He’d scribbled the lyrics and music of a hymn on rough toilet paper, using a fish bone whittled to a fine point and red ink concocted from medicine in a diarrhea pill.
Quincy Collins of Charlotte, a fighter pilot whose plane was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965, was marking his fourth year in a North Vietnamese POW camp. Morale was awful and Collins had assembled a POW choir to raise spirits. While the guards were away, they’d practice his “POW Hymn” in a latrine.
Four years later, Collins was among the first 75 American POWs to be released.
And on May 24, 1973, the eve of Memorial Day weekend, President Richard Nixon brought nearly 600 POWs to the White House for a star-studded dinner. The president gave one request: Sing Collins’ hymn.
“As we sang, I could feel President Nixon watching,” said Collins, now 81, who directed with his back to the president.
Since then, the choir had been silent – until Friday night, 40 years after that White House performance, when Collins reassembled about 15 singers in his former POW choir. They once again sang his one-verse hymn during a dinner at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif.
The dinner was the highlight of three days of events to mark the 40th anniversary of the POWs’ release, brokered by Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.
Among 200 former POWs in the crowd were other Carolinians: Porter Halyburton, who grew up in Davidson; Al Agnew of Mullins, S.C.; Tom McNish, who grew up in Franklin; Jim Hiteshew of Pikeville; Hank Lesesne of Charleston; and Dick Vaughan of Summerville, S.C.
The private Richard Nixon Foundation hosted the event and recreated the dinner down to the silverware and menu.
For Nixon, embroiled in the spiraling Watergate investigation, the 1973 dinner was a much-needed distraction.
For the POWs, it was an opportunity to thank the president for ordering the Christmas 1972 bombings that ultimately led to their release.
“We were all glad to be home, but we were aware that the president played a large part in our release,” said Collins. “We saw him in a different light.”
In many ways, Collins was a metaphor for most of the POWs during the Vietnam War. Of the 725 POWs, the bulk were pilots shot down over North Vietnam.
All were the cream of the U.S. military. In their bleak surroundings, they saw life in its rawest form. Isolation drove some to attempt suicide. They heard screams they still hear. They communicated by tapping on walls. They survived by the honor code: convincing themselves they’d one day walk out with honor.
At 33 when he was captured, Collins was among the oldest – a father of three young sons.
He grew up in Concord and joined the Air Force after graduating from The Citadel.
In October 1964, he was sent to Thailand as part of a squadron of F-105s that escorted reconnaissance planes over North Vietnam. Months later, he moved to Saigon in South Vietnam to plan the first F-105 missions in the escalating conflict.
On his 13th mission, Sept. 2, 1965, 80 miles southwest of Hanoi, he was over his target when the first explosion hit.
Flames erupted in the cockpit. Lights flashed. He felt another explosion and ejected.
“The next thing I know, I’m sitting on the ground and four (North Vietnamese) militia guys are squatting down and grinning,” he said
His left leg was smashed in three places, his arms burned. His captors lashed his arms and legs to a pole, wrapped him in a net and carried him out of the jungle.
They shuffled him between a prison in Hanoi the POWs called the Hanoi Hilton, a nearby prison called “The Zoo” and another prison, Camp Faith, for the better food it served.
Harassment came daily; torture unpredictably. He wasn’t allowed to write home the first five years.
At The Zoo, Collins formed his first choir. At Christmas 1967, the choir members were bound and blindfolded and taken to another prison to perform. Collins started with a solo of “O Holy Night,” but changed the lyrics to get a message to prisoners: “We are all here at The Zoo / 170 guys like you and I / Hang in there and have hope.”
His captors never caught on.
A Cuban photographer shot the holiday service. The Air Force took photos to Concord to show Collins’ family. After nearly three years, his parents and younger sister, Carolyn, knew he was alive.
Solace in song
In early 1969, Collins and other POWs were taken to Camp Faith, where the soup had bits of meat, not just swamp weed or cabbage.
