Press Releases

Exhibit examines lives of 30 Vietnam prisoners of war

By Catherine Ivey
Friday September 20, 2002


CORONADO— They are pictured cooking, laughing, seated with their pets, standing with their wives. One is a famous senator. Another is a ukulele player. 

They refuse to dwell on how they were beaten and tortured as prisoners of war. Or on the dark, wasted years lost inside a Vietnamese prison camp. For most, life holds no time for anger or bitterness. 

“There’s no such thing as a bad day when you have a door knob on the inside of the door,” explains former Navy Cmdr. Paul Edward Galanti, one of 30 former POWs profiled and photographed in “Open Doors: Vietnam POWs Thirty Years Later” showing at the Coronado Museum of History and Art. The exhibit will be displayed aboard the USS Boxer in San Diego on Friday for National POW-MIA Recognition Day ahead of a national tour this winter. 

The exhibit was created by Taylor Baldwin Kiland, a Coronado writer and former Navy lieutenant who became intrigued by the lives of several former POWs she met while volunteering for Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign. She realized she knew a good deal about the adversity POWs faced in captivity but little about how they had fared since. 

“You never hear anything about what they’ve done with their lives,” Kiland says. “I thought, I bet there are some good life lessons from them.” 

Along with childhood friend and photographer Jamie Howren Quinn, Kiland spent 18 months traveling across the country to interview and photograph 30 Vietnam POWs, one for each year since most prisoners in Vietnam were released. Their subjects were chosen from all branches of the military by word of mouth. Some were war buddies of Kiland’s father, a Navy man; others were supporters of McCain, the country’s most well-known POW, who spent six and one half years in captivity and is also featured in the exhibit. 

Like many Americans, before starting the project Quinn viewed most Vietnam vets as a class to be pitied. Too often she’d seen them with handwritten signs begging for change on street corners. But after meeting several of the POWs, she revised her opinions. Among the group are a congressman, a federal trade commissioner, an ophthalmologist, a Medal of Honor recipient and numerous businessmen. 

“I realized they don’t want pity in any shape or form,” Quinn says. “These people were very inspiring. They reinforced the fact that life is very precious, and the need to live it to the fullest.” 

Navy pilot Capt. Charles Everett “Ev” Southwick’s life is a good example. Shot down over Than Hoa, Vietnam, in May 1967, he spent six years in various prisons throughout the country, including the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” 

“It’s the sort of experience you cannot describe in sound bites,” he says simply. “It wasn’t too pretty, let’s put it that way.” 

He describes the first three years as “stark terror” as prisoners were often bound with ropes while their limbs were slowly wrenched from their bodies in an effort to get them to denounce the United States’ war effort. Other POWs in the exhibit were forced to stand for four to five weeks with their arms over their heads; retired Marine Lt. Col. Orson Swindle, the current federal trade commissioner, was lashed on a stool for days. 

Southwick’s last three years were a maddening string of endless days, one bleeding into the next with nothing to occupy his time. He was freed in March 1973, 2,122 days after being shot down. 

Upon returning home, Southwick took a position in the Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs where he lobbied Congress on military matters. It was a job he loved. 

Not everything went smoothly though. Southwick divorced three times. 

Still the 70-year-old says he has no time for bitterness. Retired and living in San Diego, he spends his time fishing and playing an old ukulele, which he is photographed with for the exhibit. 

“We’re just normal people like everybody else,” he says. “People say I never could have done that. ’Well yes, you could do that.’ You don’t know what you can do until you’re faced with it.” 

Life threw up challenges for other men, too. Air Force Col. William Beekman spent a year in captivity. He returned home in 1973 to resume a military career but was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Active duty proved too physically demanding so he started a medical testing company. Working 60 to 80 hours a week, he turned the business into a multimillion dollar enterprise which he recently sold. 

Now retired, the Dayton, Ohio, resident has taken up swimming despite his deteriorating medical condition. In his profile, Beekman says he wants to compete in the 200-meter freestyle at his local YMCA. 

“When you’ve been through the worst, you feel you can do anything,” says Beekman who is pictured leaning on a cane and smiling widely. 

Galanti, the Navy commander who spent six and a half years as a POW, will speak aboard the USS Ronald Reagan in Newport News, Va., on Friday for National POW-MIA Recognition Day. 

“Always remember: No matter how bad you think you’ve got it, somebody has it worse,” Galanti says. He recalls that during low periods of his captivity, he’d think of Navy pilot Everett Alvarez Jr., another man featured in the exhibit, who spent eight and one half years as a POW. 

“Sometimes at night when I used to sit there and feel sorry for myself I’d think about Ed. He’d been in there 22 months longer than I had.” 

“There is always somebody who has it worse.”