Vietnam POWs join at 40th reunion

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YORBA LINDA, Calif. -- U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Doug Burns was on a night reconnaissance mission searching for enemy trucks when he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and taken prisoner during the Vietnam War.

Cmdr. Burns broke three vertebrae when he ejected into a flooded rice paddy and spent the first weeks of his captivity strapped to a concrete pallet and then months at a time in solitary confinement. His wife and three children didn't know for years if he was alive -- and when he arrived home 6 1/2 years later, he learned that his wife was leaving him.

"It was hard to take, but that's what it was," said Mr. Burns, who has since remarried. "You pay your money, you take your chances. There's nothing you can do about it," he said. Mr. Burns, who still walks with a pronounced limp, added: "At least I'm alive. There are a lot of guys who aren't."

On Thursday, Mr. Burns and 200 other Vietnam-era POWs, almost all of them former pilots, reunited for a three-day celebration at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum that coincides with the 40th anniversary of a star-studded White House dinner hosted by President Nixon to honor their sacrifice.

At the time, Nixon was embroiled in Watergate, but the former prisoners -- now in their 60s and 70s -- credit him with their freedom after nearly 600 were released in the spring of 1973. Nixon resigned a little more than a year after the dinner as he faced near-certain impeachment.

"He was a hero to us. He will always be revered by us as a group because he got us home, and we didn't know how we were going to get home," said retired U.S. Marine Capt. Orson Swindle, who spent six years and four months in Hanoi prison camps.

Reminding Americans of that legacy -- and not Watergate -- will be front-and-center this weekend at the POW reunion, which began Thursday with a motorcade and military flyover, a wreath-laying ceremony and tours of a special museum exhibit that focuses on the POWs' homecoming.

Dozens of American flags poked through a sea of white hair as a band played "Stars and Stripes" and "The Star Spangled Banner" for the POWs as they processed into the museum, some hoisting young grandchildren in their arms and others leaning on canes and walkers.

The private Richard Nixon Foundation, which is hosting the event, has also recreated -- down to the menu -- the elaborate black-tie dinner that the president hosted for the POWs and their spouses 40 years ago this weekend. This weekend's special POW exhibit includes White House staff notes about the dinner that stressed the psychological importance of a menu of sirloin steak, fingerling potatoes and strawberry mousse, because "many POWs dreamed of good American food constantly" while in captivity. The notes also suggest that Nixon cracked a joke about banning from the menu turnips and parsnips -- foods the captives learned to hate.

For Nixon, the dissonance between the POWs' adulation and the mounting Watergate crisis was almost too much. In a private moment after the formal dinner, according to his memoirs, he asked his family if he should resign. "As I sat before the fire, listening to the sounds of music and laughter coming up from downstairs, I felt that this was one of the greatest nights of my life," he wrote. "The contrast between the splendid lift of this night and the dreary drain of Watergate suddenly struck me with an almost physical force."

But POWs who attended the event recall only the thrill of meeting the president, rubbing shoulders with movie stars and dancing to a live band until 2 a.m. The star-studded event included some of the most famous celebrities of the day, from Bob Hope to John Wayne to Sammy Davis Jr., and Irving Berlin brought the men to tears with his rendition of "God Bless America."

"The president and his wife said goodnight at midnight, but he said, 'You can dance all night long,' " recalled U.S. Navy Lt. Mike McGrath, who later became a captain and eventually retired from the Navy in 1987 after 24 years as an officer. "What an evening, to dance until the band quits and have free run of the White House."

A peace accord, formally signed in Paris on January 27, 1973, called for withdrawal of U.S. troops, a cease-fire and release of all POWs.

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