They thought the enemy was fattening them up to send them home.
Instead, after a failed rescue attempt at another POW camp 5 miles away, the guards herded Collins and the others into trucks and sent them back to the Hanoi Hilton.
Collins formed another choir, and wrote more hymns. One Sunday in 1970, he began to sing a new arrangement he’d written of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and, one by one, the 50 men who shared his cell joined him. Collins tried to lower their volume, but in their eyes he could see it was of no use.
“Nothing could stop them,” he said.
That won Collins nine months in isolation.
When he came out, his captors welcomed him with his first letter from home. It was from his mother, written two years earlier. She reported that his father had died.
Suddenly on Dec. 18, 1972, American B-52s began carpet-bombing Hanoi.
After the North Vietnamese broke off peace negotiations in Paris – refusing to release the POWs – Nixon ordered the bombings to force them back to the table.
The bombing went on for 11 nights.
“The bombs were blowing within half a block from us,” Collins said. “We’d hit the deck, as the ceilings of our cells began peeling off and falling down. We were scared, but happy it was happening.”
On the 12th night, Dec. 29, the bombers didn’t come. The North Vietnamese had agreed to return to Paris and the peace talks.
By the end of January, the Paris Peace Accords were signed.
Their provisions included a cease-fire on Jan. 27, a withdrawal of U.S. troops – and the release of American POWs.
Airborne at last
For Collins, that day came Feb. 12.
Among the longest held, he and 21 other POWs were bused to the Hanoi airport.
They formed two lines.
Then one by one, they approached a table manned by the prison’s chief officer who the POWs called “Rabbit” because of his big ears.
Rabbit spoke fluent English and, one by one, called the POWs to sign a paper.
When Collins approached Rabbit, he looked the prison supervisor square in the eye and said: “You know, the best part about this is that I’m leaving, but you have to stay.’”
Collins didn’t wait for a response and ran to an Air Force officer. He boarded a plane with about 70 other POWs.
“We began rolling down the runway, and I was praying ‘Lord, please don’t let anything go wrong with this aircraft,’ ” Collins said. “Everyone waited for that moment that the plane lifted off the runway.
“When it came, we went berserk – yelling, hugging screaming and congratulating each other to be alive.”
Collins had dropped to 122 pounds (from 170) and was suffering from amoebic dysentery when he left Vietnam. After four days at a hospital in the Philippines and a night in Hawaii, he arrived at Travis Air Force Base in California with no family there to greet him.
Instead, in a room with psychiatrists and nurses, he was given a “Dear John” letter from his first wife explaining she no longer wanted to be married to him. He was a stranger to his sons – and they to him.
“That was my greeting,” Collins said. “(She) and my sons were a big part of what carried me through 7 1/2 years. I’d sit and plan for the future. There was no future.”
Instead, he flew to Atlanta to be with his mother and sister.
There he received an invitation from the White House to a dinner on May 24 to celebrate the POWs’ homecoming. Collins took his sister.
It had rained hard for three days in Washington. The dinner was under a tent on the White House South Lawn.
Bob Hope emceed. John Wayne spoke and Sammy Davis Jr. sang. The event was capped by 85-year-old Irving Berlin leading the audience in his most famous work: “God Bless America.”
But perhaps the evening’s biggest hit was Collins and his choir of 35 singing POWs.
“Sorry, we didn’t have time but for one rehearsal – in the men’s room at the Statler (Hilton Hotel) this afternoon,” Collins told the crowd.
Then he turned to direct his choir. They sang his “POW Hymn” that he’d scribed with a fish bone and diarrhea pill. Afterward, Nixon leaped onto the stage and ran after Collins to shake his hand.
On Friday, Nixon’s daughter, Tricia Nixon Cox, spoke. So did POW advocate Ross Perot. And the POW choir sang Collins’ hymn again – uplifted 40 years later by the power of the words.
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