Ernest Brace, Civilian Pilot Held as P.O.W. in Vietnam, Dies at 83
Ernest Brace, who as a pilot working for the C.I.A. endured nearly eight years of torture during the Vietnam War, first in bamboo cages, then at the prison camp known as the Hanoi Hilton in a cell next to John McCain's, died on Friday in Klamath Falls, Ore. He was 83 and said to have been the longest-serving American civilian prisoner of war in that conflict.
His son Michael said the cause was a pulmonary embolism.
As a pilot for Bird & Son, a private company that was under contract to fly missions for the Central Intelligence Agency, Mr. Brace had just delivered passengers and cargo to an airstrip in northern Laos in May 1965 when small-arms fire erupted. The plane was so damaged that it could not take off, and Mr. Brace was captured by Laotian Communist rebels, who handed him over to North Vietnamese troops.
They treated him as a prisoner of war despite his civilian status. For three and a half years, by his account, he was mostly confined to a bamboo cage so small that when his captors occasionally let him out for brief periods, he was temporarily unable to walk.
He was violently interrogated, buried in the ground up to his neck and made to face what turned out to be a mock firing squad. He tried to escape three times, he said. Then he was transferred to the prison camp in Hanoi that American prisoners called the plantation or the Hanoi Hilton.
At one point he heard a tapping sound coming from the adjacent cell and soon realized that the taps were code for letters of the alphabet. The prisoner next door was a downed Navy flier, Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain, the future senator and presidential candidate. They became vital to each other's survival, providing comradeship and communicating in code, despite never seeing each other's face.
In a statement in The Congressional Record last year, Mr. McCain said, "Amidst the pain and cruelty of our time together, I also vividly remember our conversations, Sunday night storytelling sessions, and how we kept each other's spirits up during those dark days when our hope never wavered."
Mr. Brace and Mr. McCain did not meet until May 1973, months after they were released. The occasion was a White House reception held by President Richard M. Nixon.
"A guy came up to me and I looked at him and he said, 'I'm Ernie Brace,' " Mr. McCain said in an interview for a National Geographic television program in 2013."I went, 'Wow,' " he added. "It was such an emotional moment for me."
That same year, Mr. Brace was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal and two Purple Hearts.
Mr. Brace had earlier served in the Marine Corps, flying 100 combat missions during the Korean War. He was shot down over the Sea of Japan and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
But he was later "punitively" dismissed from the Marines on charges of faking his death in a plane crash near Cambridge, Md., as part of a scheme to escape gambling debts and enable his family to collect on a $50,000 life insurance policy.
Mr. Brace, who was a Marine captain then, crashed his $142,000 government aircraft on a routine training flight in January 1961. He had tossed his parachute into a river, hid his flight suit, hitched a ride to Baltimore and apparently played dead. A week later, after his flight suit had been found, he turned himself in.
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A federal grand jury found that the cause of the crash could not be conclusively determined and did not return an indictment. But the Marine Corps court-martialed Captain Brace, finding him guilty of desertion and concealing his whereabouts. That ended his military career.
In 1974, President Gerald R. Ford granted Mr. Brace a full pardon and an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in recognition of his long imprisonment.
After leaving the Marines, he was a test pilot for North American Aviation before becoming a pilot for Bird & Son in Southeast Asia.
Ernest Cary Brace was born in Detroit on Aug. 15, 1931, and joined the Marines at 16. After his release from the Hanoi Hilton, he worked for Sikorsky Aircraft as international marketing manager.
While Mr. Brace was in captivity, his wife, the former Patricia Emmons, thought he was dead and remarried. During his recuperation at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, he met a nurse, Nancy Rusth, and married her. She survives him. Besides his son Michael, he is also survived by three other sons, Ernest, Patrick and Cary; and eight grandchildren. He lived in Klamath Falls.
During his seven years, 10 months and seven days of incarceration, Mr. Brace wrote a poem. It began with these lines:
I'm just a prisoner in a cage;
I have no name, I have no age.
The guards don't even know what I've done
All they know, I'm a captured one.
Posted:http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/09/us/er ... .html?_r=0