A year and a half later, Halyburton's "widow," Marty, answered a knock at her door to find six government agents holding out their credentials. Porter was alive.
After his aircraft had been hit by a surface-to-air missile, Halyburton's radio had been destroyed, and when he ejected, no Americans had seen his parachute floating down. But the enemy had seen it, and so began a terrible odyssey in places known as "Heartbreak Hotel" and "The Zoo."
Much has been told of the horrors endured by American POWs in Vietnam, and Halyburton's ordeal was typical in many ways. Like others, he spent long periods in total darkness, competing with hungry rats and roaches for the little bit of food provided. He was periodically beaten, paraded through the streets of Hanoi to be stoned and spat upon by angry mobs, and subjected to various forms of torture as the enemy tried to break his will.
Eventually the North Vietnamese devised a new way to break this native of the American South. They moved him out of solitary confinement to share a cell with another POW—a black man. Major Fred Cherry, U.S. Air Force, was the first African American to become a POW in North Vietnam, and the Vietnamese—knowing about the racial problems then plaguing America—believed that forcing a white Southerner to share a cell with a black man would be a fate worse than being alone.
It might have worked with lesser men. Cherry was descended from a Virginia slave, and Halyburton's forefathers had fought for the Confederacy. But the two men instead became life-long friends, each crediting the other with saving his life. They not only helped one another survive under incredibly arduous circumstances, they became role models for others as they proved that their shared humanity transcended all social and physical differences.
Seven years and four months after launching from an aircraft carrier named Independence , Porter Halyburton at last regained his freedom. He and Fred Cherry came home along with 589 other Americans. At least 84 of their fellow POWs did not survive the ordeal of captivity, but those who did return were hailed as heroes at a time when such accolades were not often given.
Porter Halyburton continued his career in the Navy. Today, retired, he still gives talks that, despite his soft-spoken, self-effacing manner, are soaringly inspiring and edifying. In the garden of his home beneath a grape arbor is the tombstone that once marked his "grave." With a wry smile, he tells visitors it is wonderful to be able to look down on it, rather than looking up.