Second-Longest Held POW in American History Details How He Was Captured
By Everett Alvarez, Jr.
Every morning as I walk into my office, I am reminded of what happened nearly 50 years ago.
Hanging on the wall over the credenza is a 3-foot-wide portrait of the A-4C Skyhawk aircraft I was flying when I was shot down in August 1964, thus becoming the first naval aviator captured in North Vietnam.
Leading up to that fateful day—August 5—our squadron aircraft had primarily been involved in tracking the movement of men and supplies down the famous Ho Chi Minh trail from North Vietnam through Laos to the guerrillas in South Vietnam. We had participated as escorts of the photo reconnaissance aircraft taking photos of the movement on the trail. American naval ships were also monitoring the coast of North Vietnam for supply activity to South Vietnam by boat.
On the afternoon of August 2, the unthinkable happened. North Vietnamese torpedo boats ventured out and attacked an American destroyer, claiming the ship was in North Vietnam’s territorial waters, which they claimed extended 50 miles from shore. The U.S. recognized the limit as 12 miles—the international standard. Two days after that attack, the USS Turner Joy joined the USS Maddox to continue the off-shore patrol.
Our ship, the USS Constellation, had pulled out of Hong Kong the morning of August 4 after a few days’ liberty. That evening, as we sat in the junior officers’ wardroom, Lieutenant (junior grade) Ron Boch and I were summoned to report to our ready room, where we met the squadron operations officer, Lieutenant Commander John “Nick” Nicholson.
“There is trouble brewing in the Gulf (of Tonkin),” he said. “And we have been ordered to have a flight of three aircraft standing by. I want you two with me if we launch.”
Following a short flight briefing, I quickly donned my flight gear, double-checked to see if I had tucked my St. Christopher medal in my sleeve pocket—I never flew without the medal—and found my way through the pitch-black night to my aircraft on the flight deck.
After a quick external preflight check using my flashlight, I climbed into the cockpit. As I strapped in, I recall thinking to myself how many times we had manned aircraft and sat ready to launch, only to have the mission scrubbed. Would this exercise be any different?
At that moment, the air boss’ voice boomed through the audio system. “Aircraft start your engines!”
Was it for real this time? I quickly went through the start-up procedures, heard the air pressure applied from the “huffer” (external starter) and slowly felt my engine rev up. As I checked to see if all my instruments were operating normally, I saw the flight deck crew giving me the taxi signal with their red wands. As I taxied forward onto the catapult, I concluded the mission was a go.
I received the engine wind-up signal, pushed my throttle forward against the stop, scanned the gauges and gave him a salute. A second later, intense G-forces pressed me against the back of my seat as I accelerated down the track. My aircraft was suspended in air as I gained speed, raised my landing gear and flaps, and I was on my way.
I joined up with Nicholson and Boch, then the three aircraft climbed to cruise altitude, turned off all external lights and proceeded to the area where the Maddox and Turner Joy were located.
As we approached the airspace above the destroyers, we found ourselves above some very high thunderstorms. Switching over to the radio frequencies the two destroyers were on, we encountered complete chaos over the radio. The ship’s sonar men were calling out torpedo bearings followed by other transmissions and then more torpedo bearings. It was obvious the dark, stormy, moonless night made getting a visual sighting very difficult.
There was one voice among all the chatter coming from an aircraft over the destroyers that was attempting to get things under control. I later learned it was the voice of then-Commander James Stockdale, who was leading a flight of F-8s from the USS Ticonderoga, another carrier positioned in the Gulf.
When Nicholson checked us in, Stockdale asked if we had any flares. I was carrying flares and Nicholson and Boch were loaded with rocket pods. Nick detached me from the flight and I began my descent into the dark clouds below.
Without any idea which direction I should take as I descended, I decided to drop to 1,500 feet—the release altitude for the flares. After dropping one flare for effect, I quickly determined I was going to have to drop more altitude because I couldn’t tell when the flare had broken free of the overcast.
As I reached 1,200 feet, I could tell I was at the ceiling level, and almost simultaneously Stockdale spotted the flare breaking out of the overcast. “You’re too far north, come south a ways,” he said over the radio. I flew south for about a minute or so and dropped another flare.
