Politics & Policy

Honor Reclaimed

POWs have their say.

If the powerful documentary featuring highly decorated Vietnam POWs recounting how Lt.(jg) John Kerry’s antiwar activity affected them was seen by the huge audience it deserves, Massachusetts’s junior senator wouldn’t get elected to a sanitation commission. In Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal, 13 POWs, whose cries of pain, defiance, and despair went unheard during their hellish captivity, share their stories about the betrayal they felt when a fellow officer claimed American forces were guilty of widespread war crimes. Over 30 years ago, antiwar veterans (both faux and real) basked in the media spotlight; now proud veterans who endured their slanders, along with years of cruelty and abuse, are having their say. These indisputable heroes include two Medal of Honor winners, one of whom explains, “This is an effort that was long in coming, but would not have come about if not for the Democratic candidate ‘reporting for duty.’”

The 45-minute film opens with scenes of the dank cells at the Hanoi Hilton where the oppressive silence would only be broken by “cries of pain.” One POW recalls the intense pain of the torture they suffered, explaining that “the rope was the worst.” Following one such session, designed to win a confession of war crimes, another explains that for days afterward he was unable to move his body from his shoulders down. Ken Cordier, held for over six years, explains that they would be brutally manacled until they “screamed loud and long enough” to be released in exchange for information and confessions. Any injury was specifically targeted in order to break the captives more quickly. Tapes of Jane Fonda accusing them of being war criminals were played in their cells.

Mary Jane McManus had eloped in Hawaii and was married for three days when her husband Kevin returned to Vietnam to complete his tour. She didn’t see him again for almost six years. While she kept her lonely vigil, she witnessed the charges being leveled by John Kerry and others. She couldn’t fathom that anyone would believe American troops were capable of routinely committing atrocities, because “they were our husbands, and sons and brothers.”

James Warner, held for over five years, recalls being made to stand motionless inside a small chalked circle on the floor. He lasted for 97 hours, during which he had a view of the camp’s front gate. He saw the author Mary McCarthy and Tom Hayden enter the camp. His mother attended the Winter Soldier hearings and issued a statement criticizing the war, which his captors shared with him along with statements by John Kerry. He explains that Kerry met with his mother and sister and thinks it was a “contemptible act” to take advantage of a “grieving old lady and manipulate her grief to promote your own political agenda.” He adds, “He burned up his Band of Brothers membership card when he did that.”

When John Kerry was the prized spokesman for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), there were 700 American POWs in Vietnam. Many of those involved in this documentary, funded by $200,000 in donations from Pennsylvania veterans, believe that antiwar activists encouraged their captors to hold out because the “war would be lost in the streets of America.” They point out that the immediate withdrawal of troops demanded by the VVAW would have abandoned them to whatever fate their captors chose when they were no longer bargaining chips in a negotiated end to the war.

Paul Galanti, who flew 97 combat missions before being shot down on June 17, 1966, spent over six and a half years as a POW. Referring to the Winter Soldier hearings that have been thoroughly debunked, Galanti says that John Kerry “should have known those guys he was with were frauds.” The film includes a short clip from the Winter Soldier hearings that drew chuckles from the audience. An alleged veteran is having his memory refreshed about an alleged atrocity he was having trouble recalling. Galanti reminds the audience that “the cruelties of My Lai were exposed by the soldiers there.”

Leo Thorsness, who was awarded the Medal of Honor, talks about the strict rules of engagement governing pilots flying over North Vietnam, ruefully noting that as a result the enemy had “plenty of chances to shoot us down.”

Colonel George “Bud” Day, who also won the Medal of Honor and is considered one of the most decorated veterans of the last century, recalls being outraged to learn that veterans were warned not to wear their uniforms when they returned home. The film depicts protesters waving signs reading, “No Parades for Murderers” and “See Nixon’s War Criminals” in front of veterans. “Right to this day we still have not recovered our good name,” Day angrily declares. He charges that John Kerry wants them to forget the role he played in blackening the name of all Vietnam veterans. “I can never forget,” he says.

The documentary is available on the Stolen Honor website. Its producer, Carlton Sherwood, a Pulitzer Prize wining journalist and Marine Vietnam veteran, points out that “there is no fog of war here” given the public testimony of John Kerry. He explains that the motivation is “deeply personal” rather than political.

An Army Vietnam veteran recently told me, “When John Kerry loses, it will be the parade we never had.” They’ve earned it.

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