BRACE, ERNEST C.
Name: Ernest C. Brace
Date of Birth: 15 August 1931
Home City of Record:
Date of Loss: 21 May 1965
Country of Loss: Laos
Loss Coordinates: 200345 North 1012330 East
Status (in 1973): Returnee
Marine Corp pilot 1951-1961.
Shot down in Korea November 1952
Other Personnel in Incident: Sgt. Harnawee, Thai Special Forces, Releasee
Source: Compiled by P.O.W. NETWORK from one or more of the following: raw
data from U.S. Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA
families, published sources, interviews. 2023
REMARKS: 03/73 Released by PL
The American Legion Magazine
By ERNEST C. BRACE
Under the glaring lights of a circus tent set up on the lawn of the White
House, I met John Sidney McCain III face to face for the first time.
President Richard Nixon had invited the returned POWs of the Vietnam War to
It was May 24, 1973. A little over four years previously I had met
John under harsh circumstances. We had been confined in adjacent cells at
the camp we prisoners called the "Plantation" in Hanoi, North Vietnam.
John was in solitary because he refused to cooperate with the
Vietnamese. His father was Admiral John Sidney McCain, Commander in Chief,
Naval Forces Europe, and his grandfather had been an admiral during WWII.
Because of his family, John was considered a valuable pawn by the
Vietnamese. John did not know it for several months, but during his
captivity his father was to become Commander in Chief, Pacific, an even more
important position relating to John's imprisonment.
I was in solitary because I was a civilian pilot, suspected of being with
the CIA, and I had escaped from my captors three times over the years while
in jungle camps near Dien Bien Phu. I'd been a contract pilot, flying US
AID supplies to pro-government troops operating in what was ac- knowledged
to be an enemy controlled area.
Three and one-half years in damp, thatched bamboo cages in the
jungle had left me in poor health. Because of my escape attempts, I spent
from April 1966 until October 1968 in stocks and ropes. I had been captured
May 21, 1965 in Laos. When they took me to Hanoi in October 1938 1 could
I had not seen or heard an American since my capture. I had no
idea of the progress of the war. On the road to Hanoi, I observed road work
to restore bomb damage, and what appeared to be normal daytime traffic. I
didn't know that Johnson had gone to "limited bombing." I thought the wait
was over, and I was being taken to Hanoi for release.
The interrogator at the prison in Hanoi told me that the guards
were preparing a room for me soon after we arrived at the camp. He would
not comment on the war situation. I had visions of a hotel room.
I was carried blindfolded across large open space, and then dumpers
rudely on the ground. I heard a lock snap open. What sounded like a wooden
bar scraped against metal. A door banged open. I was lifted over something
and dropped. It felt like a concrete floor. Someone stepped down alongside
of me and jerked my blindfold off.
I was blinded by a bare electric light bulb hanging from the
ceiling. T looked no at one of the cruelest faces I had seen on a
Vietnamese. He kicked me in the thigh and motioned towards a wide board set
up on two small sawhorses. I pulled myself over to the bedboard and managed
to get up on the thing after almost knocking it over. The guard made
motions that I was to remove my clothes. Another guard entered and started
inspecting my body. He painted between my fingers and toes with iodine.
Then he took a needle from his bag, attached a syringe, and gave me a shot
of vitamin B.
There was a black bucket in the corner of the room. From the
motions of the guard I assumed it was meant to be used for my body
functions. The corcrete floor around the bucket was stained from years of
use and bad aim. A mosquito net hung from nails driven into concrete grout
between bricks. A bricked-over door separated my cell from what had been an
adjoining room. I had been dropped in over a windowsill.
The guards left, slamming the heavy louvered windows closed, then
dropping the bar in place and snapping the lock shut. I was in my new home.
I spread the blanket they had given me on the board. My few extra
clothes became my pillow. It had been an exciting day. I had no problem
going right to sleep.
I awoke to the sound of my bar being taken off the window.