“Perfect!” he said, and I banked my plane to my left in an arc, and set off the remaining four flares in a semicircle. Looking back, I saw the whole area lit up and the two destroyers bobbing up and down in the stormy sea, turning and churning up wakes.
I also recall straining hard against my shoulder straps to scan the periphery of the area. To the west of our ships, I saw what could have been other wakes in U-shaped forms, where an attacking boat could have made a torpedo run toward the ships, then sharply reversed course. What I saw as possible wakes disappeared into the darkness. I didn’t spot any torpedo boats.
As I turned my attention to flying my aircraft, I noted I was at bingo fuel state, meaning I needed to get back to altitude—and the ship. As I began my climb, I heard Nicholson say he was starting a firing run. Years later, I learned from Nicholson that he didn’t have a target, but merely wanted to fire off his rockets so as to not carry live ammo back to the ship.
As I passed about 8,000 feet in my climb, my aircraft being tossed and buffeting violently, I heard a voice over my radio cut right through the chatter from the ships below. In a clear and commanding tone, it said, “Tell the airplanes to go home. We don’t need them.”
I didn’t have time to digest what was happening down below, as my attention was entirely focused on getting through the storm.
After arriving back on the “Connie” well after midnight, I was directed to proceed to the flag’s quarters, where all pilots that were up that night debriefed the admiral.
“What did you see, boys? Did anyone see anything?” he asked, chewing on the stem of his pipe. I volunteered that I had dropped the flares and lit up the whole area, I saw our two destroyers bright and clear and what could have been wakes of their boats, but nothing else.
Nicholson chimed in. “I could see our ships also, but could not make out anything else.” A few others chimed in with the same comments.
“They (the U.S. warships) were calling out torpedo bearings,” the admiral said. “Do you think they were making things up?” We could tell he was getting agitated.
After a few seconds of silent thought, we were dismissed.
[Years later, I learned Congress, on the basis of the activities that night, wherein Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked our two U.S. Navy destroyers, the USS Maddox, and Turner Joy on open seas, had passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, thereby authorizing President Lyndon B. Johnson to widen the war in Southeast Asia. Throughout the years, given the controversy over whether the North Vietnamese actually attacked our ships, I have always maintained I did not see any torpedo boats. Not to say, there were none, nor to say there were. I don’t know.]
At 10 a.m. the following morning, the phone ringing in my room woke me from a sound sleep.
“Get up, Alvy,” my duty officer said. “You need to get to AI (Air Intelligence.) You’re going on a mission.”
I threw on my flight suit and hustled to the Air Intelligence spaces where a number of pilots and aircrews had already gathered. It was then that my mission was outlined. The Air Intelligence folks slid open the information board to reveal a large map of North Vietnam.
“This is a contingency plan for strikes against North Vietnam in retaliation for what happened last night,” the briefers said, pointing out targets on the coast of North Vietnam. Starting at the southernmost target near the Demilitarized Zone—a result of the First Indochina War—they worked their way up the coast to include naval bases and oil depots.
Our target was the naval base at Hon Gai Harbor, about 25 miles northeast of Haiphong and 50 miles south of the Chinese border. I would be flying wing on our squadron’s executive officer (XO), who was to lead a flight of five A-4’s. Another five A-4s from our sister squadron would make up the remainder of our group targeting Hon Gai. We would be flying at high altitude all the way to the target because we didn’t have enough fuel to drop down to sea level for a coastal penetration under their radar and get back to the ship. Our arrival time on the target was coordinated so five AD Skyraiders (propeller-driven aircraft) would arrive at the target at the same time.
I was amazed. It was hard to believe we were contemplating hitting North Vietnam. We knew next to nothing about it and the briefing was so scant it left gaping holes in vital information on target layouts and area defenses.
We were told to look for torpedo boats inside the bay and to look out for anti-aircraft artillery coming from the nearby hills. Nothing was said about search-and-rescue plans.
About an hour after the briefing began, the air group commander walked in and announced the mission was a go! He told us, “The president just went on TV and announced to the country that we were striking North Vietnam.”
