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For Prisoners of War, Life Goes On

‘Open Doors’ Looks at Lives of POWs 30 Years After Vietnam

Theirs were not perfect lives — but whose are? And anyway, perfection is seldom the stuff of compelling narrative. 

They were fighting men, many in their 30s and slightly on the cocky side. 

Nothing was going to happen to them. 

But it did. And imprisonment in the hell of North Vietnam — for many, lasting the better part of a decade — was the fate of these Americans serving during the United States’ longest war.

Republican Rep. Sam Johnson’s (Texas) captors repeatedly broke his right arm, forced him in front of a firing squad and later placed him in leg stocks for 72 days. When Johnson arrived at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” in 1966 he had to fight off “a big old rat” for what was left of a bowl of pumpkin soup. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), then a Navy fighter pilot, was submitted to endless beatings and solitary confinement after being shot down over Hanoi in October 1967. And former Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), whose experience would later be the subject of a TV movie, recalls one particularly excruciating interrogation and torture session in which a metal bar was worn at least a half-inch deep into each of his achilles tendons.

But it is the mornings after these and other American POWs’ captivity ended in early 1973 that a new photo exhibit marking the 30th anniversary of their return seeks to illuminate.

“The angle not really covered is the rest of the story, where they are now,” says Taylor Baldwin Kiland, who wrote the text of “Open Doors: Vietnam POWs Thirty Years Later,” opening Monday at Washington’s Stephen Decatur House. 


Getting Started

At first glance, the pair of bubbly, pant-suit-wearing blondes hardly appear likely candidates to create — from the ground up — an ambitious exhibit focusing on the lives of 30 U.S. survivors of the North Vietnamese prison camps.

But Kiland and a childhood friend, photographer Jamie Howren Quinn (a former Roll Call intern) — long steeped in military culture — say the project was a natural fit.

Kiland, third-generation Navy, spent five years in the service, while Quinn’s husband, John (whom Kiland introduced her to), is a third-generation Naval Academy graduate.

As a child, Kiland had lived in the tight-knit military community of Coronado, Calif., home to many of the POWs when they returned to the United States in 1973.

“I have very distinct memories of yellow ribbons tied around the trees, of hand-painted posters hung from balconies and front porches that said, ‘Bring our POWs home,’ or when they were about to come home, ‘Welcome home,’” says Kiland, whose father, Ingolf, succeeded McCain as Senate Navy liaison.

Later, while volunteering for McCain’s 2000 presidential bid, Kiland was struck by how “very little coverage there had been about the POW experience subsequent to their homecoming.”

After she and Quinn teamed up for a series of photographs and profiles highlighting the plight of isolated senior citizens for a nonprofit’s fundraiser, the two decided to continue their partnership in a project that explored the lives of the former POWs, post-Vietnam.

Their first subject, Cpt. C. Everett Southwick, a friend of Kiland’s father who spent nearly six years in captivity, agreed to be their “first victim,” says Kiland.

“He gave us his shot and he sent us to another POW who sent us to another,” remembers Quinn. “It was like the Breck shampoo commercial.”

Over the next 18 months, the two would travel to 16 cities in pursuit of subjects for Quinn’s sepia-toned photographs and Kiland’s accompanying profiles, and rack up thousands of dollars in credit card debt in the process.

The result was thirty 30-inch-by-30-inch images that capture these men in the midst of such quotidian activities as riding a bike, playing with their grandchildren or relaxing in their living rooms. The stories they tell are a mixed bag — of love, divorce, joy, death and disease — but through it all runs an unflagging commitment to service.

When it came to posing the two serving Members of Congress, in the case of Johnson, Quinn says, “We really wanted to capture the tall Texan,” which is “why we put him on the Capitol steps.”

McCain — who is pictured sharing a laugh with friend and fellow exhibit subject Federal Trade Commissioner Orson Swindle — proved a bit more difficult, given that time constraints meant the pair had only 15 minutes to capture him in his Russell Senate Building office.

