Ernie Brace heard a steady tapping on the wall of his room on the second morning after he arrived at the infamous prison known as the Hanoi Hilton in October 1968.
Brace recognized the rhythm to a "Shave and a Haircut." He replied with two taps for "two bits." When the tapping resumed, he put his ear to the brick and mortar wall in what was then North Vietnam. That's when he first heard the muffled voice of John McCain.
What: Veterans for McCain Rally
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Medford Air Service, 4002 Cirrus Drive
"They had put me in a cell behind John," explained Brace, 77, of Klamath Falls. "He was in solitary and I was in solitary. We talked through the wall for about a year.
"You had to speak very softly because communication was very dangerous," he added. "If you got caught, the punishment was very severe."
After spending more than five years with McCain as a prisoner of war, Brace figures he knows the mettle of the presidential candidate.
"He's very courageous, very tough," Brace said. "He has a very good sense of humor and a great faith in others to do the right thing. He's not shy in saying what he thinks. I think he is the only one who can get us out of this situation our nation is in."
Brace is a member of the Vets for McCain group which will hold a rally Saturday afternoon at the Medford airport. Brace will talk about his years of confinement with McCain at the public event, which begins at 4 p.m. at Medford Air Service, 4002 Cirrus Drive, Medford.
Hailing from Detroit, Brace is a former Marine Corps fighter pilot who was shot down over North Korea in 1952. He was able to ditch the aircraft in the ocean and was rescued by friendly forces. Brace was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross during his service in the Korean War.
During the Vietnam War, he was a civilian pilot delivering military supplies to remote sites in South Vietnam and neighboring Laos. While landing in Laos on May 21, 1965, he was captured by the North Vietnamese Army.
For the next 2,868 days — nearly eight years — he was a POW. He already had spent more than three years in bamboo cages before being taken to Hanoi.
The nation's longest-held prisoner in the Vietnam War, Brace's story is told in his 1988 book, "A Code to Keep." In the foreword, written by McCain, the senator calls Brace a true American hero.
Brace was known for his penchant for trying to escape, efforts that brought him extreme punishment. After one failed attempt, he was buried in a pit up to his neck for a week. After another attempt, his captors beat him severely and placed his legs in stocks for two years. His hands were tied and his neck held in a noose.
Despite such treatment, Brace refused an offer of early release that was offered to him as a civilian. McCain, who was shot down in October 1967, also declined an offer of early release.
McCain taught Brace the tapping code and how to put his tin cup to the wall to speak through it.
"John helped bring me back to what was happening," Brace said. "I hadn't talked to an American in three years.
"We talked about our families, where we were from. We had our shoot-down stories, how we ended up where we were. When we exhausted those topics, we talked about old movies."
However, apparently because of their communications, the two were sent to another prison in Hanoi just before Christmas in 1969. The Hanoi Hilton included several prisons in the city.
"We were caught up in a communications bust — they took four of us out to another prison," Brace said. "They blindfolded us and put us in the bed of a dump truck. I never did see (McCain) because we were blindfolded."
In fact, they didn't see each other until they met at a White House reception for POWs in 1973 shortly after being released. Both would spend long months recovering in military hospitals.
"When we finally saw each other, we gave each other a hug and talked about what we had been through," said Brace, who now stumps for his old friend. "It was quite a meeting.
"He would make a great commander in chief," he added. "He's a very strong person."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at email@example.com.