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.

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14 Comments

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  2. tom hushion October 11, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Mary Elder! I just read the latest issue of GOSPORT and saw your story on JB! Awesome! I too was always struck by the man. It was an honor to know him. I always looked forward to calling him once every year or so and talk “shop” with him. Over the years, I’ve seen and heard so many disgruntled Vietnam Vets, and then I think of JB. Never a bad word to say about anyone…always leading by example…standing tall and proud, teaching me about service to god and country. I think back to our old PAO gang at NASP from ’89 to ’92 and it was quite a group. A great time….and I will always regret not attending JB’s funeral.

  3. Rebecca Sanford RN,BSN September 22, 2011 at 12:06 am

    In 1967, I purchased a “POW/MIA” bracelet when my Dad was stationed in Hawaii. I was about 12 years old…and wore the bracelet against my Dad’s wishes. He thought it was a “Hippie thing….and was disrespectful. My “Hero” was Cmdr. Kay Russell, a USN Pilot who turned out to be from Miramar Naval Air Station, San Diego. Initially Cmdr. Russell was listed as MIA. Eventually his status was changed to POW. We transferred to San Diego, California. In 1973 I was a Volunteer Nurse Aide at Balboa Naval Hospital during the time of the POW releases from Viet Nam. It was at this time that I learned Cmdr. Russell was from Miramar and his family lived in La Jolla. I had been praying so hard for so many years for him and his family. I was working at Balboa the day the POW’s arrived. I remember the official Black Cars…the flags….the people….other military patients who were able to leave their rooms and stand at attention outside the building entrance. I stood quietly to the side…waiting to be able to identify Cmdr Russell…My Hero. I remember his pride, his words of thanks, and his frailty. Later that day, I was able to “have a need” to deliver some supplies to the ward where Cmdr. Russell was. I showed the Officer of the Day my POW bracelet inscribed with Cmdr. Russell’s name. I thought she was going to faint. I scratched my name and phone number on the duty roster. I did not want to speak with him while he was in the hospital, and I did not want Public Relations to be involved. This was very personal. 3 weeks after his discharge from Balboa Hospital, my Dad drove me to Cmdr. Russell’s home in La Jolla. I took off my POW bracelet for the first time….and placed it in his hand. Dad and I spent about 10 minutes in his home. I never saw him again, but I have never forgotten him or the sacrifice he made as well as the hell he endured as a POW. He was and always be My Hero.

    • Mary Elder September 22, 2011 at 10:52 am

      Thank you for sharing this very powerful story. I was especially moved by the image of the other patients at Balboa leaving their rooms to honor their colleagues. How remarkable that you got to meet CDR Russell after wearing his bracelet for so very long!

  4. Scott September 18, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Indeed a great story, having been there with the late Marian Shelton when she committed suicide who was the champion of POW/MIA wives, and a dear friend for over 10 years and knowing we must Never Forget out captured and missing military personnel. Her husband Col. Charles Shelton was the last officially listed POW of the Viet Nam War she and her children fought for all POW’s/MIA’s and we all need to honor all those still unaccounted for and keep the families in prayers always. I found her shot to death in her San Diego home along with MIA Lt. Commander Dennis S. Pike’s daughters that fateful evening the trauma and shock still hurts to this day. Keep all the children of these missing and captured men. I wrote the book BOHICA and dedicated it to the Shelton family so let us NOT FORGET.

  5. Michael Minjack September 18, 2011 at 10:07 am

    Can’t say enough of the VAMC treatment—-superb!!!!

  6. Harriet A. Rose September 17, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Great Article! I was very honor on September 16,2011, to preside at my VFW post service in memory of the POW/MIA. L’est not Forget! God Bless!

  7. Richard Dowling, LTjg USN(RC) September 16, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Great article. Thank you.

  8. Leon September 16, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    How about LT Everett Alvarez , HE spent 8 years as A POW, He was the first and longest POW
    Everett Alvarez Jr. (b. 1937, Salinas, California) was a Navy Commander who endured one of the longest periods as a prisoner of war (POW) in American history. Alvarez was the first American pilot to be shot down and held as a POW in North Vietnam. He spent over 8 years in captivity, making him the second longest-held POW in American histor

    • Mary Elder September 19, 2011 at 3:55 pm

      Commander Alvarez was also Deputy Director of the Veterans Administration at one time, continuing his service to the Nation.

  9. Bruce Duque, LT, USN (Ret) September 16, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Great article! Commander Elder, were you assigned to CHNAVPERS Office in 1995?

    • Mary Elder September 19, 2011 at 3:53 pm

      One and the same! Nice to see your name, Bruce.

  10. Dean P. Evans September 16, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    Awesome article, I’m a Vietnam vet and my Dad was a POW in WW11 after being shot down in a B-24. He has always been my hero, he passed away 8 years ago with a 100% disability from the VA. As the older I get the more I realize how not to take things for granted ! I have a 80% disability from the VA, and love, respect, admire, and thankful for the treatment I receive.

    • Allen Walbridge September 16, 2011 at 4:59 pm

      I’m 170% disabled from Vietnam. The treatment I get at the VA hospital in Minneapolis, MN is getting better every time I walk in there. Praise for the workers in the VA Hospital in Minneapolis, MN. God Bless!

      Nam Vet 68-70.

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