Through this weekend, C-SPAN will periodically be broadcasting President Nixon’s toast to the American POWs of the Vietnam War, at the dinner held on May 24, 1973 to celebrate their return home – to this day, the largest dinner of any kind at the White House.
The channel will also be showing, several times, the opening ceremony of the fortieth anniversary reunion of the POWs at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, during which businessman and two-time Presidential candidate Ross Perot spoke, and a wreath was laid at the grave of the President and First Lady.
This 72-minute video on C-SPAN’s channel shows the dinner held at the Library on May 24, 2013, which was attended by nearly 200 of the 587 POWs who were present at the White House four decades ago.
This landmark event was covered by the major American broadcast networks as well as the leading cable news channels, and the Nixon Foundation’s main page has several examples of this coverage. But it also received enormous attention from America’s print media. Two notable examples are linked below.
Gillian Flaccus of the Associated Press wrote an article, reprinted in newspapers around the country, in which the ceremonies and dinner are described vividly. The article points out that the great respect and gratitude that the POWs of the Vietnam War had for President Nixon’s unstinting efforts to secure their release remain as strong as ever with the passing of the years:
“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 Marine Capt. Orson Swindle, who spent six years and four months in Hanoi prison camps.
Lieutenant Commander John M. “Mike” McGrath, USN, the author of the superb memoir Prisoner Of War: Six Years In Hanoi, also emphasizes this point:
“When he sent the B-52s in, [in December 1972] that’s when we got out[...]Scandals are scandals … but we don’t let it diminish our appreciation to Nixon for putting the pressure on strong.”
Many who attended the dinner in 1973 believe that, although it had many memorable moments, the one that topped them all was the performance by thirty-five POWs of a ten-line hymn, composed nearly four long years before their release, which expressed their undying love of country in their time of bondage:
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,
To America and to Thee. Amen.
The words and music of “The POW Hymn” were written by one of their own – Colonel J. Quincy Collins, USAF. In the absence of sheet music and a pen, he wrote the hymn on toilet paper, with a fish bone, employing red liquid from a diarrhea pill for ink. When the guards at the Vietnamese prison, dubbed “Camp Faith,” were away, he and his fellow servicemen would practice the hymn.
In an article in the Charlotte Observer by David Perlmutt, Col. Collins describes his years of torture and privation, the importance of music in sustaining the morale of himself and his fellow prisoners, and the reception of his hymn in Washington:
“Sorry, we didn’t have time but for one rehearsal – in the men’s room at the Statler (Hilton Hotel) this afternoon,” Collins told the crowd.
Then he turned to direct his choir. They sang his “POW Hymn” that he’d scribed with a fish bone and diarrhea pill. Afterward, Nixon leaped onto the stage and ran after Collins to shake his hand.
Forty years later, to the day, Col. Collins and sixteen members of his choir sang “The POW Hymn” once more – this time a full continent across from its American debut. The complete performance from 1973 is in a video accompanying the Observer article, and, also, this clip from CBS News’s coverage of the 2013 dinner shows portions of both the 1973 and 2013 performances of the hymn.
Few events in the history of the White House have been as thoroughly meaningful and memorable as the dinner for the POWs of the Vietnam War, and forty years later, the dinner in Yorba Linda was an occasion that also expressed America’s gratitude to these men, and their families, for their bravery in the face of adversity, with the added privilege of expressing thanks for the forty years of continued service in the military and, after their retirement from the armed forces, in civilian life, that has been an added hallmark of their contribution to their nation.
Such events as the Presidential campaign of Senator John McCain in 2008 and the nationally televised eulogy delivered at the funeral of President Ford by Rev. Dr. Robert Certain in 2006 have been only among the most visible manifestations of this service. Each day, our POWs, from all our wars, set an example for the rest of us. Their years of captivity are just part of their story. The dinner at the Nixon Library, indeed, offered the opportunity to remind Americans of all that these men have accomplished.