During the Vietnam War, United States civilian pilot Ernest C. Brace was living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with his wife and sons. His job was to fly air cargo to Lao Special Forces United, who were organizing the civic action teams for hospitals and supply bases, and in need of ammunition, first aid and food crates.
May 21, 1965, began as an ordinary day with an ordinary mission. Brace was flying provisions and passengers to Boum Lao—a small Korean village at the end of a valley—when his landing plane was riddled with gunfire by North Vietnamese soldiers hidden in the jungle. Brace, along with a man named Chaicharn, was captured by unfriendlies and forced to march several miles into the mountains to camps concealed by the thick forest.
Little did 33-year-old Ernest Brace know that he would become America's longest-held civilian prisoner of war in Vietnam, enduring years of abuse, torture, sickness, isolation, hopelessness, and humiliation by North Vietnamese soldiers. Brace was beaten with a cane, forced to stand in front of a firing squad, and violently interrogated by military officers who believed he was with the CIA illegally crossing the Laos border. But Brace always held to the fact that he was an American civilian piloting supplies.
For the next three-and-a-half years, Brace was mostly confined to a small, four-foot high, damp bamboo cage, and his six-foot-tall frame had to crouch down to fit inside. During his years confined to the cage, he attempted to escape three times—once, he even managed to get away for several days. As punishment for this, Brace was buried in the ground up to his neck and left there for a week. With only two 15-minute breaks a day and only rice for nourishment, Brace eventually lost the use of his legs. He wrote this poem about his experience and emotions during that time.
PRISONER IN A CAGE
By: Ernest Brace
I'm just a prisoner in a cage;
I have no name, I have no age.
The guards don't even know what I've done,
All they know, I'm a captured one.
They buried me alive once, for seven days,
That was supposed to mend my ways;
I'd still try, but as you can see
I don't have the legs to carry me.
They think I flew a 105
And bombed and strafed the countryside;
There's some would like to see me dead,
so to stay alive, Gotta use my head.
My feet are in stocks, my neck tied to a pole,
What food I get is shoved through a hole;
At night I lie down, and my hands are tied,
The rope is stretched to a pole outside.
They captured me back in '65
I guess it's lucky I'm still alive;
I tried to escape three times in all,
Now I'd go a fourth, but I'd have to crawl.
Now I've been sick, and almost died,
I had to craw to get outside;
I wasn't helped in anyway at all,
Just beaten and held against the wall.
But I'll get out of here, I know that now,
Though I don't know when and I don't know how;
I'll see my family once again
Though I don't know how and I don't know when.
In October 1968, Brace was moved and confined to a cell at a North Vietnamese camp in Hanoi nicknamed the "Plantation" by prisoners. It was here that Brace first met Lieutenant Commander John McCain—although it would be over a year until he would see his face. McCain—with his powerful father and military leadership role—was a valuable asset to the North Vietnamese, who also continued to believe that Brace was CIA. By this time, Brace was virtually paralyzed from the waist down, had not seen or heard an American since his time of capture, and had no idea as to the current state of the Vietnam War.
Over the course of several days, Brace heard a strange tapping sound on his cell wall. What eventually captured his attention was a recognizable old ditty, "Shave and a Haircut," and Brace realized that an American was confined in the adjacent cell. As the tapping continued, Brace pieced together that the prisoner was counting out the alphabet in code, and he connected the taps with the message "put ear to wall." This connection between Brace and McCain was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and the encouragement for survival during years of confinement.
Ernest Brace was released on March 28, 1973. He met Senator John McCain for the first time face-to-face under the bright lights of a tent on the White House Lawn on May 24, 1973, about two months after his release. President Nixon had invited the returned POWs to dinner.
For a full debriefing on Ernest Brace's compelling story of survival, read his book A CODE TO KEEP, and watch Locked Up Abroad: Vietnam POWs: McCain & Brace to hear him share his incredible experiences as a POW in his own words.