HOME FOR CHRISTMAS
Nothing crushes your spirit more effectively than solitary confinement. Having no one else to rely on, to share confidences with, to seek counsel from, you begin to doubt your judgment and your courage. The loneliness robs you of everything - everything but time. When you are in solitary confinement you have nothing to think about other than time and just making it through another day. So needless to say, keeping track of the date is not difficult for a man held at length in solitary confinement.
In the five and a half years I was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Christmas was always the most difficult time of year for me. I distinctly remember Christmas Eve 1969. I had been a POW for more than two years already, most of which was spent alone in my cell. Like many other cells in the Hanoi Hilton, mine was a small, empty room, roughly seven feet by ten feet with a concrete slab on the floor, which served as my bed. The walls were eighteen inched thick and the windows of each cell were boarded up so that the POWs could not communicate with each other. I remember there being a single, naked lightbulb dangling on a cord in the center of the ceiling and a small loudspeaker in the corner on which the Vietnamese would play various propaganda pieces.
It was about eight o'clock on Christmas Eve 1969. I was in pretty bad shape, having received some severe beatings from the North Vietnamese. On top of that, I had still not recovered from the injuries I received when I was shot down two years earlier. I was cold. I was injured. And as I lay there in my cell listening to Hanoi Hanna report on "the latest heroic victory over the American imperialists," I had some real serious doubts about my chances for survival.
Then the prison guards began to play a series of Christmas songs over the camp's public address system, the last of which was Dinah Shore singing "I'll Be Home for Christmas." As I lay there listening to that particular song, my spirits dropped to the lowest possible point. I was not sure if I would survive another night, let alone ever return home for another Christmas with my family.
It was then that I heard the tapping on my wall.
Despite the strict rule against it, the POWs communicated to each other by rapping on the walls of our cells. The secretive tap code was a simple system. We divided the alphabet into five columns of five letters each. The letter K was dropped. A, F, L, Q and V were the key letters. Simply tap once for the five letters in the A column, twice for F, three times for L, and so on. After indicating the column, pause for a beat, then tap one to five times to indicate the right letter. For example, the letter C is sent as: tap.tap tap tap.
We became so proficient at the tap code that in time the whole prison system became a complex information network. With each new addition to our population, word quickly passed from cell to cell about every POW's circumstances and information from home. The tap code was my sanity's saving grace. That daily personal contact through the drumming on my wall made my isolation more bearable. It affirmed my humanity and kept me alive.
The cell on one side of me was empty, but in the other adjacent room was a guy named Ernie Brace. Ernie was a decorated former Marine who had flown more than one hundred combat mission in the Korean War. He had volunteered as a civilian pilot to fly missions to secretly supply CIA -supported military units in the Laotian jungle. During one such operation in 1965 he was captured and handed over to the North Vietnamese. He was brutally tortured and kept in solitary confinement for three years at a remote outpost near Dien Bien Phu before he was even brought to the Hanoi Hilton in 1968.
As soon as I heard the tapping on Christmas Eve, I knew it was Ernie. I got up and pressed my ear against the cold stone wall of my cell. At first it was difficult to make out the faint tapping of my neighbor. But it soon became very clear.
"We'll all be home for Christmas," Ernie tapped. "God bless America ."
With that I began to cry.
When you are imprisoned, the enemy can take almost everything from you but they cannot take your spirit. Those unspoken words coming from Ernie - who, due to his work with the CIA , had the least chance of getting out of the camp alive - were a poignant affirmation that as Americans, we possessed a divine spark that our enemies could not extinguish - hope.
"We'll all be home for Christmas. God bless America ."
That simple message, in my darkest hour, strengthened my will to live. Ernie helped me realize that we would get home when we got home. Until then, we had to manage our hardships as best we could. Without his strength, I doubt I would have survived solitary confinement with my mind and self-respect intact.
It was long ago and far away. But around the holidays, when I hear "I'll Be Home for Christmas," I am always reminded of that time, that place, and the words of my friend Ernie Brace. He kept me going and lifted my spirits when they were in their greatest need of lifting. When I hear that song I think about Ernie. I think about my friends that never made it home for another Christmas. And I think of what a blessing it is to be an American.
Ernie Brace spent his first three years in captivity without any contact with another American until he was moved to Hanoi. The first person he communicated with (but didn't meet until after the war) was a guy who organized the prisoners and created their tap code...a guy by the name of John McCain...who authored "Home for Christmas." The day after, McCain and the prisoners were brought together for a Christmas service...used for PR with cameras taking pictures...McCain took the oportunity during the service to ignore the service, the guards, and the cameras and he briefed the prisoners on the tap code and how to keep hope alive. At one point, a guard asked him politely to be quiet. McCain swore at the guard and gave the finger to one photographer snapping a photo.
He was beaten severely for it the next day - cracked ribs, an arm re-broken, sick and despairing - guys like Ernie Brace took care of McCain as much as he took care of them.