Ernest C. Brace was a long-time resident of Nevada, spending countless nights at famous Las Vegas “Strip” resort hotels such as the Flamingo, Thunderbird, Stardust, Riviera and Desert Inn.
And his room was always “comped” or “on the house” as they say.
Brace’s next-door Vegas neighbor for lengthy periods was another pilot, Navy aviator Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain, who many years later would become the Republican candidate for president and, who today, is serving his fifth term as a U.S. senator from Arizona.
But I must issue a caveat or explanation here about the pair’s residencies at the Las Vegas hotels.
Their Nevada sojourns were anything but voluntary. Their accommodations were far from luxurious. The men had been shot down by enemy fire during the Vietnam War and they were prisoners of the North Vietnamese.
“Las Vegas” was the name Brace and McCain sardonically gave to their prison that also was called the “Plantation” by some of their fellow inmates.
And “Flamingo,” “Thunderbird,” etc., were the names they gave to the cramped and vile cells where they were confined and tortured from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s.
McCain, who today is 78, spent five-and-a-half years in “Las Vegas” and other North Vietnamese prisons until his release when the Vietnam War ended in March 1973.
Brace, who served nearly eight-and-a-half years in “Las Vegas” and other prisons until his release, also in March 1973, died Dec. 3 of a pulmonary embolism at a hospital in Klamath Falls, Oregon.
Aged 83, he was the longest-serving American civilian prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
When McCain learned of Brace’s death, he said he was “deeply saddened” by the passing of his friend and fellow-POW.
“Ernie Brace endured more cruelty and severe torture than any other captive during the Vietnam War. We developed a special bond that strengthened us both at a difficult time, helping us survive together,” McCain added.
A former Marine Corps aviator who later became a pilot for a civilian company under contract to fly missions for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Vietnam War, Brace was captured by Laotian Communist forces after they had shot up his airplane when he was delivering passengers and cargo to a makeshift airstrip on a dry rice paddy in Northern Laos.
His heavily-damaged aircraft was unable to take off, and Brace was handed over to the North Vietnamese by his Laotian captors.
In spite of his civilian status, Brace was starved, beaten and tortured and confined to a tiny bamboo cage for three-and-a-half years. At night, his hands were tied behind his back, his neck forced into a noose and his feet held in stocks.
After an escape attempt, he was buried up to his neck for a week.
In late 1968, Brace was transferred to “Las Vegas” near Hanoi, and on his first night there, he heard tapping on the wall.
Hesitantly, he answered and soon realized the person in the next cell was tapping out the letters of the alphabet in sequence. Instructed to put his head to the wall, the prisoner told him, “My name is John McCain. I’ve been a prisoner for over a year.”
McCain instructed him how to use the code and a tin cup placed against the wall for voice communication. “Both of us found ourselves telling each other things we would never tell anyone else,” Brace later recounted.
Brace and McCain were offered release if they confessed to “crimes” against North Vietnam, but they refused and received further torture. Both men later said they had attempted suicide in their prison cells which they mockingly referred to as luxury suites in prominent Las Vegas hotels of that era.
Upon Brace’s and McCain’s release from prison in early 1973, it was revealed that Brace, a Marine Corps pilot who had been decorated for bravery during the 1950-1953 Korean War, had been dishonorably discharged from the USMC after he had been convicted of desertion and sentenced to punitive dismissal.
Brace, a Marine Corps captain, had bailed out of his aircraft during a routine training flight over Maryland after the propeller faltered. He landed safely, but his plane crashed into a field.
But upon landing, he tossed his parachute into a river, hid his flight suit, hitched a ride to Baltimore and apparently played dead. He soon turned himself in, though, citing stress, marital problems and gambling debts as the causes of his strange disappearance.
Following Brace’s release from the North Vietnamese prison, however. all was forgiven.
He was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal and two Purple Hearts and President Gerald R. Ford granted him a full pardon and reversed his dishonorable discharge to an honorable one.
Brace later remarried (his first wife, believing he had died in prison, also had remarried) and he worked for Evergreen International Airlines in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and Sikorsky Aircraft in China.
Michigan-born Brace leaves his wife, Nancy, four sons and eight grandchildren.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus, and he may be reached at email@example.com