On May 24, 1973, John McCain attended a White House dinner hosted by President Nixon for former prisoners of Vietnam. That evening marked the first in-person meeting of the senator-to-be and Ernie Brace.
"I never met John McCain face-to-face after talking to him for years through this wall until Nixon's party," Brace told Yeas & Nays, tearing up later as he retold the story. The two former POWs, who have kept in touch over the 40 years since (Brace supported McCain in multiple political campaigns), reunited to tell Brace's story of captivity in an episode of "Locked Up Abroad" that premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday on National Geographic Channel.
"It wasn't like 'Stalag 17' or 'Hogan's Heroes,' " Brace told an audience at a screening Monday at the National Geographic Museum. "It wasn't funny, actually. It was terrible."
That was one of many understatements by Brace and McCain, R-Ariz., who brought humor to the discussion of their stories.
Brace is "the longest held civilian prisoner in Vietnam" (the State Department gave him a certificate acknowledging this dubious distinction), captured in 1965 and released in 1973. His seven years as a prisoner of North Vietnam included three years in isolation before becoming a resident of the "Hanoi Hilton" in a cell next to McCain, where they established a tapping code to communicate.
"I do make light of it; that's what got me through," Brace told us, elaborating to the audience that he and McCain "told each other jokes" through the wall.
"A lot of lies," McCain amended with a grin. "Pilots have a way."
McCain described theirs as "a special bond," joking they were "a couple of old geezers sitting around waiting for the cavalry charge."
The TV retelling is more dramatic, shown through narration by both men and re-enactments filmed with actors in Thailand. Srik Narayanan, the series producer, told us the location was key for realism.
Brace, who also told his story in the 1988 book "A Code to Keep," called the 90-minute episode "riveting."
But the initial pitch left him cold. "I said, 'I don't think I fit the profile. I've watched "Locked Up Abroad" a few times: It's always some young druggie that gets caught up in some country doing something wrong,' " he told us. "[Then] they called me and said, 'The senator agreed to do it.' "
Forty years later, it seems the "special bond" is still making history.