The Bonds of War Reunion: Former POWs in Vietnam gather every Tet to renew friendships formed in brutality.

February 18, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON, Va. -- They could be mistaken for a group of middle-age college friends, as they amble into this cozy, Vietnamese restaurant and head toward the back.

Greeting each other with hugs and hearty handshakes, they introduce their wives and order some drinks. Most are wearing lapel pins. Some have gold wings. Others bear a replica of a postage stamp, an American flag with the letters "POW" at an angle.

Before long their small talk gives way to bitter shards of memory: Forced barefoot marches. A rifle butt to the head. A sadistic torturer nicknamed "Bug." Meals of "sewer bass."

Each February around Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, more than a dozen POWs from Maryland, Virginia and Washington gather at the Nam Viet Restaurant off Wilson Boulevard to eat, drink and remember. They spend the night telling stories, renewing friendships forged in dank cells, and -- most of all -- celebrating their survival.

They remember the watery soup and their arms stretched taut by ropes during interrogations. Intestinal parasites. Dysentery. Long months -- or years -- with no word from home. Most spent time in Hoa Lo prison, the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," its yellowed walls weeping with mildew and topped with broken glass.

"There's a lot of sadness about that war, but we have some really tight friendships," says retired Rear Adm. Bob Shumaker of Northern Virginia. The bespectacled and crew-cut Naval Academy graduate spent eight years as a POW. "There's nothing like misery to bring people together."

"We have a strong camaraderie," agrees Everett Alvarez Jr., a former Navy A-4 bomber pilot, who was the first POW shot down, in August 1964. He was released with the others in March 1973 as part of the Paris peace accords and later wrote a book about his ordeal, "Chained Eagle."

Some have met only in recent years, brought together by this bond of brutality. Others were tossed together for years in the same cell or camp, at times nursing a bony and battered soldier back to health. They are members of an exclusive fraternity: the 587 American POWs held in Southeast Asia during the war.

On the rear wall of Nam Viet Restaurant are pictures of earlier reunions, dating back to 1987. All have been held in two restaurants owned by Nguyen Van Thoi, a former South Vietnamese soldier who spent three years in a North Vietnamese "re-education" camp, instructed on the "imperial" nature of the United States.

It was Orson Swindle, a former Marine F-8 fighter pilot shot down in November 1966, who organized these reunions. "I need space for 10 to 15 people, all former POWs," he told Thoi. "POWs? I'm a POW," Thoi replied.

Tet may seem a curious time for a veterans' reunion. The holiday has become shorthand for the Tet Offensive, the 1968 surprise attack on the South that shattered the sense of American invincibility in Vietnam.

But for these graying POWs, Tet was always special. Along with Christmas, it was the only holiday the guards let them celebrate. "We always had a warm feeling for Tet," says Ken Coskey, 67, of Arlington, Va., who ejected from his A-6 Intruder after it was shot down over the northern city of Vinh. Suffering from a broken kneecap and a damaged elbow, he was beaten by villagers before he was taken to Hanoi. His time as a POW included 1 1/2 years in solitary.

"I was hungry more than anything and lonely," he says, holding a beer and gazing off toward the others, "but mostly hungry." But he is only a "junior member," he finally adds with a chuckle, since he spent just five years in captivity.

The men scatter to four tables. Stretched above them is a banner: "Welcome American Heroes Ex-POW of Vietnam War and Families." Other diners, mostly young couples and families, look up for a moment and then return to their meals.

Steaming plates are soon passed around, brimming with beef and noodles, pork, rice and crispy red snapper, served by young Vietnamese waiters.

As they expertly work the chopsticks, some replay the war and talk about missed chances for victory. They speak bitterly of former guards and interrogators, who inflicted torture and beatings and earned nicknames like "The Frog," "Rabbit" and "Bug."

"Bug was brutal in the extreme. In that sense, he was effective," Giles Norrington says evenly, his eyes turning cold. After his reconnaissance plane was shot down, Norrington's burned hands were continually smacked by Bug and other captors, in an effort to extract information.

Bug was "the worst a sadist," agrees Paul Galanti, 57, who parachuted from his crippled A-4 bomber in 1966 and spent the next 2,432 days in Hanoi.

Galanti once received a package from home and was caught passing some of his candy over a wall to another prisoner. For the offense he was forced to sit on a stool in his underwear for 10 days; he was hallucinating by the end.

Others remember what used to pass for Vietnamese food. Pumpkin pieces in boiled water. Cabbage soup. "Sewer bass. Remember that?" asks one, digging into his dinner and shaking his head. "Godawful-tasting fish."

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