ST. PAUL, Minn. – Everett Alvarez Jr. was flying a Navy fighter jet at 500 mph toward an enemy naval base on Aug. 5, 1964, when he was shot down by North Vietnamese enemy fire.
Pulled from the water, he was soon sent to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where, as a prisoner of war, he was beaten, tortured and kept in solitary confinement.
Alvarez, a Maryland delegate to the Republican National Convention here, was America’s first POW in Vietnam. He was also held the longest: 8 1/2 years.
“If you wanted a good cell, you had to come early,” he said, smiling, in a recent interview.
Alvarez, 70, is honorary chairman of Maryland’s 71-member delegation, but is spending little time with the group. Instead, as an invited guest of McCain, a longtime friend and fellow POW, he is staying with the senator’s campaign in a downtown Minneapolis hotel, 10 miles from the Maryland delegation in St. Paul.
Still, the Rockville resident will join his state on the floor of the Xcel Energy Center, the site of the convention, and announce the group’s support for McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The convention runs Sept. 1-4.
James Pelura III, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said most POWs are not “flag-waving” political activists . . . except for this election.
“This time it’s different, because it’s one of their own that’s out there running now,” Pelura said.
As Alvarez says, “John has continually demonstrated, since the days we were in those cells in Vietnam, that it’s service over self.”
McCain, also a Navy pilot, met Alvarez in 1972, toward the end of the war after North Vietnam relaxed conditions for its POWs, Alvarez said. McCain was held for 5 1/2 years, most, like Alvarez, in the Hanoi Hilton. Both moved to the Washington, D.C.-area after the war, and served as co-chairman of Veterans for Bush in 1988 and 1992, when George H.W. Bush ran for president and re-election, respectively.
Maryland delegates describe Alvarez, who has chronicled his war experiences in books and interviews, as a down-to-earth, intelligent man. But unlike many POWs, they note, he does not shy from recounting his time as a prisoner.
“If someone asks, he talks,” said Michael P. Cronin, a Maryland delegate who, as a Navy pilot in Vietnam, was a also POW for seven years. “He doesn’t seek publicity. It comes to him.”
A Salinas, Calif., native, Alvarez earned an electrical engineering degree at a California university, and then joined the Navy. He was shot down on his first mission in Vietnam, a reprisal raid launched the day after two U.S. aircraft carriers were attacked.
He moved to Rockville in 1976 to finish his Navy service in Washington, and was later appointed deputy director of the Peace Corps, and then deputy administrator of the U.S. Veterans Administration. He now runs Conwal Inc., a McLean, Va.-based management consulting firm.
Most Maryland delegates know Alvarez’s story, but say they don’t know him well personally, as they’ve only met him a few times. Cronin, however, lived a half-mile from Alvarez in Rockville for 12 years, and their sons played on the same youth football team.
Cronin, now a North Potomac resident, said he is most impressed by Alvarez’s refusal to dwell on the past.
“I tell you one thing, he doesn’t waste a lot of time thinking about his years as a prisoner,” he said. “His focus is getting on with life and doing the best he can.”