Since 1988, the United States has celebrated Hispanic Heritage month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. The observance was first established as Hispanic Heritage Week by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. It was later expanded to a month long celebration in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan. This time is our opportunity to recognize the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.
To honor Hispanic military service, this article will discuss Everett Alvarez, Jr., the second longest held prisoner of war in the history of the United States. He was the first American pilot captured in North Vietnam. Alvarez's tortuous eight-and-a-half-year experience exemplifies awe-inspiring courage, patriotism and tremendous sacrifice for country.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident
On Aug. 4, 1964, Everett Alvarez was about to watch the evening movie "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes" aboard the U.S.S. Constellation, which was then near the port of Hong Kong. His squadron operations officer telephoned the wardroom telling him, "Alvie, get dressed on the double." Alvarez was briefed that North Vietnamese torpedo boats were attacking two American destroyers, the U.S.S. Maddox and U.S.S. Turner Joy in international waters of the South China Sea in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Alvarez and two other pilots in A4-Skyhawk jets flew to the Gulf of Tonkin. In communication with the destroyers, Alvarez dropped some flares and the pilots were prepared to fire rockets, but none of the pilots saw any North Vietnamese boats. Then, an "authoritative voice" from one of the destroyers said, "Tell the aircraft to go on back home. We don't need them." It turned out that the sonarman wasn't hearing torpedoes, but the echo of the ship's outgoing sonar beams.
Apparently Washington had not been informed of the sonarman's mistake. When President Lyndon Johnson was briefed about the incident involving the Maddox and Turner Joy, he was at a breakfast meeting with congressional leaders. He immediately turned the discussion to Vietnam and consideration of a congressional resolution to empower him to use armed forces in Southeast Asia.
On the U.S.S Maddox, according to a yeoman aboard, and seemingly to divert blame, every crew member was ordered outside the ship to go hand to hand to cover the entirety of the ship to look for dents or bullet holes. None were found.
On the morning of Aug. 5, Alvarez was still sleeping when he was awoken and ordered to report to duty. His commander had a large map of North Vietnam and gave the pilots plans for strikes against North Vietnam "in retaliation for what happened last night."
The pilots flew to the port of Haiphong in North Vietnam and when they were over four torpedo boats next to a larger patrol ship, they dropped their rockets. During the battle, Alvarez's plane was hit. His plane shook violently, all the warning lights went on and the cockpit filled with smoke. The plane rolled upside down and he was left hanging by a strap. He ejected.
Alvarez's first words to the enemy
Alvarez looked up to see a sampan with four fishermen pointing rifles at him. They looped his hands and neck with rope and yanked him aboard. Alvarez prayed, "Our Father who art in heaven. Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done..."
Uniformed sailors quickly arrived. When his captors asked him questions in Vietnamese, English and French, he reflexively answered them in Spanish. They were perplexed about his nationality. One wrote the letters USA on a piece of paper and Alvarez shook his head in the affirmative. They blindfolded him and led him off the boat with the rope around his neck. At some point, he noticed blood on his arm from a bullet that hit him while he was still on the plane.
They asked him questions about the kind of plane he was flying and the ship he was on, but he gave them no information except his name, rank, serial number and date of birth. They wanted to know if the bombing was in retaliation for the incident at the Gulf of Tonkin, and said, "You fool! There were no torpedo boats out there on the night of Aug. 4."
The second day, he was told he had to be moved because it wasn't safe for him where he was. Alvarez thought to himself, "They've arranged for my release and I'm being taken to a ship." Instead, he was driven far inland and taken to a farmhouse. He clung to a belief that a United States diplomat would walk in and say, "C'mon, let's go home now, Everett."
The Hanoi Hilton
Throughout our involvement in Vietnam, thirteen prisons were used to house United States prisoners in North Vietnam, the most widely known of which was Hỏa Lò Prison. Alvarez spent most of his incarceration at Hỏa Lò prison, built by the French. It was a few miles from downtown Hanoi. It would later be remembered by American POWs as the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
For many months, he was alone and had no communication with anyone other than the guards who spoke Vietnamese and no English. Through a hole and by the light of the moon, he could see an outside courtyard teeming with rats. He was afraid to sleep out of fear they would attack him. He plugged paper into holes in the wall to keep the rats out. A starvation diet rapidly drained his strength. For weeks, he vomited and had dysentery with bloody stools.
Slowly Alvarez built his Vietnamese vocabulary. He felt his only hope was in prayer. With a rusty nail, he scratched out the outline of a cross on the wall. Under it, he wrote his name and the date and place he was shot down. Below that, he recorded the names of every significant holiday as they arrived. Alvarez tried to recite the Mass in his head. . . mea culpa, mea culpa ... mea maxima culpa.
