Ernest Brace: War hero court-martialled for desertion who became the longest-serving civilian prisoner of war in Vietnam

John McCain, the former US Presidential candidate, occupied the cell next to Brace's at the Hanoi Hilton

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The Independent Online

Ernest Brace was a US Marine Corps pilot decorated for combat service in Korea, court-martialled for desertion after a plane crash and later celebrated for his fortitude as the longest-held civilian POW in the Vietnam War.

Brace spent nearly eight years in captivity. John McCain, the former US Presidential candidate who occupied the cell next to Brace's at the prison known as the Hanoi Hilton, described him as "a man whose bravery and sacrifice for this country have had no bounds".

Brace flew more than 100 missions in Korea, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. In January 1961 he was on an officers' training course in Virginia when his plane crashed. He abandoned the scene, hitchhiked to Baltimore and turned himself in 10 days later, saying that he was burdened by domestic and financial problems and had hoped to "get away from it all". A court martial convicted him of desertion and sentenced him to punitive dismissal.

He became a civilian contract pilot ferrying supplies and passengers into Laos during the Vietnam War. In 1965 Communist forces attacked his plane on an airstrip. He spent the next seven years and 10 months, "mostly encaged in small bamboo cages, to be beaten, starved, buried alive, and humiliated".

He repeatedly tried to escape; after one effort he was buried up to his neck for a week. He endured more than four years of solitary confinement then was transferred to the Hoa Lo complex, known as the Hanoi Hilton, where through taps and furtive messages he embarked on a friendship with McCain. "The wall was like a confessional," he recalled.

He was released in March 1973 – his wife had remarried, believing that he was dead – and soon after he met McCain at a White House event for former POWs. "A guy came up to me and said, 'I'm Ernie Brace,'" McCain recalled. "It was such an emotional moment for me."

In 1974, President Ford granted Brace a pardon, and last year, in part through McCain's efforts, he received a Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War Medal. McCain wrote, "When the Vietnamese offered to release him, he declined, insisting that others captured before him be released first. No one I knew in prison ... had greater loyalty to his country." Brace later worked in Latin America, China, Russia and the Middle East on narcotics control, military sales and fuel contracts.

Ernest Cary Brace, pilot: born Detroit 15 August 1931; twice married; died Klamath Falls, Oregon 5 December 2014.

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