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Paul and Phyllis Galanti in PBS-TV's American Experience production of "Return with Honor" Monday at 9 p.m

Remembering POWs


I'll say right off that I'm biased on this one. I like these two people — Phyllis and Paul Galanti. I don't know them, at least not well at all, but like most Richmonders I got caught up in their story in the early 1970s. The Vietnam War was still playing itself out, and Lt. Cmdr. Paul Galanti, a U.S. Navy fighter pilot, was a prisoner of war in Hanoi. His A-4 Skyhawk was shot down in a bombing raid over North Vietnam on June 17, 1966. But it was his wife, Phyllis, who told Richmonders all about Paul's story and began a metamorphosis that, by the time I interviewed her, had led her to become the head of the 2,700-member National League of Families of POWs and MIAs. Early on, Phyllis had walked into the Richmond Times-Dispatch's newsroom straight out of a meeting with the governor and asked if the paper was interested in doing a story. It wasn't. Phyllis asked bluntly whether fashions and furniture were more important than the POWs, and left. A few hours later, a T-D reporter was asking for an interview and Richmond had its own, self-described "token POW wife." Richmonders got to know Phyllis well, in print, on the radio and on TV. She told us Paul's story to make us care. And it worked. More than 450,000 Richmonders sent letters in a "Write Hanoi" campaign to urge North Vietnam to release the POWs. What we didn't know then was what the POWs were enduring. It was worse than we thought. They were being kept in isolation. And they were being tortured. Paul and Phyllis Galanti show up in PBS-TV's American Experience production of "Return with Honor" Monday at 9 p.m. Using rare footage from Vietnam's archives along with present-day interviews with ex-POWs and their families, the program is a moving and stirring testament to the courage and strength of both. Paul Galanti sums up the documentary's essence — and justifies the city's pride in both him and his wife — when he recounts for the camera what he learned from his seven years' captivity. "Number one, I'm not as tough as I thought I was. Number two, I'm a lot more resilient than I thought I was. And number three, there's no such thing as a bad day when you have a doorknob on the inside of the door."

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