YORBA LINDA, Calif. — Navy Lt. Commander Doug Burns was on a night reconnaissance mission searching for enemy trucks when he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire and taken prisoner during the Vietnam War.
Burns broke three vertebrae when he ejected into a flooded rice paddy and spent the first weeks of his captivity strapped to a concrete pallet and then months at a time in solitary confinement. His wife and three children didn't know for years if he was alive — and when he arrived home 6 1/2 years later, Burns learned his wife was leaving him.
"It was hard to take, but that's what it was," said Burns, now 78 and remarried. "At least I'm alive. There are a lot of guys who aren't."
On Thursday, Burns and 200 other Vietnam-era POWs, almost all former pilots, reunited for a three-day celebration at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum that coincides with the 40th anniversary of a star-studded White House dinner hosted by President Nixon to honor their sacrifice.
At the time, Nixon was embroiled in Watergate, but the former prisoners, now in their 60s and 70s, credit him with their freedom after nearly 600 were released in spring 1973. Nixon resigned a little more than a year after the dinner as he faced near-certain impeachment.
"He was a hero to us. He will always be revered by us as a group because he got us home, and we didn't know how we were going to get home," said retired Marine Capt. Orson Swindle.
Reminding Americans of that legacy — and not Watergate — will be front and center this weekend at the POW reunion, which began Thursday with a motorcade and military flyover.