I was barely 12 in February 1973 when our prisoners of war began coming home from Vietnam. The countless episodes of “Hogan’s Heroes” I’d watched throughout the late 60s did not prepare me for the startling images broadcast by satellite that February and March, as hundreds of gaunt, uniformed men made their way by plane from Southeast Asia to the Philippines and finally back onto American soil.
John Bryan McKamey, a Navy pilot, was one of them. J.B. was captured in June 1965 when the A-4 he was flying from USS Midway got hit by enemy fire and he was forced to eject over North Vietnam. He was repatriated seven grueling years and eight months later, making him one of the longest-held prisoners from that or any U.S. war.
I didn’t meet him until 1990 when I was sent as a newly minted ensign to the Public Affairs Office at Naval Air Station Pensacola where he was director. It’s hard to say whether I was more ignorant about the Navy or public affairs when I began that assignment, but by the time I left I had learned plenty about both—and came away with many other lessons, too.
I understood even then that it was a rare privilege to work for such a courageous, kind man, but have only recently realized how very much he influenced my career path and my life. Among the values he taught me are these: take care of the people who work for you, and give them room to grow; remain calm in the face of adversity; count your blessings; always keep your sense of humor, and never forget that freedom is not free.
Despite my inexperience, J.B. took me seriously. Knowing that I loved to write, he let me take a crack at the commanding officer’s remarks for Memorial Day. Although I can’t now remember any of the text, I’ll never forget the note he sent with the speech to the Skipper’s office. “If you like this,” it read, “Ensign Elder wrote it. If you hate it, I did.” That was the first speech I ever wrote, but it wasn’t the last.
J.B. typically led the required Code of Conduct training each year for military personnel at the air station, to explain what’s expected of them should they become prisoners of war themselves. He remarked to me once afterward: “I must be losing my touch. I used to get a lot more laughs.” I responded that most of us didn’t feel we had earned the right to be amused at his suffering, even though many of his stories were surprisingly funny.
I have heard and read a lot in the intervening decades about the privations and punishments our POWs experienced during Vietnam and other conflicts, yet I still can’t come close to imagining what it was like for them. But I force myself to try, because it’s vital for all of us to give thought to what J.B. and his fellow prisoners and their families endured and withstood on our behalf.
By the time I met him, J.B.’s crippled hands were the only visible signs of his captors’ abuse. Those hands and his adoring, steadfast wife are what I think of each September when National POW/MIA Recognition Day comes around.
I think of them whenever I write about Veterans’ sacrifice.
Capt. John B. McKamey, U.S. Navy (Ret.) died in February 2010 and was laid to rest at Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Florida.
Mary Elder is the speechwriter at the National Cemetery Administration and a commander in the Navy Reserve.