No one saw a parachute go down
Although Alvarez was not permitted to read any U.S. newspapers, he was given some Vietnamese papers with English translations. One stated that a Navy captain was quoted as saying no one saw a parachute go down. There had been no visits by the Red Cross. Alvarez feared that no one knew he was alive. He had been writing letters home, but didn't know if they were even mailed.
Finally, he received a letter from his mother. Then more letters from his mother and his wife. In January 1965 a package from the International Red Cross arrived. Chocolate, cookies, instant coffee, dried fruit, canned meat, soap, towels, underwear and cigarettes.
He would later receive one more box from the Red Cross, but no more. The container boxes proved valuable. He tore them into little pieces and used them as toilet paper.
Letters from home were sparsely delivered. He received one from his wife on Christmas day, 1966. He was allowed to read it once before it was snatched away. When Alvarez was permitted to write home, his letters had to fit on a small card, seven lines long.
When he regained some strength, Alvarez began doing push-ups in his seven foot by seven foot cell.
More pilots were captured
In February 1965, Alvarez read in the Vietnamese news that two more pilots had been shot down and captured. "At last I'm not alone," he thought to himself. That was the first time he realized there must be a war going on.
At one point, he heard noises, and through the peephole he saw a sedan pull up. The guards took someone to an adjoining building. Over the next several days, he watched as the bicyclist, who always brought his tray of food, then carried two trays. In March, he caught a glimpse of a Caucasian man in the courtyard, and the next day there were three trays.
In July 1965, he suddenly heard a loud whistled rendition of the Marine Corps hymn. Over the next few days, Alvarez and the other man would whistle popular American tunes back and forth to each other. The two were never permitted into the courtyard at the same time, but developed a way of communicating with taps. Eventually it became clear there were seven Air Force and seven Navy POWs.
Every Sunday morning, all of the POWs stood up in their huts after a prearranged tapping. In barely audible voices, they recited the Lord's Prayer. At the prayer's conclusion, each turned toward the United States and militarily erect with hands over hearts, they pledged allegiance to our flag.
Fifteen and a half months into his captivity, Alvarez had a cellmate, Tom Barrett. Alvarez couldn't get over Barrett's fatty flesh, a telltale sign of new shootdowns. Both were Catholic; they said the rosary together.
Their captors would sometimes dish out their food but leave it just outside their door. They could see under the door that chickens, rats, ants and other bugs would have their fill. Eventually the door would be opened and they'd have to pick ants off their meal, which was usually a small hunk of dry bread and a chunk of animal flesh that might have been horse meat.
One time when the guards had taken Barrett outside, Alvarez had a sudden sensation and thought he had "crapped" his pants. He took off his shorts to find an eight-inch pinkish worm. Later, he passed another that was 15 inches long; that one he named Wilbur.
In 1967, Barrett and Alvarez were separated. Alvarez was moved in with two other prisoners.
His captors brought in cards with information about ordinance and load capabilities, fuel specifics, dive angles and settings for bombs. They wanted Alvarez to explain their meaning. "No. No. I cannot answer questions," Alvarez told them. He was brutally beaten.
Each prisoner was required to bow in the presence of all Vietnamese. If the bow wasn't deemed respectful enough, there was another brutal beating.
Guards would sometimes sweep in and mercilessly and savagely beat a prisoner. They would tighten ropes around a prisoner's upper arms so that he lost feeling in his hands, which would get discolored and swollen. Screams could be heard in the middle of the night. At one point, a pilot in the next cell was tied up and the guards came in and beat him every hour on the hour. Alvarez would tap a coded message to let the man know he wasn't alone.
Sometime in the late 1960s, Alvarez was ordered to write a confession for his crimes. When the guards returned to find a blank sheet of paper, they pulled his arms to his back and fastened ratchet cuffs around his wrists. Every 15 minutes, they came in and tightened them. He screamed in pain. He felt his eyes were popping out. They used him as a punching bag, yelling "write." When the guards left him, Alvarez could hear them working over the other Americans. When Alvarez finally agreed to write what they told him to write, his hand was so numb that his writing looked like a drunkard's scrawl.
On another occasion when Alvarez declined to meet with an unspecified delegation he thought was another propaganda stunt, he was forced to kneel with his arms extended straight up. After four hours, his arms drifted a bit and he was beaten. Then they roped his ankles and bound his arms behind his back. He was left tied up for two days and periodically guards would beat him some more.
