COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first release of American prisoners from the Vietnam War in a process called Operation Homecoming.
As part of the occasion, a former prisoner spoke Monday afternoon with cadets at the Air Force Academy, with the intent of educating cadets about the reality of situations they may face when they begin their active-duty careers.
Cadets heard from Mike McGrath, a retired Navy captain and former prisoner of war (POW), and Air Force veteran George Hayward, who has written a book -- The Party Dolls -- about the attempted escape of two POWs in 1969.
"It's not widely known," Hayward said. "They tried it the night that a thunderstorm knocked out power to the compound. But they didn't get much cooperation from fellow prisoners who thought the escape would fail -- and ultimately, it did. One of the prisoners died in the attempt. The other died a year before I wrote the book in 2017. I think the lesson for cadets is leadership."
McGrath, now 83, spent nearly six years in the notorious Hanoi Hilton prison camp after being shot down over North Vietnam.
"I was badly injured when I was captured," he recounted. "In the camp, they tortured us until they broke us. There was a conflict about following the Air Force Code of Conduct; that we were bound only to give them our name, rank and serial number. That has since changed, that we're required to do it. But 28 prisoners who refused to do it, were killed. We gave them false information, lies. But those of us who did, felt guilty about it."
Military records show that 325 Air Force personnel and 77 Army soldiers were among the 591 POWs whose release officially began on February 12, 1973 from Hanoi, North Vietnam and Saigon, South Vietnam; the release continued through April 1973.
The release was negotiated as a cease-fire in the war by Henry Kissinger, who at the time served as national security assistant to President Richard Nixon; the agreement stated that the POW release would start within 60 days after American forces withdrew from Vietnam, which effectively ended the United States' eight-year involvement in the conflict.
More than 58,000 Americans died in the war and it's believed that nearly 1,600 remain unaccounted for.
Two cadets reflected on how they would handle being POWs.
"After hearing the stories of things he had to go through, I would struggle with a lot of aspects — of just the type of torture, the absolute brutal nature, and also the length of time," said junior cadet Reed Pennington.
Another junior cadet, Kate Helbush, reflected on women now being at risk for becoming prisoners, with the U.S. removing the military's ban on females in combat only ten years ago.
“You can never fully prepare yourself for being a POW," she said. "But I think having a strong foundation — of this is the Code of Conduct, we are members of the United States military — I think that’s the most preparation that we can have.”
Paul Bezerra, assistant professor for military strategic studies at the Academy, said having McGrath and Hayward available to cadets is a rare and valuable opportunity.
"There aren't many Vietnam veterans available, and cadets have little spare time in their busy schedules to take advantage of an opportunity like this," he explained. "But the nitty, gritty details of these real-life situations and how to succeed in them, are what these cadets want. I think there's an understanding of POWs in Vietnam, but not enough of an appreciation of them."