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Vietnam POWs: From Hell to Happily Ever After

Book chronicles 20 former prisoners of war and their lasting loves

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Fifty years after U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam were released comes a riveting book about the men’s suffering and the women with whom they forged happily-ever-after marriages.

The POWs’ paths were not without turbulence. Some marriages crashed and burned while the men suffered hardships and their wives at home confronted anxiety, fear and loneliness. In some cases spouses at home just moved on; others headed to Mexico for quickie divorces.

Twenty couples whose marriages endured are featured in Captured by Love: Inspiring True Romance Stories from Vietnam POWs. Stories include those of single men who found love after regaining their freedom and returning to the U.S. as well as married men who reunited with their wives or met other women after coming home. Some of the new spouses were widows of fellow POWs.

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Author a former POW

The lead author, Lee Ellis, includes his own love story and long marriage in the book. The F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber he was flying erupted in the skies over North Vietnam, leading to five-plus years of captivity in camps including the so-called Hanoi Hilton. Captured at age 24 and single, he remained with the Air Force after gaining his freedom and in 1973 retired as a colonel.

In North Vietnam, approximately 400 American POWs endured long-term captivity, lasting at least five years. Remarkably, around 60 percent of them are still alive, with an average age of 87. The couples featured in the book share stories of love that have spanned 40 to 65 years, says Ellis, who is 79 years old himself.

Means of survival

What was key to the men’s resilience amid torture, hunger, squalor, solitary confinement and scant medical care? Many were college-educated and rigorously vetted fliers, Ellis says, and crucial to their survival was the tap code they used to secretly communicate with each other by tapping out words based on a matrix of the alphabet.

Conditions in the camps eased late in 1969, and the men strove to “get healthier and get rid of our shame, guilt, anger and bitterness,” Ellis says.

Diversions included teaching one another calculus, foreign languages and other subjects, and reciting movies from memory. Humor helped, he says, recalling the profane nickname given North Vietnam leader Ho Chi Minh.

Ellis and coauthor Greg Godek wrote the book to memorialize the love stories that Ellis says are so “amazing” they would defy Hollywood’s imagination.

Here are three of them:

Bill and Suzy Bailey, Anderson, South Carolina

He was a Mississippi farm boy. She grew up in Germany, South Africa and Ethiopia because her dad worked for Radio Free Europe and later the State Department.

spinner image an old photo shows suzy and bill bailey, both dressed in white, hold hands and smile while sitting on a couch
Bill and Suzy Bailey met after he was released as a POW.
Courtesy Bill and Suzy Bailey

As a Pan Am flight attendant, she put $2.50 in the mail to buy a POW bracelet. Hers read: Lt. James Bailey, 6-28-67, the date his F-4 Phantom was shot down. Bill, as he’s known, had been a prisoner for more than four years. “I wore the bracelet proudly and prayed for Lieutenant James Bailey every night,” she says.

When she learned he was to be freed, she sent a telegram saying she and her roommate would show him around if he ever got to London, where she was living.

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More than 3,000 people flooded Bailey with congratulatory letters. He answered most with form letters “except for a few of the single girls.”

When the two met in London, the spark was instant. Later, in Paris, he proposed.

Forty-seven years later — after careers, flying their own plane and raising three children — their passion hasn’t dimmed.

Bill, she quips, is her “mail-order groom.”

After being held for nearly six years, he bears no ill will toward his captors, she observes, showing her “the true meaning of forgiveness.”

Everett and Tammy Alvarez, Rockville, Maryland

The first U.S. pilot shot down over North Vietnam, 26-year-old Everett Alvarez was the first U.S. service member to be locked up. His captivity began in August 1964 and lasted 8½ years.

“As a Mexican American, I was singled out for especially intense interrogations designed to get me to turn against America, the Navy and my ‘white oppressors.’ ” says Everett, who “never did.”

spinner image an old photo shows tammy and everett alvarez on their wedding day. she is in a white dress and long veil and he is in a navy dress uniform
Everett and Tammy Alvarez met at Dulles International Airport.
Courtesy Everett and Tammy Alvarez

On Christmas Day 1971, his captors presented him with a “gift”: a letter saying his wife had divorced him and remarried.

After his return to the U.S. and a news conference at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, he was to fly home to California from Baltimore’s airport. A last-minute change had him leave from Dulles International Airport in nearby Virginia instead.

At Dulles, Tammy was United Airlines’ passenger service representative, assisting CEOs, movie stars, politicians and military brass. After paging “Commander Everett Alvarez” to her office, she upgraded him to first class — and ordered him champagne. He was “dazzled” by the “charming and beautiful woman.”

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Tammy’s job put her in contact with VIPs, and some conspired to foster a romance between the couple. Everett invited her to a White House gala for returning prisoners hosted by President Richard Nixon, and the ex-POW stayed in D.C. for a week afterward as the romance flourished. They wed 49 years ago.

Talking about their union, he says: “It’s very important to support each other’s dreams. We never go to bed angry, we say our prayers before falling asleep, and we say, ‘I love you.’” 

Tom and Yona McNish, San Antonio

Tom McNish, flying an Air Force F-105 Thunderchief, was shot down over North Vietnam in September 1966. After months of “torture and starvation,” he escaped mentally by fantasizing about his ideal wife.

spinner image a couple smiles for a photo on their wedding day. she is wearing a long sleeved white dress, and he is wearing a white air force dress uniform
Tom and Yona McNish were set up by mutual friends after he returned from Vietnam.
Courtesy Tom and Yona McNish

She would be Christian, tall, brunette, never married, no kids. He planned to date for a year but not get serious — with anybody.

In Alabama, his future wife, Yona, had married and had two daughters. In 1965, she got to know a woman at a beauty salon who also had two kids. The friend’s husband was shot down in Vietnam, and Yona had her own cross to bear: Her husband succumbed to cancer.

When five POWs returned to Maxwell Air Force Base, Yona accompanied her friend to a welcome home ceremony. At the microphone Tom gave thanks, then blurted out: “I’m a 30-year-old bachelor with a lot of living to catch up on!”

“Right on, baby!” Yona cried out, though Tom didn’t hear her. Still, mutual friends set them up — never mind that Yona was 5 feet, 2 inches, blond and Jewish.

Tom’s prison fantasy went up in flames as their courtship heated up. They were inseparable. They recall being feted at a White House celebration and remember, around midnight, Nixon decreeing: “The band will keep playing and the bartenders will keep pouring until the last one of you leaves.”

Tom proposed to Yona in the White House Green Room, and their marriage has lasted 48 years. After the war he became a physician and, later, the chief of flight medicine for the Air Force.

The couple, who also have a son, say they share values including Judeo-Christian beliefs about right versus wrong.

Tom loves the Hebrew word beshert, meaning destiny, or in this case “one person whom an individual is destined to marry.”

Says Yona: “It was just meant to be.”                     

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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