Alvarez later described how the North Vietnamese "worked hard on me as a Mexican American." He said they tried to turn his supposed grievances as a member of a minority group into propaganda and betrayal.
In 1969, the prisoners learned that Ho Chi Minh, the President of North Vietnam, had died.
Also in 1969, unbeknownst to Alvarez, while at a Labor Day picnic the Alvarez clan back in Salinas, California, which also included family members with the names Sanchez, Espinosa, Zermeno and Bustamante, decided to petition President Nixon for help:
"We, the undersigned, do respectfully request that more forceful, positive action be taken toward the release of Lt. Everett Alvarez, USN, and the other American prisoners held captive by the North Vietnamese.
As you well know, Lt. Alvarez is the longest held prisoner of any war in the history of the United States. His plane was shot down over the Gulf of Tonkin and he was taken prisoner Aug. 5, 1964."
Sincerely, The American People"
Before long, 70,000 others added their names to the petition. Then it was up to 100,000. Other POW families also launched campaigns, and the media gave them big coverage. Beginning in 1970, hundreds of thousands of Americans wore POW bracelets.
Also in 1970, the Alvarez family had to talk down Alvarez's wife who planned to write him a Dear John letter. She had met someone else, divorced Alvarez in Mexico and remarried. She finally agreed not to write the letter. But on Christmas day, 1971, the camp commander told Alvarez his wife decided not to wait for him. "She has probably gone off with another man," he told Alvarez.
By the end of 1970, more than 400 American prisoners were housed together at the Hanoi Hilton.
In 1972, a tentative ceasefire agreement was reached with the North Vietnamese. The agreement called for a halt of fighting and for the U.S. to withdraw from Vietnam in exchange for the return of all captive American POWs.
The Paris Accords were signed on Jan. 27, 1973.
A few days after the Accords, the prisoners were ordered outside. The camp commander read from the Paris agreement. The prisoners stood with blank stares, looking back at him. "Is this not good? Soon you will be going home." But the inmates didn't dare to believe.
A few weeks later, they were told to pack and taken to an airport. They saw a U.S. Air Force C130 across the field. Then a C141 landed. After the sick and wounded were taken aboard, the names of the others were called one by one. Alvarez's name was called first. A U.S. colonel stood by the plane's entrance, and Alvarez saluted him. "Go on home," the colonel softly told him.
The first thing he saw on board was a beautiful flight nurse. "Take a look at that," Alvarez said to the man behind him.
When they arrived at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines on Feb. 12, 1973, they exited the plane in the order of shootdown, so Alvarez got off first. As he faced the flags, generals, admirals, a red carpet and throngs of well-wishers, Alvarez gave a snappy salute, calling out "Lieutenant j.g. Everett Alvarez, Jr., reporting back, sir."
Alvarez didn't know yet that he had achieved promotions during his eight and a half years in captivity. When released, he was a lieutenant commander.
About six weeks after coming home, Alvarez was summoned to Washington, D.C. for a press conference. On the way back to California, he was assigned a passenger service representative by United Airlines to make sure he was treated as a VIP. His representative's name was Tammy.
On May 24, 1973, President Richard Nixon held a dinner dance for the returned POWs. Alvarez invited Tammy. On Oct. 27, 1973, Alvarez and Tammy were married. By 1976, they had two sons.
Alvarez retired from the Navy in 1980. He served as Deputy Director of the Peace Corps for a year-and-a-half. Following the Peace Corps, he was Deputy Administrator of the Veterans Administration [now called Department of Veterans Affairs]. After that, he accepted an offer from the Hospital Corporation of America as Vice President for Governmental Operations. In 1987, Alvarez formed his own management consulting company.
The tortures and extreme trauma that Alvarez and other POWs experienced at the hands of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong resulted in changes with regard to the requirements of prisoners of war. When imprisoned in Vietnam, the prisoners were required to give no information to the enemy except their name, rank, serial number and date of birth.
The Code of Conduct that bound the POWs in Vietnam was set forth in Executive Order 10631, issued by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955. That executive order stated that if captured, American service members will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to comrades.
After the Vietnam War, President Jimmy Carter amended the requirement that POWs give no information. In 1977, Carter issued Executive Order 12017 to state that POWs were required to give name, rank, serial number and date of birth. They were also required to evade answering further questions to the utmost of their ability, and make no oral or written statements disloyal to the United States and its allies.
Years after his return, Alvarez wrote that he had his own personal code of conduct when he was a prisoner: "Someday I'm going to walk out of here, and when I do I'll want to look myself in the mirror and face my family and friends without being ashamed."
Most of the facts were taken from Everett Alvarez's books, "Chained Eagle," and "Code of Conduct."