We had more than two hours until we were set to launch. I had time to get some breakfast and get to our ready room, where I put on my flight gear and waited for the call to man aircraft. While sitting in the ready room I felt the anticipation building.
Reaching the flight deck, I found my aircraft—the same A-4 I had flown the night before. As I started up the ladder into the cockpit, I vividly recall the plane captain telling me, “Don’t hurt her, sir,” while patting the fuselage with the palm of his hand. “She’s a good one.”
After starting my engine, I taxied onto the catapult shuttle and soon felt the bridle tighten and knew I was locked in. All my engine functions checked normal, so I faced the catapult officer, gave him my salute and off I went.
I was the first aircraft off the ship on that launch. I found the XO’s aircraft, and as soon as the rest of the flight had joined us, we began our climb to 30,000 feet where we leveled off and headed north toward the target area. I scanned my instruments again, found them OK and settled back for the next hour.
It was then, as we droned along, the realization hit me. We were going into war!
The weather was clear, and as we neared the coastline I could see it straight ahead. Soon I heard the XO. “Let’s start our descent boys. Check your weapon settings.”
We approached the coast straight in. I rechecked my weapon switches and saw the coastline looming ahead as we continued our descent. I really felt the excitement building. My knees were shaking and I couldn’t do anything to stop it.
By now, I could see the target area clearly. The harbor of Hon Gai was coming up fast and the XO transmitted again. “I’m going in first. The rest of you drop back and trail behind,” he said. I was his wing, which meant I stayed tucked in and went with him. A wingman always sticks with his leader.
Still descending, and coming in at a high speed, I saw some high terrain to the west of the base and the Vietnamese torpedo boats—about four berthed in a row—on the west side of the bay. There was also a larger ship with them.
“Good God! Shoot!” the XO said over the radio. He pulled off and I found my target, fired my rockets and pulled out.
“They’re lined up on the west side of the bay, a bunch of torpedo boats!” I broadcast to the others, as I looked around for the XO. I found him at very low altitude, almost skimming the bay as he arced a right turn. I banked my plane in order to intercept him and join up when the whole sky turned black with flak. It seemed the whole world opened up on me as flak burst all around. I was an easy target at that low altitude as I closed in on the XO inside his turn.
I saw the other planes from our group peeling off and diving to fire their rockets. It seemed while all the anti-aircraft fire was concentrated on me, the others were diving in. They certainly seemed to be doing good work, as flames started to spring from a couple of the boats.
When the last of the others had pulled off, the XO, who had not fired his weapons, made a second pass. Since my rockets were gone, I switched over to my machine guns and began a low strafing run. It was eerie, but all the while I had been closing in on the XO, the air around my plane was nothing but flak. As I switched to my guns, reddish tracers whizzed by me. I felt surprisingly calm and my actions seemed so smooth. All my anxiety had disappeared with the first bursts.
The torpedo boats that I could see were all in flames, so I set my sight on the larger ship, and bore in. I fired on the ship until my guns quit and quickly pulled off. Banking hard to the right, I saw the XO again circling low and inside the bay. As I was again closing in on my leader, he straightened out and headed south, across a small spit of land, to the sea on the other side. I also straightened out, flying very low, and as I approached the strip of land, a sudden burst jarred my plane.
A sickening feeling crept over me as I tried to control my aircraft. Smoke filled the cockpit and every warning light lit up. As I pulled back on the stick in an attempt to gain some altitude, the plane slowly started to roll left.
Even though I was going through all my emergency procedures as fast as I could, it felt like everything was in slow motion, and I couldn’t move my hands fast enough. I deployed my emergency generator and pulled the jettison to dump everything I had on my wings. I didn’t know if the explosion had knocked off part of my wing because I couldn’t stop the slow roll to the left
Again, I keyed the mike “I’m on fire! I’m out of control!”
Nicholson’s voice came across the radio. “You know what to do, Alvy.”
As my nose gradually dropped below the horizon, and I could not stop the roll, I realized I didn’t have any time. I hit the mic button again. “I’m getting out! I’ll see you guys later!”
