YORBA LINDA, Calif. - U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Doug Burns was on a night reconnaissance mission searching for enemy trucks when he was shot down by antiaircraft fire and taken prisoner during the Vietnam War.
Burns broke three vertebrae when he ejected into a 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 whether he was alive or dead - and when he arrived home 61/2 years later, Burns learned his wife had left him for another man.
"It was hard to take, but that's what it was," said Burns, who is now 78 and remarried.
"You pay your money, you take your chances. There's nothing you can do about it," said Burns, who still walks with a pronounced limp. "At least I'm alive. There are a lot of guys who aren't."
On Thursday, Burns and 200 of those survivors, almost all of them former pilots, reunited for a three-day celebration at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and 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. Nixon resigned a little more than a year after the dinner.
"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 U.S. Marine Capt. Orson Swindle, who spent six years and four months in Hanoi prison camps.
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, a wreath-laying ceremony and tours of a special museum exhibit that focuses on the POWs' homecoming. Dozens of American flags poked through a sea of white hair as a band played "Stars and Stripes" and "The Star Spangled Banner."
The private Richard Nixon Foundation, which is hosting the event, has also re-created, down to the menu, the elaborate black-tie dinner that the president hosted for the POWs and their spouses 40 years ago this weekend. This weekend's special POW exhibit includes White House staff notes about the dinner that stressed the psychological importance of a menu of sirloin steak, fingerling potatoes, and strawberry mousse because "many POWs dreamed of good American food constantly" while in captivity.