Eight Years a P.O.W. in North Vietnam, Ex-Navy Flier Everett Alvarez Explores Old Wounds in a New Book

updated 02/19/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/19/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Everett Alvarez Jr. bears few scars from the repeated beatings and torture he endured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 8½ years. But whenever he reaches for a cup of coffee, he gets a subtle reminder of the times his jailers handcuffed his wrists so tightly it stopped the circulation in his hands. Even after several postwar operations to repair the resulting nerve damage, Alvarez, 52, still has little feeling in his fingers and must cradle his coffee clumsily to keep it from spilling.

Worse, that slight yet nagging physical handicap is linked in his memory with a particularly brutal torture session in 1966, nearly two years after Alvarez, flying a Skyhawk fighter-bomber, was shot down over the Gulf of Tonkin. After denying the Navy flier sleep for several days, guards cuffed his arms behind his back, cutting his wrists to the bone, and then punched and kicked him mercilessly. Alvarez finally agreed to scrawl a dictated letter admitting he had committed "war crimes" against the Vietnamese people. "I felt shamed," he says, "like I had betrayed my country."

The forced confession was a low point for a patriot whose conduct as a POW was truly heroic. Alvarez was the first U.S. pilot shot down over North Vietnam and became a stoic role model for the 658 Americans who eventually joined him in enemy prisons. "Everyone, all the POWs, looked up to Ev," says Paul Galanti, a former POW who was captured two years after Alvarez. "He was one of those optimists who always thought we would get out the next day." Alvarez's spirit was nearly broken in his seventh year of captivity, when the North Vietnamese handed over correspondence announcing that his wife had divorced him, remarried and given birth to a child with her new husband. Still he never lost his will to survive and was among the first group of American POWs to be granted freedom after the Paris truce agreement was signed in January 1973.

Upon his return to America, Alvarez generally avoided talking about the prison-camp ordeal, preferring simply to get on with life. But a quarter century after his capture by the North Vietnamese, he has finally told all in the book Chained Eagle, co-written with Anthony S. Pitch. For Everett, now a computer consultant who lives in Rockville, Md., nearly 200 hours of conversation with Pitch during a three-year period prompted a catharsis. "For years I couldn't let myself become attached to people and found myself unable to cry," he says. "The book helped break that shell." Adds Pitch: "Trying to draw out Everett's inner feelings was like trying to unwind the cloth around an Egyptian mummy."

On Aug. 5, 1964, Alvarez, then a 26-year-old Navy lieutenant junior grade, was part of the first U.S. bombing mission over North Vietnam, ordered in retaliation for a reported attack on two American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. After dropping his bombs on enemy naval docks, Alvarez had turned to head back to the aircraft carrier USS Constellation when his Skyhawk was hit by flak, forcing him to eject from the crippled plane at low altitude. Surviving with minor lacerations, he was promptly captured and taken to Hoa Lo, a prison American POWs would later nickname the Hanoi Hilton.

Unable to get Alvarez to volunteer anything more than his name, rank and serial number, the North Vietnamese isolated him in a squalid cell where huge rats darted about at night. Meanwhile he was kept on a starvation diet—including feathered blackbirds—which gave him chronic dysentery. "Suddenly I was thrown into this medieval environment and kept thinking, 'God, why me?' " Alvarez recalls. "I fully expected the door to open and someone to say he was here to take me home. But as the days went by, I didn't know how much longer it would be."

Held in solitary confinement for 15 months, Alvarez struggled to maintain his sanity by keeping the past alive in his mind. "I spent a lot of time re-creating scenes from my life," he says. One of his earliest memories was of his Mexican-American father, Everett Sr., a welder in Salinas, Calif., telling him, "Look, son, men don't cry. Keep your chin up." He also recalled his mother, Chole, sending him to work in a vegetable field the summer after he finished sixth grade. "Don't pay him," she told his uncle, the farm foreman. "Just teach him to work."

As the numbers of POWs grew in the mid-'60s, Alvarez was eventually allowed to mingle with his fellow Americans. In 1971 a vigorous debate was sparked among the POWs when the North Vietnamese announced that Alvarez's sister Delia had become a prominent antiwar activist in the U.S. Some prisoners defended her right to express an opinion, but Alvarez was among those upset that she was criticizing the U.S. government. "It bothered me because she was my sister," he says, "and I didn't want to hear what she was doing for the Vietnamese."

Meanwhile Alvarez kept his hopes alive by dreaming of the day he would be reunited with his wife, Tangee, whom he had wed just five months before his capture. Allowed by his captors to write seven-line letters to Tangee twice a year, Alvarez professed his undying love.

On Christmas Day, 1971, the North Vietnamese offered Alvarez a present: a letter from his mother saying that Tangee had decided not to wait for his return. "It was like someone took a two-by-four and belted me across the chest," Alvarez says. "I felt terribly betrayed." He spent three months in a daze, often pounding the walls in frustration. "Then one day I accepted it was over," he says. "I felt I had released that burden." For her part, Tangee remarried but continued to receive and cash Alvarez's paychecks in his absence for another year and a half because U.S. officials did not accept the legality of her Mexican divorce. Tangee Gonzales, now a housewife in Hayward, Calif., doesn't apologize for her actions 20 years ago. "The money was just as much mine as his," she says. "I felt bad in a way that he wasn't here, so we could talk things over,...[but] I don't regret having left him for another man I love."

When the North Vietnamese announced in late January 1973 that the POWs were about to be released, Alvarez had been so numbed by false alarms that he shrugged and resumed a bridge game. But the promise was kept, and his homecoming proved anything but anticlimactic. He promptly obtained a U.S. divorce, renouncing any claim to the back pay Tangee had collected but choosing not to speak to her except through his lawyers. Amid the whirlwind of activities in the weeks following his release, Alvarez met Tammy Ilyas, then 33, a United Airlines passenger-service representative, during a stopover at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. Impressed by his quiet manner and strong sense of security, Tammy told her sister Thelma that that day she had met the man she would one day wed. Similarly smitten, Alvarez invited Tammy to a White House gala a few weeks later and married her in October 1973.

Alvarez, who on his return was awarded a Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, two Purple Hearts and several other medals, continued in a desk job with the Navy until his 1980 retirement. He subsequently earned a law degree from George Washington University and served as deputy director of the Peace Corps and deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. He occasionally talked about his experiences as a POW with Tammy and their two sons, Marc, now 15, and Bryan, 13. "Everett has been very open with us," says Tammy. "But it isn't a subject that he would bring up with just anyone." Indeed, until Chained Eagle coauthor Pitch conducted extensive interviews with other members of the family, Alvarez was unaware of the many stresses his long captivity had caused his parents and siblings.

"Those years he was in prison were a big strain on the family," says Everett Sr., now 72. "We felt depressed, and we all seemed to go in different directions." Delia, 48, Alvarez's antiwar activist sister, found the book helpful in clearing the air. "It was the first time the family was able to communicate and express feelings about the whole war experience."

For Alvarez the process was painful but, in the end, worthwhile. "I thought I had gotten over the war experience until the book," he says. Above all, it served to remind him, again, of the simple joy of freedom. "I can't go through life carrying a heavy burden of anger," he says. "I'm lucky to be back."

—David Grogan, Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.

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