If I ejected at that moment, my trajectory would have shot me out in a horizontal direction. I hit the stick hard in the direction of the roll, hoping I could roll over completely so I could eject vertically. Unfortunately, my A-4 only partially complied with my command. I thought I might survive if I went now, so I ejected.
I felt my seat fire up the rail as I launched from the aircraft. I was flying close to 400 knots when I was hit. Immediately the wind pinned my arms and legs back as I grayed out. I didn’t lose consciousness, though my vision blurred. I felt my limbs flailing behind me as I felt the drogue chute go, followed by the pop of the main parachute. I don’t believe I had more than half a swing in my chute before I was in the water.
As I surfaced, I pulled my helmet off with my facemask attached. Not wanting to get tangled, I detached my parachute and started to get a hold of my senses. At that moment, a geyser of water shot up nearby. My thought was the Vietnamese had fired a shell at me, but a low-flying AD Skyraider banked sharply above me and disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
As my senses cleared, I began to realize my predicament. My first thoughts were of my wife and mom. What would become of them? I didn’t think I would live if I were captured.
I had landed in the middle of some large outcroppings that lined the coast. I later learned this was Ha Long Bay, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, which became a popular tourist location after the war.
I spotted a couple of small fishing boats with sails—the AD Skyraider’s target—about 200 yards away. I didn’t know if they had seen me, so I tried to keep low in the water. If I could get to one of those outcroppings, I could hide in the brush that extended down the vertical sides and wait for dark before swimming out to the open sea.
Swimming underwater, only coming up for air, I headed for cover. With all my gear on and still towing my survival equipment, I was getting exhausted. To make matters worse, the tide was carrying me in the direction of the fishing boats.
I felt something graze my left elbow and there was some splashing around me. I looked around, and saw a fishing boat circling about 30 yards away with gun smoke slowly rising from it. They were shooting at me. As the boat circled nearer, they fired again, but this time the shots weren’t close. I counted three Vietnamese with rifles, one with a revolver and one youngster with a hand grenade ready to pull the pin.
“Don’t do that!” I shouted.
The one with the revolver stood up and motioned to raise my hands. I reached under the surface and pulled my .38 out of the holster, and let it go. Then I raised my arms.
The boat pulled alongside and, looping my hands and neck with ropes, they yanked me aboard.
Everyone was shouting, except the one with the grenade. He just stood and trembled, finger still on the pin.
When they were satisfied that I had been rendered harmless, they relaxed a bit. The one giving orders glared at me and stuffed a cigarette in my mouth. I was in their hands and thoughts raced through my mind. I was certain they were going to kill me, but how would they do it? Hang me by my ankles and rip my skin off? Lop my head off?
I was drenched, exhausted and my body ached. I lay mute and numb. I had no fight in me. Strangely, I didn’t fear death. Silently, I began the Lord’s Prayer.
Within minutes of being tied up, the leader began shouting to someone afar. After an exchange, he pointed down at me as if to say, “We have him!”
A torpedo boat pulled alongside and the North Vietnamese sailors carried me onto their boat and covered me with a tarp.
As we cruised back to their base, they pulled the tarp off and a man dressed in civilian clothing—along with others wearing naval uniforms—began yelling at me in Vietnamese. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I answered in Spanish, “Que? Que? No entiendo.” Speaking Spanish to them seemed like a good idea at the time.
The man dressed like a civilian showed me my ID card and held a piece of paper that read “USA.” Pointing to my card, then to the paper, he shouted, “My? My? (pronounced ‘me’)” I nodded. He whispered to the others, “My.” They all looked up to scan the sky, whispering “My, my.” They now knew who had hit them, as they gazed skyward, dumbstruck. They replaced the tarp.
During the trip to shore, the tarp slipped off my head and I could see the faces of some of the crew of the torpedo boat staring at the havoc we had created. One young sailor assigned to guard me glanced down and nodded toward some smoke rising over the edge of the boat. He looked quite somber viewing the damage as if to say, “See what you did?” I struggled to lift my head to see what he was pointing at, but at that moment someone covered my head again. Minutes later, I was blindfolded and led ashore.
I found myself sitting in a building as people continually walked in and out. I was brought a set of striped pajamas and told to put them on by an English-speaking man who had appeared.
