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History with Honor

Pilot POWs' survival goes far beyond the Vietnam War

It is the wry humor and amazing equanimity of the men profiled in the documentary Return with Honor that proves most astonishing. They were among the 462 American fighter pilots who were shot down over North Vietnam and became prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Some were held in captivity for as long as eight and a half years. Individuals who manage to survive under conditions of extreme hardship and brutality not only earn our admiration and respect but also pique our curiosity, the unspoken questions being: How did they do it? and How would I measure up under similar circumstances?

The film was written, produced and directed by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, the team that won an Academy Award for their 1995 film Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, a documentary about the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Return with Honor features interviews with some two dozen former POWs and contains footage never before seen of the capture and incarceration of the men. The archival material, shot on 35mm black-and-white film by North Vietnamese cameramen, was provided to Mock and Sanders by Vietnam's Ministry of Culture and Information.

The downed airmen include Navy Lieutenant Everett Alvarez, the first pilot shot down and captured in the war (August 4, 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin); Navy Lieutenant Bob Shumaker, who six months later became the second serviceman to be shot down and imprisoned; and Air Force Captain Pete Peterson, who left Vietnam in 1974 after six and a half years in captivity and returned 23 years later, in 1997, as the first United States ambassador to the People's Republic of Vietnam.

The film examines the brutal experience of going from pilot to POW.
The film examines the brutal experience of going from pilot to POW.

Jeremiah Denton, James Stockdale and Senator John McCain from Arizona are names and faces that may be familiar to those with a passing knowledge of the subject matter, but viewers are also introduced to Air Force lieutenants Ron Bliss (a six-year POW who is now a Houston attorney) and Tom McNish, friends who were shot down and captured the same day; Air Force Captain George McKnight, who escaped from captivity only to be recaptured and thrown into solitary confinement for two and a half years; and Navy Lieutenant Mike McGrath, a self-taught artist who drew his first picture in prison -- on his cell wall, with his own blood.

They reveal what went through their minds as their bullet-riddled planes burst into flames and spiraled toward earth, and all admit to moments of intense fear and excruciating pain while being tortured. Yet even when recalling these horrors, the men project a calmness that would seem to be at odds with what they have lived through -- or perhaps it is precisely because of that. Relaxed, seemingly without bitterness, Lieutenant Bliss projects an engaging sense of humor even when detailing an event as harrowing as his plane being shot down. Air Force Lieutenant Ed Mechenbier good-naturedly notes his new circumstances, going from a top-gun flier to a prisoner of war: "What a change in status."

If the documentary has a shortcoming, it is that the filmmakers never address the underlying question: Where did these men get the will and stamina to hang on during six, seven, eight years of captivity? We marvel at their courage and candor (several admit to cracking under torture), but we want to know more; we want to know perhaps the unknowable: How did they do it? The movie doesn't really set out to answer that question; it is intended simply to show these men and let them tell their stories.

The images we have of the Vietnam War -- of any war, really -- are those frozen in time by photographs, newsreels and, in the case of more contemporary conflicts like Vietnam, television news footage. The men in those photographs and news reports are forever young, and it is disconcerting to see them today, gray-haired and pushing on well into their sixties. It's shocking in a way that listening to 80-year-old men reminisce about World War II isn't.

Maybe it's generational. If you were born during or after the Vietnam War, Return with Honor is history with a capital H, just as World War II is. While moving and powerful, it is about the past. Viewers old enough to have experienced the Vietnam War in any meaningful way will feel a jolt of long-forgotten recognition watching these images. It may be history, but it was history we lived through, and what these men and their wives, several of whom are also interviewed, experienced sinks in on a different level. The universal truths contained in this documentary, however, will speak to everyone. And in a simple yet poignant summing up of life for these men after their release, Navy Lieutenant Paul Galanti, a POW for six and a half years, notes: "There's no such thing as a bad day when there's a doorknob on the inside of the door."

 
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