“We had about 5 minutes of 15 minutes that were relaxed [where] he was enjoying himself,” Quinn says.


Congressional Comrades?

McCain moves about his Russell office, a color photo in hand of the statue erected where his A-4E Skyhawk plane was shot down over Hanoi’s Western Lake on that fateful October day. 

“This is the greatest insult of all,” says the die-hard Navy man, pointing to the U.S. Air Force acronym on the monument, whose inscription also manages to misspell his name and misstate his rank. 

It’s been years since McCain, now the senior Senator from Arizona, entertained his fellow captors with his humorous, slightly unorthodox history lessons and movie re-enactments, but to hear him tell it, it seems like yesterday.

“I taught a … history of the world,” McCain recalls. “When I talked about the French and Indian War taking place in India one of the prisoners challenged my veracity.”

To pass the time, he says, the POWs would put on plays and skits.

“My greatest production was ‘Stalag 17,’” he quips, referring to the classic World War II prisoner of war comedy/drama. “We had even written a script and had casted and rehearsed, and about three days before we were supposed to put on the show the Vietnamese came in as they did fairly often and took some of the prisoners out and … we lost our star who was going to play the role William Holden played, so we were never able to put on my greatest artistic effort.”

Of all the exhibit’s subjects, McCain is arguably the best known — the man who after spending five and a half years as a POW went on to become one of Capitol Hill’s leading advocates of normalized relations with the United States’ longtime enemy.

“I became committed to the way you heal the wounds of war is through reconciliation,” McCain says.

But in 1995, at the height of the battle over normalizing relations, McCain and Johnson, the former cellmates, found themselves on opposing sides.

“I still don’t think we oughta be dealing with communists,” says Johnson matter of factly, as he holds forth from his second-floor Longworth Building office on a recent fall day.

However, it wasn’t until Johnson actively campaigned for George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential contest that their post-war friendship faltered.

And despite the underlying bond the two men say they still share, they rarely speak. 

“I would say he’s still upset about the election,” Johnson asserts. “He needs to get over that. But Johnny’s an OK guy. He calls me Sammy, by the way.” 

When asked about residual bitterness over Johnson’s endorsement of Bush, McCain shrugs off the question. “We just have different views on a variety of different issues,” he says quietly.


Traveling the Home Front

Since debuting in August 2002 at Coronado’s Museum of History and Art, “Open Doors” has been on the march, traveling to more than 10 venues across the country — ranging from the Nauticus to the U.S. Naval Academy and even a brief appearance on the USS Boxer in San Diego.

Along the way, Quinn and Kiland have received some high-profile encouragement from the likes of Vice President Cheney, as well as from former Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot, who underwrote the $5,000 cost of bringing the exhibit to the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., in June 2003.

In fact, Perot — whose former running mate, Vice Adm. James Stockdale, is also featured in the exhibit — has taken such an interest in the project, he’s agreed to write the forward if the work is ever published in book form, says Quinn. And discussions are under way with publishers, though Quinn declined to name names.


Life After Vietnam

Perhaps, when all is said and done, it is the word adaptation that best sums up how these men have dealt with life, post-Vietnam, notes Kiland.

“These men are living examples that if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” she says.

“In 1964, really the last time I was in the U.S. … the most shocking [thing] in movies to that date had been Rhett Butler saying ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,’” recalls Denton, who said he wasn’t prepared for the “drug scene” and other social changes he confronted upon his return to the United States.

For some who would later hold public office, their time in confinement served to strengthen their resolve to influence U.S. policy after their release.

“We kept griping to each other about the way the war was being run,” says Johnson, a member of the famed “Alcatraz 11,” a group of 11 POWs marked for especially brutal treatment due to their unwavering resistance.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we quit griping about it and get involved when we get back and see if we can change the course of the country.’ And a lot of us did.”

“Open Doors: Vietnam POWs Thirty Years Later,” runs from Nov. 10 to Jan. 25, 2004, at the Stephen Decatur House. For more information, go to www.decaturhouse.org.

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