After enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1947, Ernest Brace thought he was going to be a simple radio technician in a calmer, postwar world. None of those things happened. He was sent to flight school for the Corps instead and was sent to Korea, where he became a dive bomber. After flying more than 100 missions, he left the military for the civilian sector, only to be shot down while running arms – over Vietnam.
He would be held captive in Hanoi for almost eight years, making him the longest-held American POW in the entire war.
Adm. Noel Gayler, right, greeted Ernest Brace in March 1973 on his release as a prisoner of war.
By the time he earned his flight wings as a mustang military officer, the United States was committed to the war in Korea. Marine Attack Squadron 121 and Ernest Brace were sent there to fight in 1952. Brace would be there for almost the rest of the war. He flew more than 100 fighter missions over Korea in that time, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for taking incredible surface fire while raiding a power plant. He crashed into the Sea of Japan, but was rescued by the Navy.
Having enlisted at age 15, Brace was only 22 when his time in Korea ended. He was sent stateside in Maryland to train when he abruptly ended his own military career. He was accused of trying to fake his own death by crashing a trainer aircraft into a cornfield. Brace allegedly wanted his wife to collect his life insurance payout. When his flight uniform and other articles were found, he turned himself in. He was soon court-martialed and out of the military. But good men the military could trust were hard to find in the middle of the Cold War, so Ernest Brace wasn’t grounded for long.
Brace after returning from captivity in Vietnam.
Brace began flying planes for Bird Son, a company that supported government operations in Thailand, as well as USAID operations in the region. Most importantly, Bird was a contract operator for the Central Intelligence Agency at the time. In May 1965, Brace was the pilot of a PC-6 Porter civilian aircraft that took small arms fire while on the ground in Laos. Unable to take off, he was captured by the Pathet Lao and handed over to the North Vietnamese. After being tortured and held in stress positions for years on end, he finally found himself in the notorious Hanoi Hilton prison. He had attempted escape numerous times but was recaptured every time. After attempting suicide, Brace was sent to Hanoi with the other high-value POWs. His neighbor in the cells got him through by teaching him the POWs’ tap code.
Though he never saw his neighbor’s face, they were crucial to each others’ sanity and survival. It wasn’t until the two men met after their release in May 1973 that Ernest Brace met Lt. Cmdr. John McCain face-to-face for the first time. Their first meeting was at the White House.
Just desserts for a man whose service to his country never ended.
During his captivity, Brace’s wife had accepted that he was dead and had since remarried. So when he met a nurse in San Diego Naval Medical Center and fell in love, he could marry her after his recovery. They were married the rest of his life and had three kids of their own. Brace lived to the age of 83, dying in 2014.