"I learned to talk alot to my interrogators without really saying anything"
As President Lyndon Johnson addressed a national television audience from the White House shortly before midnight on Aug. 4, 1964, Navy pilot Everett Alvarez was being briefed for a mission on the USS Constellation. A few hours earlier Alvarez had flown above a chaotic situation in the Gulf of Tonkin that led to Johnson’s speech. A few hours later he was shot down on a bombing mission near Hanoi, the first U.S. aviator taken captive. He would ultimately be the second-longest-held POW, surviving years of solitary confinement and torture before his release on Feb. 12, 1973. After his retirement from the Navy, Alvarez served as deputy director of the Peace Corps and as deputy administrator of the VA before he founded his information technology company, Alvarez and Associates, in 2004. He recently spoke with Vietnam about his path to the Navy, his mission in the Tonkin Gulf, his capture and the perilous early days of his eight-year captivity in North Vietnam.
Your upbringing is something of an American success story isn’t it?
My parents grew up during the Depression, children of Mexican immigrants. My father had a sixth-grade education and mother only went through third grade. They married very young in Salinas, Calif. When Pearl Harbor happened, my father packed up our family and moved to San Francisco to work in the shipyards there. We moved back to Salinas in 1947. I was the first in my family to complete high school. I had to work hard at part-time jobs, so I learned a work ethic. I never really knew what I wanted to do in life, but I figured out what I didn’t want to do. I went into engineering at Santa Clara University and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.
Your class had some other notable graduates?
Santa Clara is a small but prestigious Jesuit college. In my class were Leon Panetta; Jerry Brown, who dropped out and joined the seminary; Steve Schott, owner of the Oakland Athletics; and actor Max Baer Jr., who was BMOC.
How did you end up a Navy pilot?
I’d graduated near the top of my engineering class, and with the space program gearing up, engineers were in demand. But, upon graduation, I decided I wanted to take the test for pilot. Well, I passed, so I had a dilemma of what to do. I talked to my dad and said, you know I could always be an engineer, but I would kick myself for the rest of my life if I didn’t become a pilot. I wanted to fly.
But you were thinking about space flight too?
Ironically, on the plane taking me to Pensacola, I met Bob Crippen, who had joined the Navy the same day as me and who would become an astronaut and spacecraft commander on the space shuttle, the one with Sally Ride on the crew.
Conceivably, after Vietnam, you could have gone to the moon?
I had the qualifications. In order to get into the astronaut program, you had to have a master’s degree and a minimum of 2,000 hours flight time in a single-engine jet. I had the flight time, and I had applied and been accepted to a post-graduate program in aeronautical engineering after my combat tour. So I was checking off the boxes to get into the astronaut pipeline, but of course there were no guarantees.
Your training and first cruise were relatively routine?
I had flight training in Pensacola, Fla., and Texas and was then assigned to a West Coast squadron. I was on the very first cruise of the USS Constellation in 1963. I had come in as part of the Navy Reserve, but I was made regular Navy during the first tour. I decided then to stay in the Navy. When I got back from that tour, I was married, and in the spring of 1964 was preparing for my second cruise.
How did you find yourself in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964?
The Constitution was headed for Japan in spring of ’64 but was diverted that summer to the South China Sea, where we stood off for Yankee Station for about two months. We flew escorts for photo reconnaissance flights over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Laos was hot, but of course we couldn’t talk about it then, don’t even know if we can talk about it now.
Did you have any notion of what was about to transpire in Vietnam?
I could not have imagined it. Prior to leaving the States on May 5, I’d gone to see my father and said I’d be back in nine months. I remember my dad had a newspaper with a report about the Viet Cong bombing a U.S. supply ship in Saigon harbor, and he said, “Look, you might be going there.” Oh, no, I said, we aren’t going there. I remember thinking about what he said when I was shot down.
Once in the South China Sea, did you see signs that things were heating up?