"Nasty," the mental nickname I'd given the guard, was back with a jug of
water. It was starting to get light outside. Suddenly I heard what sounded
like someone beating a piece of iron with a hammer. It started slowly and
increased in cadence to a rapid crescendo and finished with a couple of
The guard pointed to his ear and indicated that when I heard that
noise I was to get up and do some exercises. I couldn't even stand without
leaning on something. He wanted me to set my bucket outside the window. I
indicated that I hadn't used it yet. "Nasty" left me the jug and a chunk of
I had been told not to sit on the bedboard. Also, there had been
dire threats indicated if I were to scratch or knock on the walls. Sitting
on the floor with my back to the wall I was more comfortable than I had been
I had been sitting for some time dreaming of home, when I became
aware that I could hear American music off in the distance. The music
stopped and was followed by an Oriental girl's voice. I couldn't make out
the words, but it sounded like English.
The gong sounded, more softly this time, and I wondered if I should
exercise. While I was thinking about this I heard a noise at my window. A
guard was rapping his knuckles against the louvers saying "Sleep, sleep." I
figured I was to take a nap.
I had no sooner laid down when I heard a tapping on the wall. It
was the old "SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT" signal among prisoners, but without the
"TWO BITS." I smiled and thought "That's nice, must be an American next
door." A moment later the tapping was repeated. I eased off the bed and
worked my way around to where the tapping was coming from. The next time he
tapped "SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT" I came right back with the "TWO BITS." A rapid
series of tapping started. I retreated thinking I had been tricked.
The tapping ceased and then came the "SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT" again.
Whoever he was, he was persistent. After a period of silence a long, slow
series of tapping started. I was confused. I started counting and then
realized I should be saying the alphabet. I got the word "WALL" on the last
series. I did nothing. I was getting sweaty and nervous. It started
again: A B C D ---------
The message was clear. "PUT EAR TO WALL." I worked my way back to
where the tapping was coming from. Pressing my ear to the wall I heard a
voice say "IF YOU HEAR ME BUDDY, KNOCK THREE TIMES." I knocked three times.
What had seemed a bored voice became so excited he could hardly talk. It
was clearly an American on the other side of the wall.
"I'VE BEEN TRYING TO RAISE YOU ALL DAY. ARE YOU A NEW PRISONER?
DO YOU KNOW THE TAP CODE? I GUESS I'D BETTER TELL YOU HOW TO
ANSWER." My eyes were watering. I was smiling so hard my face hurt. This was the first
American voice I had heard since leaving home so many years ago. "GIVE ME
ONE TAP FOR NO, TWO TAPS FOR YES, AND THREE TAPS IF YOU DON'T KNOW."
I gave two taps. "GOOD BOY." He said "MY NAME IS JOHN McCAIN. I'VE BEEN A
PRISONER OVER A YEAR, HAVE YOU BEEN A PRISONER LONG?" I gave two taps,
"Yes." We then went through something like the game "Twenty Questions." He
found out what year I had been captured, how old I was, and that I had been
a Marine Corps pilot in Korea, but was flying as a civilian during this war.
He then told me how he was talking to me. "TAKE YOUR TIN CUP, WRAP
YOUR SHIRT AROUND IT, LEAVE PLENTY OF CLOTH AROUND THE MOUTH,
AND PRESS THE CUP FIRMLY AGAINST THE WALL. DO YOU WANT TO TRY
IT NOW?" One tap "No." I didn't have a cup. "DO YOU WANT TO COMMUNICATE?"
Two taps "Yes." "DO YOU HAVE A CUP?" One tap "No."
He then explained the tap code. The "shave and a haircut" was the
come up signal. The "two bits" meant go ahead. Divide the alphabet into
five groups of five letters each. Drop the letter "K." The key letters of
each group are A-F-L-Q-V. The letter "A" being the first letter in the
first group its tap would be 1-1. The letter "B," first group, second
letter, 1-2. The letter "R," fourth group, second letter, 4-2. The name
"McCain," 3-2, 1-3, 1-3, 1-1, 2-4, 3-3. I was now able to tap my name to
John. Several days later I was given a cup and communications were wide
Over the next few weeks John was to bring me back to the real
world. He caught me up on the war situation; explained the politics of the
upcoming elections; told me jokes, and stories of his life that be probably
bad never told anyone before. The wall was like a confessional. The person
on the other side existed in voice only. I wasn't to see John McCain for
over a year. Then it was only a furtive glance through my louveres while he
was in the wash court one day.
