Vietnam POWs Pass on Wisdom to USNA Audience
POSTED ON: Monday, January 30, 2023 10:51 AM by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jordyn Diomede
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – The U.S. Naval Academy held its first Forrestal Lecture of the new year in Alumni Hall, Jan. 23. The guest speakers on the panel included retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Bob Shumaker (USNA ’56), Capt. Charlie Plumb (USNA ’64), and Cmdr. Everett Alvarez Jr., all former Vietnam prisoners of war (POW).
The Forrestal Lecture series is intended to enhance the education, awareness, and appreciation of the Brigade of Midshipmen for the social, political, and cultural dimensions of the nation and the world.
The lecture and panel were part of the 2023 Naval Academy Leadership Conference, which honored the 50th anniversary of the return of POWs from the Vietnam War in February 1973. The theme for this year’s conference was “Returning with Honor: Trials to Triumph.”
Alvin Townley, author and former senior fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, moderated the panel of three leading voices in the POW community in front of thousands of midshipmen, senior leadership, and guests from around the world.
Before introducing Shumaker, Plumb, and Alvarez to those in attendance, he put attendees in the shoes of a POW held in captivity in Hỏa Lò Prison, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” during the Vietnam War.
“Imagine you’re a POW, you lost everything there in that muddy river bank down where you’re bombing, and you’re there in the interrogation room with control over only what you say,” Townley told the audience. “That’s the last bit of control you have left, and they are asking you to say that this war is unjust, that you’re a war criminal and you do not want to do it. You’re not going to do it, there’s no way they’re going to make you do it.”
Townley went on to further explain how they were pushed to literal breaking points – their arms so tightly pulled with rope that their elbows were touching – by the chief torturer the POWs named “Pigeye.”
“No one can take that kind of pressure, and they would sign a confession,” he said. “They would crawl back to their cell – they couldn’t walk anymore – and not even want to go home.”
It was then the POWs would hear the tap code coming through the wall, their fellow prisoners providing them with encouragement and letting them know that they were going to get home together, and they were going to return home with honor.
“That became the driving vision for the POWs, to return home with honor,” said Townley. “Every POW had in his mind what it looked like for one day, someday far in the future perhaps, to return home, walk off an aircraft with his head held high, and tell his family and his fellow service members that he did his best.”
Nearly 50 years ago, Alvarez, Plumb, and Shumaker, returned home to the United States following more than 20 years of combined captivity in North Vietnamese POW camps.
Alvarez was a naval aviator and the first American aviator in the Vietnam War to be taken captive after being shot down near Hanoi in August 1964. He spent eight years and seven months in captivity and was released in February 1973, becoming the second longest-held U.S. POW in American history.
Alvarez was by himself in the “Hanoi Hilton” for more than six months before Shumaker would arrive at the camp. It was another eight months after that before he would actually see Shumaker for the first time. He was threatened and told that he was going to be executed. To help him cope, Alvarez decided that he had to put his mind in a different place.
“That’s when I decided that no matter what happened I was not going to do anything that when I eventually went home I would… be ashamed of and that was really what I realized,” he said. “I had to conduct myself. I had to be loyal to my country, to the Navy, my comrades, and to my family. I was not going to do anything that would cause anyone to be ashamed of me, won’t be ashamed of myself. And that was pretty simple, pretty straightforward. But it’s something I’ve just had to stick to. I had to stick to it.”
Plumb was a naval aviator who had flown 74 successful missions over Vietnam before being shot down on his 75th mission. He spent 2,103 days in POW camps, distinguishing himself as a professional in underground communications and serving as a chaplain of his prison unit for two years.
Before Plumb had any communication with Shumaker, he was in a bad mental state.
“I’d given up. I surrendered. I tried my best to keep with the Code of Conduct, but the torture was too great, and I felt very guilty about that,” said Plumb. “How can I go home? How can I face my classmates? How can I face my squadron mates? How can I even face my family and admitting that I failed in my mission so miserably?”
It was in this mindset of guilt, frustration, humiliation, and loneliness that Plumb noticed a sound in the corner of his prison cell. It sounded to him like a cricket, but he would quickly find that it was a little wire scratching the concrete floor. After figuring it had to be an American fighter pilot, he reached over, knelt down, and grabbed the wire to give it a tug. Who he would find on the other end was a life saving guy: Lt. Cmdr. Bob Shumaker. Shumaker passed along a dirty piece of toilet paper with a note written on it, “memorize this code, then eat this note.”
“The tap code is what Bob Shumaker passed along to me, and it was absolutely a lifesaver in my life,” he said. “The simple tug of a wire, and to have that wire tug back meant two things: number one, somebody is trying to communicate with me – I’m alive; number two, somebody cares.”
Shumaker was a naval aviator flying a mission when his plane was shot down over North Vietnam in February 1965. He resisted captivity, resulting in his confinement with Vice Adm. James Stockdale’s infamous “Alcatraz Eleven.” About three months into his imprisonment, with the camp becoming overcrowded, three other American POWs were thrown into his cell with him. Realizing they would soon be separated, the group came up with a code, known as the tap code, to be able to communicate once they were separated into different cells. This code would become their means of communication with each other. He spent eight years imprisoned before his release in 1973.
“Freedom is something you don’t miss, until you lose,” said Shumaker. “That was our situation, and it’s wonderful to have it all back again.”
While in captivity, he remembers his low point being when he was broken in order to give more than just his name, rank, serial number, and date of birth.
“That has a really profound effect on your outlook,” he said. “You feel that you let your country, yourself, and your family down. But it turns out that we thought we were strong, and we were strong, but there were techniques of torture that you just couldn’t endure.”
The stories of the three men inspired midshipmen in attendance.
“I thought it was pretty amazing,” said Midshipman 1st Class (senior) Agatha Shafer. “It’s an easy thing to say ‘stay true to the mission and to your country’ – but they kept that alive for so long. It’s one thing to do that for a couple days but seven, eight years? I thought that was pretty inspiring. It showed how important their faith and camaraderie was.”
Shumaker, Plumb, and Alvarez faced a lot of challenges while enduring captivity in the POW camps.
“They mentioned a lot how not only were they physically challenged but it was also extremely hard mentally,” said Midshipman 3rd Class (sophomore) Yasmin Lathan. “I think you can strip away everything from a person, but as long as you have that honor, loyalty, and moral compass within yourself, it’s so embedded that you can't shift away from it anymore.”
Fifty years ago, the United States welcomed home those POWs from Vietnam who suffered through unbearable amounts of torture and pain for so many years. Today, they impart their wisdom to the future officers of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. Their strength, courage, and commitment set an example for this generation of warfighters. Those men persevered in the face of adversity, returning home to share their stories. Returning home with honor.
For photos of the event, please visit https://www.flickr.com/photos/unitedstatesnavalacademy