Coronado Historical Association ...

Exhibit author Taylor Baldwin Kiland and photographer Jamie Howren with a large group of former Vietnam War POWs at the opening of Open Doors at the Coronado Historical Association in 2002.

Sitting in the radio studio listening to a live interview with five men who served with Sen. John McCain in the infamous French prison in downtown Hanoi (the one they coined the Hanoi Hilton), I rolled my eyes at the radio host’s questions. It was March 2000 and the California presidential primary was a few days away. This was Senator John McCain’s first attempt at running for president. Many former POWs were campaigning for him all over the country. These five former POWs were volunteering in San Diego. So was I.

“I’m curious,” the Generation X host asked, “what were you fed while in the prison camp? And were you tortured?” Patiently, the five men answered the common questions for the thousandth time. Next: “And were your wives still waiting for you when you returned?” So uninspired, I thought to myself. These men are the longest-held group of POWs in our nation’s history who came home to a country severely divided over the Vietnam War and everyone who fought in it. They have been home for almost thirty years. Aren’t you, Mr. Radio Host, curious to know how they rebuilt their lives and careers when those prison doors opened?

Mr. Radio Host may not have been inspired, but I was. And, in 2001, I grabbed my best childhood friend and talented photographer Jamie Howren and convinced her that we should interview thirty of them for the thirtieth anniversary of their homecoming. We determined we would capture their lives in words and photographic portraits, and find a place to exhibit the work. We pitched the idea to the Coronado Historical Association and they agreed: if you two produce it, we will hang it.

We traveled around the country and interviewed a cross-section of the former POWs to create, in 2003, an exhibit we called “Open Doors: Vietnam POWs Thirty Years Later.” The men welcomed us into their homes and offices to give us a close look at their current lives and some insight into their personalities and personal philosophies. Their unprecedented experience in Hanoi certainly did not shield them from subsequent adversity: some experienced the death of spouses and children, battled cancer, went through divorce, or lost homes or jobs. But they have never lost their perspective. One told us, “There’s no such thing as a bad day when you have a doorknob on the inside of the door.” Indeed, they relish that second chance at freedom they were given, and I believe it helps them better weather the “curve balls” of life that are thrown in everyone’s path.

These men are also one of the most successful cohorts of combat veterans. Among their achievements post-Vietnam are presidential candidate, vice presidential candidate, senators, congressmen, governors, political appointees, CEOs, doctors, lawyers, ministers, authors, admirals, and generals. And their lifetime average rate of PTSD? Four percent.

After the Open Doors exhibit traveled around the country, it was acquired by the global information technology company CACI International Inc, which displayed it in their corporate headquarters for fifteen years. This month, CACI is donating the exhibit back to CHA for the fiftieth anniversary of their homecoming, where it will be on display through September 15.

Members of the public are invited to come to the Spreckels Reading Room at the Coronado Public Library on Monday, February 13, and Tuesday, February 14, from 10 a.m. to noon to share their memories of the 1973 homecoming of our nation’s POWs. Docents will be available to collect audio oral histories and photograph any memorabilia. Questions may be directed to Christine Stokes, CHA Executive Director, at (619) 435-7242.

VOL. 113, NO. 6 - Feb. 8, 2023

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