The music and voice I had heard my first day in the room had been
the "Voice of Vietnam." John had a speaker in his room, I did not. Every
morning after the voice signed off John would come up on the wall and fill
me in on the music, news and lack of sports, as he put it.
John explained that we were in the camp called "Plantation." He was
in Warehouse 13 west, I was in Warehouse 13 east. We remained in solitary
over the next year. In addition to each other we communicated with other
parts of the camp by virious inventive and roundabout methods. But that
communications was not the personal-voice type contact that John and I had.
Shortly before Christmas 1969, John and I were caught up in a
communications bust. I had been relaying information from the guys in the
"Gunshed" to John and he had a way of getting it to the rest of the
"Warehouse." I got my contact with the "Gunshed" when they were brought down
to the wash court. The guards came in the middle of the night. They told
me to prepare, to move to a camp where I was to be, punished for my criminal
activities. I was able to walk now so they didn't have to carry me to the
truck waiting in the courtyard. Before they put me in the truck, I was
As we were rolling through the streets of Hanoi I felt someone
tapping on my thigh in soft subtle pressure. "HI, I JOHN McCAIN, WHO YOU?"
My throat felt tight as I worked my hand around to squeeze his. "EB HERE."
Almost four more years of war were to keep John and me from meeting
in person. As we faced each other at the White House dinner, tears filled
my eyes. I thought of that year of frantic communications through the wall.
January 10, 1997
Ernie Brace and his wife Nancy reside in Oregon.
FM: Ernie Brace POW Laos/NVN 1965-1973
I was a Marine Corp pilot 1951-1961.
Shot down in Korea November 1952, I managed to make it out to sea and
got picked up by the USS Kidd just south of Wonson. Working with
USAID/CIA in Laos, Special Operations Group in 1965 I was captured
just south of the China border in company with Thai Special Forces.
3.5 years in Bamboo Cages near Dien Bein Phu, 2.5 of that in stocks
and irons because of escape attempts. Another 1yr 3mo. in solitary in
Hanoi in cell behind John McCain. He was solo also. Total 4yrs 8mos.
solitary confinement continuous from capture. Another 3mo solo in 1971
due to camp riot. Never listed as POW, never allowed to write or
receive mail. #6 captured in war, but not released until last day of
releases 28 Mar 1973. Spent year in Balboa Naval Hospital recovering.
Adm Jim Stockdale recommended me for Navy Cross, reduced to DoD DSM,
highest DoD award for "civilians." Story is in book I wrote A CODE TO
KEEP, St. Martin's Press NYC 1988. I do a lot of speaking at military
reunions and for the graduating classes of the 114th Tactical Fighter
Training Squadron (F16s) here at Kingsley Field in Klamaty Falls, Oregon.
Have also written several books of short stories on my 7 yr. China tour as
Program Manager for FMS sale of UH-60s for PLA. Spent four years working
with the Russians on improving their aviation capability for UN Peace
Keeping missions. Was in Kuwait in March 1991 to set up med-evac and
helicopter support for the fire fighters.
From a letter shared, dated 01/10/97
Sorry to hear about your brother. Before I get started you should also check
with Ed Leonard, USAF A1 pilot out of NKP captured in Laos and with Steve
Long USAF "Nail" OV-10 pilot out of NKP also captured in Laos....
The only thing we 9 Americans and 1 Canadian had in common as survivors of
Laos is that we were all captured by NVA regulars and not the Pathet Lao.
All of us were taken by the NVA directly into NVN and never turned over to
the PL. The only survivors of the PL I know of are the two Navy pilots Deter
Dingler, escaped in Laos, and Klusman who escaped or was brought out by PL
deserters, in 1964 before I was even captured. There are also a number of
Thai Special Forces personnel that were captured in Laos, including Sgt.
Harnavee who was with me. He was taken to Hanoi with me and released about a
year after the Americans.
Most of us pilots captured in Laos attempted at least one escape during the
transportation phase as we are taught to do. Jack Butcher got away for
several days and was almost killed on re-capture. Lance Sijan was killed.
