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Former POW says Vietnam was a 'sellout'

By
WILLIAM STRACENER

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- On the day 11 Amerasian children of Vietnam War veterans arrived in the United States for the first time, the POWs who survived Hanoi's toughest prison recalled their frustration at how the war was handled.

For the Alcatraz 11, whose years as POWs included 27 months in solitary, the Sunday gathering was the first reunion since their release from captivity Feb. 12, 1973.

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'One thing that got all of us upset was that we saw a defeated nation -- we had beaten North Vietnam -- but when we returned home, our nation did not feel that way,' said Navy Cmdr. George Coker of Virginia Beach, Va.

'When we gave the country away two years later, it was a political disaster and almost too much for us to take. It was a tremendous political sellout.'

Coker and five other members of the Alcatraz 11 -- all aviators - re-enacted their release Saturday night before about 400 members of the Yorktown Association by walking down a ladder to the hangar deck of the World War II aircraft carrier to simulate their return to the Phillipines. They were met by Adm. Noel Gayler, the man who welcomed them in 1973.

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'By taking the country into war without making sure first the man on the street was sure of the purpose, we squandered popular good will in a wanton manner,' said retired Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale, the senior POW and a Medal of Honor winner.

'The government didn't level with the American people. We tried to run the war on the cheap.'

While confined from October 1967 to December 1969 in the prison they nicknamed Alcatraz, the 11 men became close by conversing by tapping messages on the wall or floor.

Stockdale, a POW for 7 years, carries the most visible result of the imprisonment -- a rigid left leg twice broken during torturing. He and others learned how much punishment a man can bear.

Some good came from the ordeal. The oldest son of retired Navy Capt. Jim Mulligan married the oldest daughter of retired Air Force Col. Sam Johnson, and the two former POWs expect to be grandfathers in two months.

Capt. Jeremiah Denton has been elected a Republican U.S. senator from Alabama and says he learned tolerance, patience and humbleness from the experience.

'If we ever consider going to war again, the issue will have to be out front and a consensus,' he said. 'Fighting is better than not fighting when the cause is justified as in the case of the Civil War to eliminate slavery.'

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Also participating in the ceremony was Air Force Col. George McKnight, who is stationed in Ottawa, Ontario.

The other Alcatraz 11 members are Air Force Capt. Ron Storz, who died in the Alcatraz prison; retired Navy Capt. Nels Tanner, who lives in the Phillipines; retired Cmdr. Howard Rutledge, a congressional candidate in Norman, Okla.; retired Navy Capt. Harry Jenkins, an electronics executive in Coronado, Calif.; and Commodore Robert Shumaker, who lives in Washington, D.C.

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