Between questions and visitors, I began dropping off. I was weary and my body was sore. I woke up to see a photographer standing on a table shooting pictures from above. The Vietnamese captors always took pictures looking down, as to suggest their superiority.
My captors woke me to tell me I would be going to a place where I could get some good food and a nice bath. I was led blindfolded to a vehicle and driven away. Our destination was a prison where I was handed a rag.
The interpreter pointed to a rusty bucket with cold water and said, “See? You take nice bath.”
I made an attempt to wash up, but moving my arms hurt. They opened the jail cell door revealing a small room with a 6-foot square wood slab that served as a bed. There were already two Vietnamese prisoners occupying the cell. After they shackled my ankles, I fell over backwards and passed out.
It was daylight when I woke and, in English, one of the prisoners told me I had to go with the guards at the door. The shackles came off, and barefoot, I was led to another building where two officers in military uniforms were waiting.
I was being interrogated.
When I gave them my name, rank, service number and date of birth, they told me I was not a prisoner of war, as there was no declaration of war by the United States. They also said Vietnam had not signed the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of POWs, hence they were not bound by them. They said I had committed a criminal act, that I was a criminal and would be tried for my crimes in a military tribunal.
The quiz over, I was led back to the cell and reshackled before falling asleep again. I awoke to a loudspeaker blaring over the yard. The other prisoner told me the broadcast had announced the Vietnamese had scored a glorious victory in yesterday’s raids and had shot down eight American airplanes and captured one pilot. “That is you!” he said.
“Eight airplanes?” I thought to myself. Who could that be? I had not seen any shot down. Could all the others be dead?
“How is it you speak English?” I asked the prisoner.
“I was in the military, a Jeep driver. My Jeep blew up!” he said as he used his hands to imitate an explosion. I wondered about that. Better not press it, I thought to myself. He might be a plant.
Later that night, I was quizzed again. The English-speaking officer told me I wasn’t safe in that location and I was moving to another place. An hour’s ride later, we stopped and the officer said the Chinese man who owned this farm—his words—allowed me to stay there. I was under heavy guard and remained there for a few days, locked up in a room where I spent most of my time sleeping and trying to use my arms and legs. I had no broken bones from the ejection, but I was in a lot of pain from the force of it.
Occasionally, I had visitors. There was a doctor who examined me, interrogators and a “high-ranking officer” who expressed complete surprise when he saw how young I was.
That same night, my interrogator woke me and raged how I was being obstinate by sticking to giving name, rank, service number and date of birth.
“We know you are married, and your wife is Tangee,” he said. “Your parents are Everett and Sally Alvarez of 2168 Bohannon Drive in Santa Clara, California. You were flying a Skyhawk jet off the USS Constellation, you were in VA-144. See, we know all that.”
He showed me copies of Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, The San Francisco Examiner and the San Jose Mercury News—my hometown paper. Each had articles and pictures of me, my wife and my family.
“Get ready,” he said. “I take you now to Hanoi.”
Within an hour, I was on my way to the French-built Hoa Lo Prison that we later nicknamed The Hanoi Hilton. I had no idea what my future would hold.
If I knew my stay would last 8 ½ years, I would have thought that impossible. Had someone told me I would have a ringside seat to the entire air war over North Vietnam—from the early stages in February 1965 to the end of Operation Linebacker II in December 1972—I would not have believed them. If someone told me my fellow POWs and I would be subjected to unbelievable indignities, deprivation and torture, there is no telling what I would have thought.
And if I had known my desire to live and my faith in my God and my country would be tested beyond what I thought possible, I cannot imagine what I would have done.
Instead, as I rode in the back of a truck, I thanked God that I was alive.
—Everett Alvarez, the second-longest held POW in American history, retired from the Navy in 1980 with the rank of commander. Following his distinguished military career, he enjoyed success as a government executive, entrepreneur and author of “Chained Eagle: The Heroic Story of the First American Shot Down over North Vietnam,” which details his life as a prisoner during the Vietnam War.
-This story originally appeared on USO.org in 2014. It has been updated in 2019
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Sep 19, 2019
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