En-rout to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA. the eight big shiny buses (truly the limousines of tour buses) carrying returned Vietnam POWs and their guests–mostly wives or other close family members–made their way down Yorba Linda Blvd to the cheers and waves of hundreds of local folks.
My enduring impression, through misty eyes, is of the dozen or so first graders lined across the porch of the KFC all waving American flags and enthusiastically cheering us on.
As we pulled into the circular drive of the Library itself we were surrounded by throngs of local well wishers and a hundred “Rolling Thunder” bikers who had escorted our buses the last several miles, most of them proud Vietnam Veterans as well.
There followed a few short welcoming speeches and introductions by Library officials, President Nixon’s younger brother, Edward–himself an Ex Navy helo pilot–and the President’s daughter, Tricia.
The next few hours were occupied by staggered tours with 30 or so POWs with each guide, and separated by a golf tournament style “shotgun start” which made the most efficient use of our time. The Library, of course featured President Nixon’s achievements such as founding the Environmental Protection Agency, opening up diplomatic relations with Mao’s Red China, and bringing the Vietnam war to an end with honor–later dishonored by a Democrat Congress refusing funding for promised continued material support for South Vietnam’s armed forces, thereby snatching defeat from the jaws of our victory.
Perhaps the most noteworthy section was the Library’s comprehensive coverage of the Water Gate scandal, President Nixon’s most unflattering and darkest hour which ultimately led to his resignation of the Presidency.
The day concluded with a terrific bar-b-que picnic which also featured Tony Orlando singing his hit song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree”, which has become not only the POWs but all returning Veteran’s theme song.
The next day featured a late afternoon and evening at the Library which reprised the elegant formal welcome home banquet at the Nixon White House in April of 1973. That event–about which I have written separately–featured many celebrities of the day, and thirty or so POWs in an impromptu choir singing the POW Hymn, composed by a UNC music major turned Air Force fighter pilot turned POW, Colonel Quincy Collins.
He composed the hymn in prison using four fellow POWs (including yours truly) for his “piano” to get the harmony just right. Well, we did it again for this occasion at the Library. Dressed in dashing Navy and Air Force mess dress (formal), we sang;
“Oh God to Thee we raise this prayer and sing
from within these foreign prison walls
We’re men who wear the gold and silver wings
and proudly heed our nation’s call
Give us strength to withstand all the harm that the hand
of our enemy captors can do
To inflict pain and strife and deprive every life
of the rights they know well we are due
We pledge unswerving faith and loyalty
to our cause…America…and Thee…Amen…Amen!”
During the four days of the reunion we all stayed at the Newport Beach Hyatt hotel, about a forty five minutes freeway drive to the Library.
There were welcome and farewell events at the hotel as well, but the best part was in the “Ready Room”, the center of the action for any military pilot.
The Hyatt had set aside a pool-side banquet room well stocked with hard and soft drinks, twenty four hour snacks, and information boards.
A dozen round tables with chairs hosted many an animated group retelling favorite sea stories, war stories, and dog fights…complete with appropriate “airplane hands”.
A true reunion, some had not seen old cell mates for decades; cell mates with whom they had spent more years than with their wives at the time. Although arithmetic dictated the youngest of us was around sixty five years old, there was a great deal of enthusiasm for a fiftieth anniversary reunion as well.
Speaking for myself,…I’m goin’ for it!