News: Ernest C. Brace awarded Purple Heart and POW Medals
Story by Cpl. Marcin Platek
KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. - In his seven years, 10 months and one week as a prisoner, Ernest C. Brace withstood sleepless nights and daily tortures - from being buried in the ground up to his neck to a mock execution. He attempted two escapes, which ultimately failed, and eventually attempted suicide.
Brace, a Marine during the Korean War era, is the longest-held civilian prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict. For his wounds and sacrifice, Brace received the Purple Heart and POW Medals at Kingsley Air Force Base here, Aug.16.
Brace was captured in 1965 by the North Vietnamese Army when flying as a civilian contract pilot for the United States Agency of International Development.
After his failed suicide attempt in 1967, he was transported to the Hanoi Hilton, a POW camp where many Americans were held in Vietnam. There, he met and shared a cell neighboring now-senator John McCain, one of the instrumental figures behind Brace’s awards.
Lt.Col. Kevin A. Williams, the inspector/instructor of 6th Engineer Support Battalion, who also pinned the medals on Brace, said that Brace never brought discredit upon his country and he remained tough. Brace credited much of this durability to his profession prior to his capture.
“The Marine Corps has trained me for that with the code of conduct,” said 82-year-old Brace. “I knew what to tell them and I kept telling people to live by that code.”
Brace began his Marine Corps career as an enlisted aviation radar and radio technician when he was 15, two years after the end of World War II. He decided to pursue a career as an officer and earned his commission on August 16, 1951, the day before his birthday. Exactly 62 years later he received his Purple Heart and POW Medals.
As a Marine aviator, he flew more than 100 missions during his tour in Korea. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his courage and initiative during the conflict.
“This is an example of what it is to be a Marine,” said Williams. He went on to state that Brace is another example of a man who exemplifies what America expects of her Marines.
Brace’s awards were a long time coming, said Robert Maxwell, a World War II Army Medal of Honor recipient who attended the ceremony.
“He’s a great person and a great American,” he said. “He earned these medals.”
The medals were first recommended by Adm. James B. Stockdale upon Brace’s return in 1973, but were put on hold because of his civilian status as a POW. However, the awards were resubmitted 38 years later by McCain’s office.
“It feels good to receive the awards as I have been paramilitary all my life and felt I deserved the medal back in 1973,” said Brace. “Over the years it has been re-applied for and turned down four times. These awards symbolize what I did. They mean quite a lot to me. It’s been an adventure, and this is sort of a reward for all those years of adventure I have been through.”
Since Brace lives near Kingsley AFB, he chose to be awarded there. But living by the motto “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” it was only right to have the medals presented by Marines, said Williams. He and a small group of Marines from 6th ESB set out from Springfield, Ore., to honor Brace.
“They could have had the Air Force to do it or Navy could have come here,” said Williams. “But we are Marines, and Marines honor Marines. It wouldn’t be the right thing to do to pass up an opportunity to take care of one of our own.”
Brace was joined by a theater full of friends, family, airmen, a number of local Marines from the Marine Corps League and members of the local Military Officers Association of America chapter named after Brace. Among the distinguished visitors sat Maxwell, who was there to observe a fellow veteran being honored.
For Maxwell and Brace alike, these awards mean more than their acts of heroism. They are memories of their selfless acts and sacrifice, but also of exemplary actions that are passed on to future generations.
“It means a lot of bloodshed and pain usually. Medals are, and I think I’ll quote Napoleon on that, ‘a thank you for a job well done and an example for others to emulate,” said Maxwell.
Williams stated that Brace received the two awards that nobody wants receive. He said that no one wants to be injured or held prisoner by the enemy. Even though being held as a POW for close to eight years, Brace's actions demonstrate what it means to be honorable no matter how bad it can get.