Three Vietnam POWs Mark 40 Years of Freedom

Three vets remember their five and a half years of torture in prison.

May 28, 2013— -- They were the ace pilots shot out of the sky 45 years ago, taken prisoner and tortured by the Vietnamese.

Prison guards bound them with tight ropes and then dislocated their arms and legs. Extreme beatings, many times resulting in death, were common -- not just for weeks but for years.

"I was captured Nov. 7, 1967 and there for 1,955 days," Col. Lee Ellis told ABC News.

Capt. Charlie Plumb was shot down on May 19, 1967 and spent the next 2,103 days in a prison camp. Capt. Guy Gruters was shot down Dec. 20, 1967 and spent 1,900 days in prison.

Even today, the three men recognize the sound of the jangling keys and squeaky prison gate of the hell they called the "Hanoi Hilton."

"They beat my good friend to death over the first month, on his wounds," Gruters said. "He was only two cells away from me as he was beaten to death, screaming, many, many hours a day. It tore my heart out but also I just started to get very angry."

As he listened to the screaming, Gruters said his choice was to crack or to pray.

"I got on my knees heavy and after three months of heavy prayer, real heavy prayer, I'm talking hours a day, I could finally form just in my mind the words, 'Lord, forgive them.' But I didn't mean it at all," he said.

For anyone who broke under torture, fellow prisoners signaled they were there to put you together again. Plumb and Ellis said they would tap secret messages such as a simple "hello" or "God bless you" through the prison walls.

They also learned new lessons about courage.

"The quote I've seen that best summarizes what I think courage is and what we had up there was a quote by a woman, Dorothy Bernard, that I don't even know who she is or whatever," Gruters said, "but I saw the quote and I said that's what it was. The quote was, 'Courage is fear that has said its prayers.'"

"Courage is not always the end of the fight," Plumb said. "Courage is a process."

Forty years ago, in 1973, when they returned to the United States, the former prisoners were so thin the U.S. sent tailors to remake their uniforms before they appeared in public.

Their first public appearance was at the Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.

"I'd bounded up the stairs [of the plane to the U.S.], stopped at the top and everybody was cheering," Plumb said. "All of Clark Air Force Base had come out to see us, and I couldn't believe it -- because, like Lee, we didn't know what to expect.

"The enemy told us that when we came home we'd be tried as war criminals," he added.

When they got on the plane back to the states, Ellis said he was handed a big cigar and magazines.

"When we buttoned that airplane up, and we took off and when the wheels lifted off, a pandemonium broke out -- stomping the floor, cheering," Ellis said. "It was like a high school basketball game in overtime. Everybody's going crazy."

As the plane traveled over international waters, the men hugged and kissed all of the nurses.

"We had not seen a woman in five-and-a-half years," Ellis said. "Can you imagine that?"

Gruters, who seemed so subdued on the flight home, soared in a dance of joy at the sight of his little brother all grown up. During Gruters' imprisonment, Peter, 13 years his junior, matured from a young boy of 11 into an 18-year-old football player.

"The amazing thing about hugging Peter was that the son-of-a-gun is stronger than I am I can't believe it," he said. "This kid that I beat up all my life is now strong and I can't believe this. It was wonderful because Peter was always just such a wonderful, loving younger brother and it was just great."

Two months after the last of the POWs came home, there was a studded affair on the White House lawn with President Richard Nixon for 591 of the prisoners and their families. Stars such as Sammy Davis, Bob Hope and John Wayne were all there to the honor all Vietnam-era prisoners of war.

Last Thursday, 187 POWs and their families gathered at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum 40 years after that White House night to remember a time when brotherhood was everything, a time before the sacrifice in Vietnam became a distant memory.

"A lot of us only had five or six friends they can really count on in a tough situation," Gruters said. "We had 300 friends who we knew would take not just death for each other. Torture is much harder to take then death and we had 300 friends like that."

With faces changed by time, they remembered that song called, "The POW Prayer" that they sang at the first dinner so long ago. It was written by a fellow prisoner of war on a scrap of hidden toilet paper. Secretly, they learned it in prison as they dreamed of life, freedom and home.