If you tuned in to Ernie Brace’s harrowing story on Locked Up Abroad: Vietnam POWs: McCain & Brace, I’m sure you have questions. We checked in with Ernie to get answers and see what life is like for him today and here’s what he had to say.
“My four-and-a-half years of solitary confinement, two and a half in stocks, is a tribute to perseverance and prior training. My communications skills carried me through Hanoi. It was our only form of resistance to their efforts to shake our faith in our mission, our country and our government.” – Ernie Brace, longest-held civilian prisoner of the Vietnam War
Q: McCain said that your story should be told to every American, as an example of what “love of country, love of one’s fellow prisoners and what faith in God is all about.” Do you agree with this? Would you define yourself this way?
I think the Vietnam POWs as a whole had quite an impact on the country when we returned in 1973. The antiwar movement immediately died out and the earlier returning Vietnam vets were accepted more into society. As the stories and the treatment became known through the press and books, people wanted more about how we coped with adversity for such a long period.
There are many books written by POWs, but my story which culminates in my being taken to Hanoi after three years in the jungle is the only one that covers jungle cages, transportation and the Hanoi experience. My four-and-a-half years of solitary confinement, two and a half in stocks, is a tribute to perseverance and prior training. My communications skills carried me through Hanoi. It was our only form of resistance to their efforts to shake our faith in our mission, our country and our government.
Q: How did being the longest POW in the Vietnam War make you into who you are today? Did any good come out of it?
My experience made me a more easy-going person. I still don’t get rattled easily. I ran narcotics control programs in Mexico for the U.S. State Department from 1976 to 1978. I lived in Beijing, China, from 1982 to 1989 as project director for foreign military sales of Black Hawk helicopters. I wrote a couple of articles for publications on doing business with China in the 1980s. In 1985, I did a speaking tour for the Charter Bank of England on doing business in China. My wife Nancy and I observed the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989, which ended my tour in China.
In late 1989, I made my first trip into Russia to negotiate overflight rights and fuel contracts for American carriers. In 1990, I escorted Gorbachev on his trip to the United States following the “White House Revolution” and Yeltsin’s takeover. In 1991, I went into Kuwait on the second aircraft to land there as the Iraqis were leaving. I set up the medevac system for the firefighters.
Q: How are you today? How is your health?
I’m rated by the VA at 100 percent disabled. I spent a year attached to the Balboa Naval Hospital getting patched up from wounds received as a POW. The worst is nerve damage in all extremities. On my last examination some months ago, the doctor doing the nerve conductivity test told me that if I wasn’t swimming four to five days per week I’d probably be in a wheelchair or using a walker. I stumble badly and sometimes limp.
The VA provides special inserts for my shoes. My attitude is good and I do go for walks almost daily with the dogs. I have the typical “getting old” ailments here in my eighties, but I seem to have good tolerance for pain. Still mow my lawn, shovel snow and do most of my yard work.
Q: Tell us about your family.
My first wife Patricia, living in Thailand at the time of my capture with our four boys, remarried after I was missing for about five years. She had a daughter by that marriage and we never got back together. I married Nancy, a nurse I met in the hospital, about a year after returning home. We’ve been together 39 years now.
Having been captured in Laos, I was never allowed to write or receive mail. The same was true for the nine Americans and one Canadian held by the North Vietnamese. We were never listed as prisoners until after the truce was signed in January 1973.
Q: Of all of the horrible things you endured as a POW, what was the lowest point for you?
The lowest point for me was the winter of 1967. December 10 was my youngest son’s birthday, and that is the day I tried to choke myself on my neck rope. I was wet, cold and couldn’t walk. Escape was impossible now. But I recovered.
Q: What kept you going or gave you peace?
I think my Marine Corps training kept me going at first. I never thought I would die up there and escape seemed possible all the time in my head. Later, after they had crippled me, I felt that they were keeping me alive for some reason and someday I’d be going home.
Q: Tell us something we might not know about McCain.
Some of what John told me through the wall will never be repeated. The wall is like a confessional. When you are not looking at the person you are talking to, you might say anything, including things you would not want repeated. The younger generation is finding that out through their tweeting or Facebook postings.
Most don’t know that when John was in high school in the Washington, DC, area, he competed in the Golden Gloves competition. His mother is a twin, and his father John Sydney McCain II was as wild as John was when he was a younger officer during World War II. John finished near the bottom of his Naval Academy class due to demerits from breaking regulations. He continued to be pretty wild as a junior officer.
Q: Have you returned to Vietnam? Stayed in touch with McCain?
John and I both returned to Vietnam in 1974. I was setting up an offshore operation for Shell Oil Company and he was escorting a congressional delegation.
The story of us meeting through the wall has always been the high point of my presentations since he became so well known. I have always had access to him in his office if I am in Washington. On occasion, he has had me testify before Congress on the situation of missing persons in Laos. My last book, “Monkey Paw Soup,” contains stories of my varied operations after returning home from being a POW.
Q: What makes you happy?
I was always happy doing the job I was doing while flying. When I could no longer be a pilot, being an aviation manager or project director kept me in the game and happy. During some of my international assignments, just the feeling that what I was doing contributed to the information network that kept our country informed of happenings and doings in the foreign world gave me a sense of accomplishment. In 2010, I was inducted into the Oregon Aviation Hall of Honor.
Q: What did you think of the program? Was it hard to watch?
The program is a good representation of the story. I was clean-shaven and had a military-style haircut; my hair was not down over my ears and I did not have a mustache. It was not hard to watch. I am sure I did not groan and moan as much as portrayed; in fact, I kept absolute silence for long periods of time. They did a good job on the cage, the stocks and the hole in the ground.