Jim Bedinger's truck convoy on the Ho Chi Min trail was bombed and strafed
by our own pilots as they moved him north out of Laos. My own penalty for
getting untied and trying to crawl out of the camp on the trail was loss of
my front teeth from a rifle butt and a smashed cheek bone. The penalty for
escape was death and I am sure that many of the pilots that got on the
ground safely died in that manner. The PL were not known for their soft
hearts and working with the counter insurgency force before my capture I
observed some of their work on their own people that cooperated with the
I don't hold much hope for those that are not out by now. These fortune
hunters that have been preying on the families of those missing have not
produced one piece of solid evidence. The "three amigos" picture which has
been proven to be a fake taken from a Russian magazine is still being touted
by some as proof that there are still Americans up there. I almost died in
that cage before they took me to Hanoi in 1968. I was down to about 100
pounds and had been through many phases of sickness.
I was last in Laos in January 1991 on another project. In meetings with the
PL General Staff in Vientiene I was told I could go anywhere and ask any
questions I wanted to of the local people. Our military is doing just that.
Some "sightings" have not been resolved I know, but they have all turned
into blind leads. People will do and say anything if they think it might
earn them a ticket to the USA.
Sorry to be so blunt, but I have watched the suffering of the MIA families
for over twenty years now, have seen or heard most of the rumors, and have
tried to follow up on some of them myself in Russia. There was no physical,
or economic reason for the NV to hold back. To the contrary there have been
rewards offered almost from day one for someone to bring out a live
American. Not sure I have been of any help, but having lived and worked all
over the world, I feel we still have the best and least corrupt government
that can be found. There is certainly no grand conspiracy to withhold
May 17 1997
I've never checked into whether or not my debrief could be released. Since I
was under contract to the CIA I guess mine would be one of the last to be
released, if they ever are. I have presented my story many times in talks to
military groups. The last being at the AWS school in Quantico for their
Ethics Under Adversity seminar in February this year. I'm also sure that my
book, A CODE TO KEEP, contains all my debrief and then some.
He only received one. They are going back to find out why - he was promised 2.
On 8/28/2013 wrote:
Ernie Brace passed away DEC 5.
His service will be in Klamath Falls on Monday Dec. 8, 2014 at
2pm at the United Evangelical Free Church, 3333 Beverly Dr. Klamath Falls,
His ashes will be spread at a favorite fishing spot.
Ernie Brace Flies West
True American heroes are rare. Ernie Brace was one of those, and his death 5 Dec 2014 was a loss not just to Klamath Falls and the people who knew him, but to the rest of the nation as well.
You probably know the story. Brace, 83, a civilian pilot during the Vietnam War, was captured by communist forces and held for seven years, 10 months and seven days. He spent five of those years in solitary confinement, with more than three of them in a 3-foot by 4-foot bamboo cage, chained to the ground by a steel collar around his neck.
During captivity, he communicated by tapping on the walls to fellow prisoner John McCain, at the time a captured U.S. pilot and now a U.S. senator from Arizona. McCain said in a quotation from the Marlo Thomas book, "The Right Words at the Right time": "Without his strength, I doubt I would have survived solitary confinement with my mind and self-respect intact."
Brace's strength of will and character got him through his ordeal and inspired other prisoners. He continued to inspire others who got to know him after his release in March 1973 and after he and his wife, Nancy Rusth Brace, moved to Klamath Falls.
Steve Harper, retired base commander at Kingsley Field and former state senator, said "He is a hero in every sense of the word, and I just feel very grateful at the chance to know him. If I could be like him, if my children could be like him, I think it would be a better world."
Brace was a unique individual, the longest-held civilian prisoner of war of the Vietnam era. He met horrific circumstances with an inner courage and resolve that not only allowed him to survive, but encouraged others. He was a genuine leader in the word's highest sense.
Civilian POW Ernest Brace, held in cell next to John McCain in Vietnam, dies in Oregon at 83
His family said he died
of a pulmonary embolism on Friday in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where he retired in
Ernest Brace, longest-serving civilian Prisoner of War in Vietnam, dies at 83
Washington Post 12/10/2014
That period, he recalled in an account published on the POW Network Web site, would be ôspent mostly encaged in small bamboo cages, to be beaten ...
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