Just weeks after their release from North Vietnamese prisons, former American POWs were feted at a White House gala of epic proportions.
THE MOST POPULAR socialites in Washington were denied entry. Power brokers in Congress were left out in the cold. The host admitted,“A lot of people are mad.” The only way to receive an engraved invitation was to have been a prisoner in the Vietnam War—an extraordinarily high admission price. It was May 24, 1973, nearly two months after the last of 591 POWs were freed by North Vietnam. President Richard M. Nixon proclaimed the celebration, with nearly 1,300 guests, the largest sit-down dinner in White House history. Of the 34 POWs who did not RSVP, most were still undergoing medical treatment related to their incarceration. There was only enough extra space for handpicked members of Congress, the cabinet, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and peace negotiator Henry Kissinger.
The event was formal. Black tie for civilians, military dress for the servicemen, who were still thin from years of malnutrition and abuse. Some limped or walked with crutches.White House chefs called in reinforcements from all around D.C., to load up the homecoming heroes with roast sirloin, seafood supreme, strawberry mousse and California wines. President Nixon said they suspended a receiving line, after estimating it would take more than three hours to greet so many guests, and he added,“You missed enough meals in Hanoi without missing one in the White House tonight.”
News reports on the occasion described the massive orange and yellow striped tent on the White House south lawn as“bigger than the mansion itself.”There were“floral centerpieces” and “gilded chandeliers.” After years of eating with basic prison camp utensils, former pilot John McGrath ate from White House china. “I got to sit with Jimmy Stewart,” he recalled. Having gone years without female companionship, one of the standout memories for the POWs was the singing,dancing bombshell Joey Heatherton. Six-year POW Harry Johnson from Iowa felt a kinship with one of the biggest stars, a fellow Iowan. “I walked into the Green Room and there stood John Wayne,” said Johnson. “We shook hands and he said,‘You can ride off into the sunset with me anytime.’” The entertainment for the evening was a flashback to the variety shows that Bob Hope took to South Vietnam during the war. So it was appropriate that Hope was the emcee at the White House gala too. The lineup of stars represented the classics in film, music and comedy: Sammy Davis Jr., Martha Raye, Phyllis Diller, Roy Acuff and Les Brown and His Band of Renown.
One of the most poignant moments was the singing of the “POW Hymn,” performed by the prisoners themselves. “Wow, it was emotional,” said James Quincy Collins Jr., who was shot down in 1965, and helped form the first of several POW choirs. Collins had written the song during solitary confinement at a North Vietnamese prison dubbed “the Zoo.”For the White House performance, the chorus rehearsed only once before singing for the commander in chief. “This was the first time I’d seen these guys in formal uniforms,” Collins said. “Everyone was happy and smiling. This was a freedom concert. We showed an American public we were not defeated.”
A rare privilege for the POWs was being granted permission to roam through the White House without guides.That’s when Harry Johnson ran into Hope. “I was in the bathroom, outside the Nixon living quarters, and came downstairs, and there was Bob Hope,” said Johnson. “We were so excited, we didn’t take any pictures.”
The party continued as couples danced to the military bands playing in the East Room. As the evening wore on, the president excused himself. According to McGrath, Nixon announced: “I’ve got to get some sleep. Stay here as long as you want to, until the last person leaves.” The president’s long day had started at the State Department. As First Lady Pat Nixon hosted a tea party in the drawing room for the POW wives, the president delivered a long speech to the POWs on foreign policy and defense. He told the newly freed prisoners: “I have spoken to many distinguished audiences. I can say to you today that this is the most distinguished group I have ever addressed, and I have never been prouder than I am at this moment to address this group.”
The party was an elite event that may never be duplicated. But some of the surviving POWs, of the more than 500 listed by the NAM-POWs group, will give it a shot this spring on the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Nixon White House gala. Precisely on May 24, 2013, several hundred POWs will catch up during another exclusive reunion, this time at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, in Yorba Linda, Calif.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.