We had no real sense, but things were slowly developing. They asked for volunteers to serve as forward air controllers for the Marine advisers working with the South Vietnamese military. Then we ran a classified exercise where our simulated targets were along the North Vietnamese coast. I thought, Can you imagine? We are bombing a bridge in North Vietnam! At the time, nothing was happening in North Vietnam.
That was in the summer of 1964?
Yes. We then pulled into Hong Kong for a few days, when on the night of August 4 we were ordered back on ship and shoved off real quick. All hell was breaking loose with North Vietnamese torpedo boats firing at our destroyers USS Maddox and Turner Joy. They had been patrolling off the coast.
And you were in the air that night?
Some aircraft flew off Ticonderoga, led by James Stockdale, and three A4s off Constitution, including mine. It was very dark with heavy thunderstorms. It was wild. I went down and dropped flares above the ships. There was chaos over the radio, confused calls back and forth from destroyers, calling for more flares. Then suddenly, a calm voice came over from one of the ships saying, “Tell the planes to go back, we don’t need them.” I still have no idea who that was.
Did you see any enemy boats that night?
When we got back to the ship, we were debriefed by an admiral. He got a little perturbed when I told him I hadn’t seen anything. If anybody had, it would have been me as I was circling, dropping flares. I could see our two ships clear as day.
There remains much controversy about the Turner Joy/Maddox incident.
Very controversial. Stockdale didn’t believe they were there. I’ve seen accounts of testimony before Congress of people who said they actually saw the torpedo boats, but I couldn’t verify that. I was just a junior officer; just a nugget flying around.
As a result, anyway, LBJ ordered retaliation.
The president went on TV at 11 p.m. Washington time to announce he was sending planes to strike North Vietnam. Planes were on the way off the Ticonderoga, and our planes would launch about three hours later. It was then that I realized, you know what, we are going to war. I was flying wing of our executive officer leading our group and my knees were shaking as I was thinking about this. Then, as we approached the coast, I got busy and got into the tempo of the action once the firing started. They were waiting for us and we were big targets.
How much did you know about your targets?
We were planning the mission using high-altitude surveillance photos and we were told there may be some anti-aircraft artillery [AAA] around here and there. So we planned to look around and try to find it. We really had no idea, it was sort of “Let’s go see what we find, guys.” I found out a few years ago from an air intelligence guy that the day before the surveillance photos had been taken that did show all of the defenses, but instead of the photos coming directly to the ship they went to Washington first. I said, you know, that figures.
When were you hit?
The AAA was very heavy; it burst all over the place, as soon as we went in.. The tracers were coming at me and the flak was so heavy it darkened the sky. Funny, all my nervousness went away as soon as it started; I was as calm as could be. On my first pass, I fired all my rockets. Then I was low to ground. Coming on my second pass, I flipped on my 20mm guns and made a strafing pass, blasting the torpedo boats. My executive officer turned off, over the Hon Gai Bay, and I followed, going around 500 mph. As I leveled my wings to head out to sea, we had to cross a spit of land at treetop level. Then I hear this big “poof”—I’m hit. I immediately lost control of the plane, lost lift, rolled inverted and just clung there vertically about 60 degrees from the upright. I knew if I waited, I definitely wouldn’t survive. I said, “I’m hit, I’m getting out guys!”
Given your extremely low attitude, how did you survive?
God was with me. I felt the pilot chute tug and the big chute pop, then I immediately hit the water. After I got rid of my chute and helmet, I looked around and see these high cliffs and thought, “God, I just came over those.” I survived, but figured they’d kill me. My very first thought was about my poor wife and mom.
Did you think you might be rescued?
I had no thought of rescue. We had no survival radios then, so I couldn’t talk to anybody. That’s what happens when you come early to the war. Years later, Alexander Haig told me he was at the Pentagon when I was shot down and tried to get clearance to send someone for me, but by the time he got clearance too many hours had passed. He said, “Forget it, they already got him.”
How were you captured?
