By Lee Juillerat
Herald and News
Klamath Falls, Oregon
Ernie Brace’s book, A Code to Keep, is powerful, riveting and intensely moving.
When he speaks about his seven year, 10 months and seven days as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, it’s impossible not to be impressed by his resilience, and wonder how he survived the often brutal ordeal.
But when he showed an unfinished version of a docudrama, Vietnam POWs:McCain and Brace, for friends at the Klamath YMCA, including several who’ve read the book and heard him talk, the visual impact was shocking. When it was over, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
The film is part of the National Geographic Channel’s Locked Up Abroad series that will open it ninth season at 9 p.m. (6 p.m. Arizona time) , Wednesday, April 17. A premier showing is set for April 9 in Washington, D.C., as part of POW Recognition Day.
Brace, who has lived in Klamath Falls since 1989, terms the film a “good representative story” of his years spent mostly in solitary confinement in intentionally harsh conditions.
The McCain in the title refers to John McCain, the senator from Arizona and unsuccessful 2008 presidential candidate. Although they never saw each other until 1973, the made contact by tapping in code and whispering through walls while being held in the Hanoi Hilton, the North Vietnamese’s infamous prison.
Brace and McCain narrated their stories in London last October. Brace said his storytelling was culled from nearly 20 hours of filming. Filming with actors was done last December and January in Thailand.
The film begins with the two men, who had never physically met each other, meeting at a 1973 White House reception for American POWs, which Brace remembers as highly emotional.
In his narration McCain tells, “We made it, Ernie. We did,” and in comparing their times as POWs says of Brace, “It makes my experience look like a day at the beach.”
The film doesn’t hold back from the abuses both men suffered, especially Brace, He was tied, beaten, strapped inside a bamboo cage, taken to face a firing squad and, after a second escape attempt, buried in the ground for a week with only his head exposed, which left him partially paralyzed. It also recalls the time Brace, feeling mentally defeated, attempted to commit suicide but passed out while trying to strangle himself with a rope.
He was later taken to Hanoi and, after initially fearing he was being tricked, responded to McCain’s tapping, first contact with another American in nearly three and a half years. Through their illegal communicating, Brace and McCain developed a unique friendship, one that continues. McCain was later transferred to another prison and eventually spend five and a half years as a POW. AQs in the film, their first-ever face-to-face meeting was emotional.
Brace said the transfer to Hanoi, especially after his failed suicide, gave him hope.
“They’re keeping me alive for some reason because they’ve certainly had enough reasons to kill me and drop me,” he remembers thinking of leaving the jungle.
Brace, like others, believe the 1973 release of American POWs and the stories they told about their treatment helped change public opinion of much maligned Vietnam veterans.
“When the POWs came home and after listening to POW stories, the anti-war sentiment ended,” he said, expressing hope the docudrama “will make people more aware of what the POWs went through in Vietnam.
“This is,” Brace believes of McCain and Brace, “a story of overcoming the odds, of perseverance.”
Editor’s Note: The above story was reprinted with permission of the Herald and News.