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Ernest Brace, civilian Vietnam POW, dies at 83

Ernest Brace, a civilian who was captured during the Vietnam War while flying supplies for the CIA and who later tapped code through a wall to fellow prisoner John McCain, has died. He was 83.

Brace died of a pulmonary embolism on Friday in Klamath Falls, where he retired in 1989, his family said.

"He never wanted to leave a door unopened," his son, Michael Brace, said. "He just loved adventure."

McCain, a Republican U.S. senator representing Arizona, said he was deeply saddened by the death of his friend and fellow POW.

"As the longest-held American civilian prisoner, detained for nearly eight years in Vietnam, Ernie endured more cruelty and severe torture than any other captive during the Vietnam War," McCain said in a statement. "We developed a special bond that strengthened us both at a difficult time, helping us to survive together."

Born in Detroit, Brace joined the Marine Corps at age 16. After three years, he had learned to fly and made 2nd lieutenant. He won a Distinguished Flying Cross after being shot down during a bombing raid in the Korean War.

In 1961, Brace was court martialed for leaving the scene of a training flight crash. He went on to fly helicopters for Bird & Son, a private company under contract to the Central Intelligence Agency, carrying personnel and supplies into Laos.

He was captured in 1965 after landing his helicopter on a dry rice paddy in northern Laos.

"I saw a guy standing out there with a big automatic rifle with a bipod at one end," Brace told The Associated Press in 2000. "He had his fist up in the air. I smiled at him and shut down."

For the next 3 1/2 years, North Vietnamese regulars held Brace in a bamboo cage outside Dien Bien Phu — his hands tied, neck in a noose and feet in stocks. After an escape attempt, he was buried up to his neck for a week.

In October 1968, his captors drove Brace to a prison outside Hanoi known as The Plantation. On the second morning, he heard a tapping on the wall, the rhythm to "shave and a haircut." Brace replied with two taps for "two bits."

Brace scooted away from the wall after hearing more tapping, thinking guards had set him up. Then a slow tapping began. Brace deciphered a message to put his ear to the wall and for the first time heard the voice of McCain, a captured Navy pilot.

"When you are talking through a wall it's like a confessional booth," Brace told the AP. "You say things you probably would never tell anybody but in a confessional."

Over the next year, McCain taught Brace the tapping code and how to put his tin cup to the wall to speak through it. On Sundays, they would perform movies for each other. One of McCain's favorites was "One-Eyed Jacks."

Brace was released at the end of the war in 1973. He didn't actually meet McCain until a White House reception for POWs later that year.

Brace later worked for Evergreen International Airlines in Saigon and Sikorsky Aircraft in China. In 2000, he volunteered for McCain's presidential campaign, though Brace's wife supported George W. Bush.

Along with son Michael W. Brace of St. Petersburg, Florida, Ernest Brace is survived by his wife, Nancy, of Klamath Falls; a sister, Rose Bradford of Kearny, Arizona; sons Ernest W. Brace of Naples, Florida, Patrick C. Brace of Boston, and Cary C. Brace of Rapid City, South Dakota; and eight grandchildren.

Services were held Monday.

In this March 31, 1973, file photo, a boy places a Lei over the head of Ernest Brace before the returned POW departs for the U.S. from Tokyo. Brace died Friday in Klamath Falls. AP Photo