I was trying to swim tand hide and get to an outcrop, thinking I could hide under some vegetation, but the tide was pulling me back. The next thing, someone is firing at me. There were four guys in a little fishing boat. One round grazed my elbow. As they came closer, they were firing all around me. By that time, I’d dropped my .38 pistol, which seemed like a good idea. I’d also dropped my wedding ring; we were not supposed to fly with it on. They told us in survival school the enemy would use the knowledge that you were married against you. Big deal; within a few days everything about me and my family was everywhere, in newspapers and magazines.
They got closer and were circling me, and another boat came and they pulled me aboard and wrapped me up. They took off my uniform and had my ID. They were trying to talk to me and I started talking to them in Spanish, don’t ask me why, it just seemed like a good idea at the time. They pointed to my ID and said, “USA!…American!” and kept looking up in the sky. I thought they were going to kill me, but they covered me up and headed to shore.
So, they were as prepared to hold a POW as you were to be one?
Yeah, they took me to a local jail. That’s when the adrenaline wore off, and I really started to hurt. I had a compressed fracture in my neck from the ejection and hitting the water. One of the other prisoners spoke English. I thought he was a plant, but he actually was a criminal who’d been in there for years. There were loudspeakers in the jail courtyard, and they gave a report about our attack and the shoot-down. This guy was translating, he’s saying: “We shoot down eight airplanes! One pilot captured. Hey, that’s you!” I thought, holy smokes, eight planes? But I knew we’d launched 10 A-4s and I knew all those from the Ticonderogo had made it back.
When they started to interrogate me and said they’d shot down eight planes, I said, “I don’t believe it. You’ve made a mistake.” They so badly wanted to convince me that one night they handcuffed and blindfolded me and took me to a museum, where in the yard they had piles of airplane parts. I saw my plane’s nose here, a wing over there, a piece of a tail over there. They told me Dick Sadler was one of the pilots killed but could not tell me of any others. I thought, OK, I got it. They shot down two. I told them they’d only shot down two planes. They kept arguing with me and I pointed out the markings on the parts. They kept saying, “No it’s true. Some worker made a mistake. We did shoot down eight!”
Why was so important to them that you believed it?
It became a game, a matter of wills. As a POW you have nothing to fight back with but your will. They used to tell me, “We will keep you until you no longer have the will to fight us. You will be a prisoner until you see that our battle is just.” You cannot fight them physically; you have to fight them mentally.
How long did you stay in the local jail?
One day. Fearing another attack or rescue attempt, they took me to a farmhouse for a week before they took me to Hanoi.
How were they treating you in those early days?
In one of the first interrogations, I gave my name, rank and service number and said that’s all I can give you. They asked why, and I said that was according to the Geneva Convention. They said, “Geneva Convention? We don’t recognize that. You are a criminal!” In the meantime, I’m really hurting and sick from the food with diarrhea and dysentery. Then, after about three weeks, they suddenly bring me some Western food from a restaurant, an omelet and French fries. Then about six weeks of real interrogations began. It was exhausting.
How did you handle the interrogations?
Initially I told them I was a scout, and others did the bombing. That didn’t work long, as they had my plane, which was armed. They said, “Why did you lie?” I told them I was afraid they were going to kill me. “We won’t kill you,” they said. They wanted to know things about the ship. I explained to them, in great detail, that my primary job on the ship was running the popcorn machine. It took days for me to explain that to them. They wanted to know what popcorn was. The more I talked to them about popcorn and the popcorn machine, they’d bring in others and I’d have to explain it all over again. I quickly learned to talk to them, without saying anything. It killed time. Later, another pilot who was shot down told me that he had asked about me when first taken prisoner. “Is Alvie here?” he inquired. They said, “Yes, Alvarez. He talks a lot, but he doesn’t say anything!”
Did you ever dream you’d be held prisoner for more than eight years?
During the first few weeks after I got to Hanoi, I had the feeling that any day they’d just walk up, open the door and say, “OK, Ev, come on, you’re going home.” But, by about October, I thought, goodness, I could be here a long time. You just never know what life is going to bring.