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Surviving Vietnam POWs Are Honored With a Banquet 50 Years After Being Set Free  And the Details Are Incredible
Surviving Vietnam POWs Are Honored With a Banquet to Commemorate 50 Years After Being Set Free
Uplifting News

Surviving Vietnam POWs Are Honored With a Banquet 50 Years After Being Set Free And the Details Are Incredible

The reenactment banquet is identical to the one from 50 years ago down to the menu and decor.

Many things have changed since the 70s -- technology is far ahead of where it was, diplomatic relations have shifted, and new wars have started and ended. 

The Vietnam War is one of the most haunting events of that decade -- it changed warfare and shifted American culture forever. An entire generation of people were shaped by the experience of fighting the war, or fighting against it and protesting for peace in the streets. 

Now, few people will remember the 591 prisoners of war -- including the late Senator John McCain -- who were captured and held in Hanoi Hilton prison and finally released in 1973. Then, in May of that year, the Nixon government threw a banquet in their honor. 

The Biggest Banquet in White House History

bouquet of flowers on a banquet table

On May 24th 1973, 1,600 people gathered to celebrate the freedom of their comrades in arms. The dinner was hosted in a grand tent by the President himself, decorated with sparkling chandeliers and fresh flowers. 

Icons Sammy Davis Jr. and Bob Hope provided the entertainment that night, and food and drink flowed freely. People were happy to celebrate the end of the war, and even happier to celebrate the release of the prisoners who had suffered so long and fought so bravely for freedom ad democracy. 

The 50-Year Anniversary Dinner Was Almost Identical

The dinner held to commemorate the survivors in 2023 was more like a reenactment than an anniversary. The organizers made sure that every detail mirrored the amazing event 50 years ago -- down to identical centrepieces and the same menu!

Many of the 591 prisoners of war were still alive to remember the events of 50 years ago and celebrate their freedom. 

When President Nixon signed the Paris peace deal to end the Vietnam war on February 12, 1973, his government got to work extracting the prisoners who had been tortured and brutalized. By April, most POWs were home. 

Survivors Ranged From 75 to 91 Years Old

Many of the survivors were able to tell their story, remembering it in vivid detail even 50 years later. 

Hal Kushner, an army surgeon, was on a mission to deliver medical supplies when his aircraft crashed into the hills of Vietnam. He was severely injured after a machine gun exploded and its bullets hit him -- his arm and collarbone were also broken.

Kushner’s co-pilot was also in dire condition, and the crew chief left them alone together as he went to try and get help. Kushner’s co-pilot died after three days, and Kushner was captured.

He was held in jungle camps first and then eventually transferred to Hanoi Hilton. Along the way, many fellow prisoners died in Kushner's arms. In total, he was held for 1,973 days. When he was finally free and returned home, he met his son -- who he didn’t even know existed. His wife was in the early stages of pregnancy when Kushner left for the war, unbeknownst to both of them. 

Conditions Eventually Improved at Hanoi Hilton

As outrage over the capture of prisoners of war grew stateside, the prisoners themselves were bonding and their morale was slowly improving. 

Their shared trauma was bringing them closer together. 

“Having roommates who know everything good or bad about you, you can’t pretend. We talked about our guilt, our shame, our anger."

Leon "Lee" Ellis

The soldiers were able to rebound and live somewhat happily when they returned, and many prisoners, like Captain Leon “Lee” Ellis, credits their emotional closeness with their recovery. 

“We knew that if we came home bitter, we would still be in handcuffs and leg irons," Ellis added.

Celebrate Those Who Survived the War

Even though many survivors were able to live normal and happy lives after the end of the war, they never forgot what they lived through in Vietnam.

One soldier, Ken Wallingford, was chained and kept in a tiger cage like an animal. He and six others were kept in the cages for almost a full year. 

“They put me in this cage by myself. I had to bend down to get into it. I couldn’t stand because it was five feet high.”

Ken Wallingford

50 years after these prisoners of war were saved, the celebratory banquet is a great reminder to us all to never forget the sacrifices those who fight for democracy have made for us.

It is of course important to remember the hard things, the violence and pain. It is also important to celebrate the good things -- resilience, friendship, and bravery embodied by these amazing soldiers. 

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