to school and became a teaching aide. “My mother is now liberated,” he laughs. “She used to cook big meals. Now, when she cooks, it often comes from the frozen food section.”
A graduate of the University of Santa Clara, a Jesuit institution, Alvarez says prison made him “think differently of morality. Nothing penetrated at school. Maybe I was too young. Then suddenly it dawned on me what was worthwhile.”
He bears no grudge toward the North Vietnamese: “I have hatred for those who had power, but I can’t say I hate the people.” Would he fight again? “If I were called on to go back and fight the same enemy—a totalitarian system, not the people—sure I’d go.”
Mr. Mulligan wants to go to Washington
His suit is decorated with “Mulligan for Congress” campaign buttons. But James Mulligan, running unendorsed in Virginia’s Second District, faces an uphill fight in a June primary. “The nation is floundering in a sea of aimlessness,” he says. “Our youth has lost confidence in the American system. That’s why I’m running.”
His politician’s paunch contrasts starkly with a photo released by Hanoi four months after the Navy flier was shot down in 1966. Emaciated and hollow-eyed, he was already enduring torture meted out to “troublemakers.” His left shoulder was broken on ejection from his plane and didn’t mend properly. He spent a total of three and a half years in solitary (“the most unique mental stress I’ve ever been under”), and his weight dropped to 100 pounds. He remembers a craving for sugar and salt. “When I came back,” he recalls, “I embarrassed my family by eating everything in sight. I was buying food by the case.” He also had to take driving lessons again. “I was the worst driver on the road. They said they were going to put a sticker on the car saying ‘Caution, POW driving.’ ”
Captain Mulligan retired last year after 31 years in the service. While acquiring an M.A. in public administration at Virginia’s Old Dominion College, he “couldn’t get used to those broads walking around with no pants and no bras.” Moreover, there was a new assertiveness on the part of his wife, Louise, a leader in the POW wives’ movement. “If she wasn’t active, I would have been a dead tomato,” he says. “She’ll get me to Washington.” He also had to become friends again with his six sons, now aged 13 to 25. “We had no problem readjusting to each other,” says Louise. “We were married 20 years when Jim was shot down and we had a good marriage.”
Mulligan, 50, has accommodated himself to the changes in his country and his family. “Being forced to live in solitude for years, there is nothing I can’t cope with,” he says. “If I lose the election, it won’t bother me. What can bother me as long as I have a glass of water and food to eat?”
An air ace relies on faith
My schedule is full,” says Brig. Gen. James Robinson (“Robbie”) Risner. “I’m up at 5:30 every morning and going until midnight.” Besides being vice-commander, Technical Fighter Weapons Center at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, the rawboned former rodeo rider does housework, golfs and, garbed cowboy-style, raises five quarter horses which he keeps at the base. His 88 months as a POW? “It seems now as if it never happened,” he responds.
Risner was considered a great prize by the North Vietnamese when he was shot down in 1965. A Korean war ace who had downed eight MIGs, he graced a TIME cover in 1965. Of his seven years and four months as a prisoner, 54 months were spent in solitary.
Since his release in 1973, his life has been scarred by tragedy. His oldest son, Rob Jr., died last year of a congenital heart disorder at age 26. And last June, Risner split up with his wife of 29 years, Kathleen. Sons Jeff, 21, and Danny, 15, live with their mother in Oklahoma, while Paul, 19, and Tim, 17, board with their dad. The two youngest boys have their eyes on the Air Force Academy—”Quite a thing for me if they go there,” says Risner.
To sustain him, Risner, 51, relies on “the faith tried by fire” that ripened during prison torture and which he detailed in his 1973 book, The Passing of the Night.
Risner, who feels the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam too fast and too completely, has four more years until retirement. “I wouldn’t mind opening a boys’ ranch for underprivileged kids,” he says of the future. As for going through his ordeal again, he replies emphatically, “Not for all the money ever minted.” Then he adds, “But if I were assigned and I thought I could help my country, I would go back.”