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Death Before Dishonor and Life After It : A CODE TO KEEP by Ernest C. Brace (St. Martin's Press: $16.95; 264 pp.)

February 28, 1988|William C. Creasy | Creasy served in the Marine Corps from 1966 through 1969. He teaches writing in the UCLA Writing Programs. and

Wednesday, July 27, 1966, 5 a.m.: Marine Corps recruit depot, Parris Island, South Carolina. We arrived from eastern inner cities and Southern dirt farms, high school kids for the most part; working-class and poor; blacks, whites, Hispanics. Mostly losers. In two month's time the Marine Corps ground us into submission, then rebuilt us in its own image. We were kicked, beaten, humiliated and nearly run to death, but we made it. And in the process we became Marines. As we stood in formation on the parade deck, gunnery Sgt. Spense, our senior drill instructor, faced us, drew his sword and snapped the salute. The early-morning sun flashed off the polished blade, and the Marine Corps Hymn filled the air. Our hearts nearly burst with pride. In a month, most would carry that pride into the jungles of Vietnam; in 20 years, most would carry it still.

A mystique envelopes the Marine Corps. For those who are part of it, and I am one, it's far more than military service, far more than something you do; it's something you are. The Marine Corps is steeped in tradition, in a sense of who it is. The very uniform reflects its identity: The red trouser stripe recalls the blood shed by Marines during the Mexican-American War when they stormed and occupied Chapultapec Castle, Sept. 14, 1849; the cross-hilt, ivory-grip Mameluke Sword worn by all Marine officers was first worn by Lt. Presley O'Bannon, who captured it from the governor of Tripoli in 1805; and throughout the world on Nov. 10, all Marines celebrate the birthday of the Marine Corps at Tun Tavern, Philadelphia, 1775. Marines share a tradition, a common heritage; and they share a motto, semper fidelis , always faithful.

On July 7, 1961, Capt. Ernie Brace broke that faith. A 14-year Marine Corps veteran and decorated fighter pilot, he walked out of a military court room at Quantico, Va., bearing the humiliation of a dishonorable discharge. Six months earlier, on a routine proficiency flight, he had crashed his single-engine T-28 and simply walked away from the accident. Heavily in debt and mired in domestic problems, it seemed an easy way out. He climbed out of the aircraft, tossed his parachute into a river, hid his flight suit, hitched a ride to Baltimore, and played dead. A week later, after his flight suit had been found, he turned himself in.

For the next few years he drifted from job to job until landing one as a pilot for Bird and Son, a CIA front company, flying supplies out of Thailand into Laos for the Royal Lao government's jungle war against the Communists. Landing at an airstrip in the Boum Lao valley on May 21, 1965, he was captured by the Pathet Lao and held prisoner as a CIA spy.

What follows his capture is the bulk of Ernest C. Brace's book, a harrowing tale of more than eight years as a civilian POW, first in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, then in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton." It's an extraordinary story of survival: bamboo cages, beatings, torture, physical and mental deterioration. Through it all, Brace clings to life, often by the thinnest of threads. Finally, on March 28, 1973--the last day of formal POW exchanges--he gains his freedom and returns home. He was America's longest held civilian prisoner of war.

"A Code to Keep" sets us up for a story of redemption, but it gives us a journalistic narrative of captivity, a chronicle of survival. True, for his courageous conduct as a POW--and it was indeed courageous--President Gerald Ford awarded Brace the Distinguished Service Medal, a full pardon for his earlier misconduct, and an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps. But it wasn't his quest to regain his honor that enabled him to survive years of captivity; the motive was far more mundane.

Although he makes occasional references to "behaving like a Marine," in the final analysis, Brace survived his ordeal through day-by-day, hour-by-hour effort, clinging to a thread of life because letting go is a worse alternative. Through it all, we never learn what it means to be a Marine who broke the faith, who was disgraced, and who came back home; we never learn what it means to be redeemed. We learn what it means to survive.

That's not to say that Brace doesn't tell a riveting story. He does. And he deserves our applause and admiration for surviving against extraordinary odds. But the real story lies hidden beneath the telling. We don't read "A Code to Keep," but "My Years as a POW."

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