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Imagine the emotions a soldier might feel on seeing his wife for the first time after being held in captivity in a North Vietnamese prison for eight years. Imagine that same soldier seeing his children for the first time in eight years. Watching film footage of American POWs returning to enthusiastic crowds in early-1973 makes imagining such scenes easy. These scenes of families reuniting—families who had believed they might never see one another again—would evoke an emotional patriotism from even the most cynical.

“Return With Honor” explores the lives of a number of American pilots who were captured and retained in North Vietnamese prisons for up to eight and a half years. 462 Navy and Air Force pilots were held at a number of prisons in and around Hanoi. Directors Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders allow the pilots to tell the stories of their capture, hardships, and return home, in their own words. The directors supplement these narratives with rare film footage from Vietnamese sources.

Between 1964 and the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969, pilots like Lt. Ron Bliss and Major Tom Madison endured physical and mental torture from their North Vietnamese captors. Many were isolated, living in rat-infested cells where they slept on concrete floors. Their captors, hoping to learn useful information such as flight patterns, tortured them with beatings, and by using ropes to cut off their circulation and to pull their shoulders out of socket. “There’s a point,” Captain Bill Baugh confesses, “where you’ve had it. Where you loose control of your bowels, you throw-up. You’ll sell your mother down the river in a heart beat.” Baugh’s solution, like many other pilots, was to start making up stories, inventing harmless targets in order to fool their captors.

The term “return with honor” became a motto for these soldiers. The repeated torture would force them to reveal more than their name, rank, and serial number, but they would refuse to reveal anything that would truly help the enemy. They would feed their captors information, but nothing that would cause them to be ashamed when they returned home. This may seem quaint in a time when many continue to look at Vietnam as a mistake. Still, pilots like Lt. Tom McNish expressed nothing but steadfastness in continuing to serve the United States, even as a prisoner of war. They believed that their country would remember them and eventually bring them home (which it did). Even when the North Vietnamese showed the prisoners film footage of the war protests in America, their resolve remained unwavering. “If we didn’t question the value of the war as we went into it,” Lt. Commander Bob Shumaker states, “sitting in prison wasn’t the time to start re-examining whether we ought to be there or not.”

“Return With Honor” is a moving documentary about human endurance under the worst possible circumstances. Because of their experiences, these pilots would never see life in the same way. “I think that few people are rarely called upon to use everything they have,” Lt. JG Everett Alvarez says when recalling his experience. “And once you go through something like that . . . these day to day ordeals and stresses and crisis. They’re not crises. They’re nothing.” “Return With Honor” views the Vietnam War from the point of view of soldiers who served their country bravely and have no regrets about doing so. Clearly this sobering and emotional documentary offers a fresh look at a war that continues to haunt many Americans.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

Freida Lee Mock—Director/Screenwriter
Terry Sanders—Director/Cinematographer/Screenwriter
Eddie Marritz—Cinematographer
Greg Byers—Editor
Charles Bernstein—Composer (Music Score)
Christine Z. Wiser—Co-producer/Screenwriter

“Return With Honor” will air on PBS on November 13, 2000.