Turning pages of her scrapbook Tuesday, Faye Schierman stopped when she saw a letter dated Sept. 12, 1971.
“I pray you had a grand anniversary Faye,” the letter said. The seven-line note had been impeccably handwritten by her husband, Air Force Maj. Wesley Schierman, during nearly eight years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
Since the death of U.S. Sen. John McCain on Saturday, news accounts of his life and legacy have highlighted more than five years he spent as a captive during the Vietnam War. While most Americans can’t imagine what McCain and his family endured, Schierman and her children know all too well — and will never forget.
“It was seven and a half years, almost a decade,” said Schierman, 81, who lost her husband four years ago.
At home near Everett’s Silver Lake, she talked about her husband, a retired Northwest Airlines pilot, who was 78 when he died of lung cancer Jan. 4, 2014. She recalled meeting McCain during a tour of the U.S. Capitol, decades after the future Arizona senator and her husband were held and hurting in Southeast Asia.
Wesley Schierman was a 30-year-old husband and father of two when his F-105 fighter-bomber was shot down. He ejected from the plane and was captured west of Hanoi.
“My dad was in 14 different camps,” said Steve Schierman, 56, who was 10 when his father and other POWs were freed on Feb. 12, 1973. His father, he said, spent 17 months in solitary confinement, and at times endured beatings and other forms of torture.
The worst of it, he said, involved his father having his arms tied with ropes, being hung from meat hooks and suffering dislocated shoulders. At one point during captivity, he dropped to 90 pounds from his usual weight of 165. He had ruptured eardrums and was sickened by beriberi, caused by a vitamin deficiency, and other illnesses.
After being moved to the Hoa Lo Prison, which while it housed POWs was dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton,” the men’s treatment became somewhat better, Steve Schierman said. The North Vietnamese captors became more accountable, and the Americans were better able to communicate with one another. His father encountered McCain during this time, he said.
Nearly four decades later, Wesley Schierman supported McCain’s 2008 run for president and introduced him at a campaign rally, said his son, who also served in the Air Force.
“From my family’s perspective, we admire how much he did for his country,” Steve Schierman said of McCain. An Alaska Airlines pilot who lives in Puyallup, he also met McCain at the 2008 rally. Describing McCain as extremely patriotic, he said “we feel for his family. I admire everything he’s done.”
Earlier this month, Faye Schierman attended the National Reunion of Vietnam POWs in Frisco, Texas, with her youngest child, Stacy Schierman. Now a pilot for Horizon Air, she was born in 1975, two years after her dad’s return to freedom. This year’s reunion marked the 45th anniversary of the POWs’ release.
Stacy Schierman’s mom and older siblings remember being elated to greet Wesley Schierman at Travis Air Force Base, north of San Francisco, in 1973. During his captivity, they lived in Spokane, near his parents’ home.
“I remember that day — just absolutely the best thing ever,” Faye Schierman said. “It was an incredibly happy day and time. We were very fortunate.”
The family spent about two weeks in California as Wesley Schierman underwent debriefing and physical exams.
The POWs were first flown to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Faye Schierman had only known for a couple of years that her husband was alive. For most of his captivity, he was listed as missing in action.
A Women Strike for Peace group had traveled to North Vietnam and brought back letters from the POWs. “It was verification he was alive,” Faye Schierman said.
Later, the International Red Cross arranged an exchange of letters. Faye Schierman has her husband’s letters plus pictures of their children that she had sent him. Those photos are marked with writing by his captors.
Sandra Schierman, now 57 and living in Tacoma, was 12 the day her father was freed. “He was on the first plane out,” she said. Nearly 600 American POWs were returned during what was called Operation Homecoming. She recalls seeing McCain at a POW reunion.
“I admired him because he truly was a patriot, and put country first,” said Sandra Schierman, who credits her mom for being her family’s strength during her father’s captivity. “She was an excellent parent when he was gone.”
Faye Schierman said her husband was wise and thoughtful after his return. “There were a lot of adjustments,” she said. Her husband vowed to simply observe their lives for a while. “He had a lot of time to think about it. I admired that,” she said.
In all the years since, she has received many POW bracelets marked with her husband’s name. They were worn by people he never knew as a sign of remembrance during the Vietnam War.
Wesley Schierman never lost his positive attitude, daughter Sandra said. “He left the house every day with a smile on his face,” she said. “He appreciated that freedom — anytime you can walk out that door and the door’s unlocked, it’s a good day.”
Steve Schierman believes McCain, his father and other freed POWs were alike in that way.
“When they came back, they didn’t want to look back,” he said. “They wanted to make the most of their lives moving forward.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@herald net.com.