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Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, November 4, 1999

"Return With Honor" documents the experience of
16 former Vietnam POWs. Here, North Vietnamese
soldiers surround a captured American fighter pilot.

‘Honor’ captures
Vietnam POWs
drama with dignity

By Tim Ryan


VETERANS are apt to say that if you've never been to war you'll never know what it's like. In a patriotic salute to United State's veterans, Wallace Theaters will present "Return With Honor," a documentary film about Vietnam prisoners of war, tomorrow through Nov. 11, at Enchanted Lake Cinema in Kailua.

The film, by Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders, and presented by Tom Hanks, provides actual accounts of courage, friendship and survival by American POWS held in Vietnamese prison camps during the Vietnam War.

Sixteen former POWs are featured in the film along with six of their wives who share stories of how they carried on, not knowing whether their husbands would return home.

The documentary signifies a major shift in the screen image of the Vietnam veteran. Until recently, that image, formed by dozens of Hollywood films steeped in anti-war angst, tended to portray the Vietnam veteran as a tormented lost soul, the permanently damaged survivor of a nihilistic hell.


Bullet "Return With Honor"
Bullet Rated: No rating
Bullet Opens tomorrow at: Enchanted Lake

Now the pendulum has swung. In the era of "Saving Private Ryan" and Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation," it's clear that the lessons they've learned, far from being nihilistic, are lessons in physical, emotional and spiritual self-preservation and renewal.

The men featured are:

Bullet Cmdr. James (Jim) Stockdale, U.S. Navy, was shot down Sept. 9, 1965. Stockdale was a POW for 7-1/2 years.
Bullet Lt. Col. Robinson (Robbie) Risner, U.S. Air Force, was shot down Sept. 16, 1965. He was a POW for 7 years, 5 months.
Bullet Lt. Cmdr. John McCain, U.S. Navy, was shot down Oct. 26, 1967. He ejected and landed in a lake in the center of Hanoi and was so badly wounded he wasn't expected to live. Despite his condition, McCain refused an offer of early release. McCain is now a U.S. Senator from Arizona.
Bullet Pete Peterson, now the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, lives three blocks from his old address in downtown Hanoi where, as a POW, he lived for 6-1/2 years.

How they survived is a testament to their training, patriotism, sense of brotherhood and native ingenuity.

The POWs describe how they first were threatened then tortured if they did not provide their North Vietnamese captors information about U.S. military plans. A favorite torture, Stockdale says, was the rope trick, where the prisoner's hands first are tied behind his back. Then another rope hanging from the ceiling is fastened around the hands and the man is slowly lifted off the ground -- while being questioned -- until his shoulders were dislocated.

"Two sounds terrified me," a POW says. "Hearing the keys unlock my cell in the middle of the night and hearing the screams of someone being tortured."

One way the men kept their sanity was communicating in codes, including tapping. When the North Vietnamese paraded prisoners before international media, the men might blink in Morse code that anything they said was the result of torture.

Filmed locations include Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the "Hanoi Hilton" by more than 500 POWs; Hanoi Power Plant where one of two escapes occurred; Truc Bac Lake where McCain was shot down and rescued.

The heroism the men share is of a classic American sort: stoic and dutiful, but deeply emotional beneath a dignified surface.

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