Fighting on Two Fronts: As POWs Survived, Spouses Organized
During the Vietnam War, hundreds of U.S. service members were imprisoned by the North Vietnamese. They survived torture, disease and years of isolation. For one Virginia family, the experience would profoundly change the trajectory of their lives. 88.9 WCVE's Charles Fishburne has more in our series Vietnam: Virginia Remembers.
In June 1966, Phyllis Galanti received a telegram from the U.S. Military. Her worst suspicions were confirmed.
Paige Newman (reading telegram): I deeply regret, to confirm on behalf of the United States Navy, that your husband, Lt. Paul Edward Galanti, is missing in action in North Vietnam…
Virginia Historical Society Archivist, Paige Newman is reading the actual telegram from the museum’s rich collection of one of Virginia”s more remarkable stories.
Newman (reading telegram): Paul made contact with flight leader on emergency… and said he was surrounded by dogs and people with rifles…
The telegram sent to Mrs. Galanti, part of the extensive collection of her papers at the Virginia Historical Society. (Photo: Charles Fishburne)
Paul Galanti: I was captured almost immediately. They tied me to a tree and lined up like a firing squad and I kept looking around, wondering if I would see the bullet that killed me as they were doing it.
A Vietnamese commander interceded. Paul Galanti became a prisoner of war and spent the next seven years fighting to stay alive. Meanwhile, Phyllis was fighting to bring him home. Here, speaking before the Senate of Virginia, in this news footage, captured by WSLS 10, in February, 1971.
A photograph of Paul Galanti as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam on display at the Virginia Historical Society. (Photo: Charles Fishburne)
Phyllis Galanti: As you sit here today, in this heated room, in your nice clothes, with your well-fed and well-cared-for bodies, can you really comprehend what our men are going through, sitting in a prison camp for six or seven years? I think not.
Phyllis Galanti was leading the area’s “Write Hanoi” campaign; her efforts resulting in more than 750,000 letters to the North Vietnamese government. The following month, she boarded a plane to Stockholm, Sweden, to deliver the letters and try to meet with North Vietnamese officials.
Phyllis Galanti (recorded speech): I did things and went places that were out of a spy novel…
Phyllis Galanti described her experiences at the Virginia Historical Society in 2009.
Phyllis Galanti (recorded speech): I met with the Viet Cong, the Pathet Lao, The Vietnam Veterans Against the War…
She turned her efforts to Washington, meeting with President Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
Phyllis Galanti (recorded speech): And that meeting did take place in the oval office in May 15th of 1972.
In the Summer of ’72, she lobbied the national conventions of both political parties. In October, she was elected the League of Families Chairman of the Board. She appeared on Today, 60 Minutes, and NBC Nightly News.
During the Vietnam War, American citizens commonly wore bracelets like these in support of POWs. It was customary to mail the bracelet to the soldier when he returned home and hundreds of bracelets were sent to the Galantis upon Paul’s return in 1973. (Photo: Virginia Historical Society)
Charles Bryan, former President and CEO of the Virginia Historical Society:: What she did was truly amazing. She said she she never could have dreamed that she would take on such a public role.
Paul Galanti says he found out about this wife’s activism as a prisoner of war.
Paul Galanti: The camp commander says “According to you, what are your wife’s activities?” And I said, “how do I know they are activities, I don’t get any mail.” He said, “Ah! Maybe that is why you get no mail.” So, I wasn’t sure what she was doing, but he didn’t like it, so therefore, I did.
Bryan: Without her, the movement to liberate these men would have happened nearly as quickly.
On January 23rd, 1973, President Nixon announced there would be a peace agreement. Two weeks later, Paul Galanti was freed, along with hundreds of other prisoners of war.
Bryan: It was one of the few moments coming out of that war we could take pride in and we could celebrate.
A copy of the iconic photo of the Galantis on the cover of Newsweek on display at the Virginia Historical Society. (Photo courtesy: Virginia Historical Society)
Bryan: You need heroes, because you need to see someone who is willing to sacrifice for the good of something much larger than himself.
In the coming years, Phyllis Galanti continued her fight for prisoners in the Soviet Union and U.S. hostages in Tehran. Paul Galanti went on to serve as one of the Navy’s top Recruiters, a successful businessman, and Director of the Virginia Department of Veterans’ Services.
Paul Galanti: Some of our wars have been stupider than others, but if you ever ask an American soldier to do anything, it’s going to get done!
Clay Mountcastle, Director of the Virginia War Memorial: Exactly and we don’t always know why they choose to fight, but here, we like to hear their stories and they explain a little bit of that too us. You choose whatever stories or episodes you’d like to take…
The Education Center includes exhibits, rooms for classes and groups to meet and a research library.
Mountcastle: What we do here at the Virginia War Memorial is to educate the Commonwealth, to preserve our history, and to honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Phyllis Galanti and Admiral Tom Moorer, 1969. Moorer’s inscription reads “To: Phyllis Galanti – A wonderful young lady married to a great pilot and outstanding Naval Officer – their combined courage, dedication and fortitude set them on a plane above most citizens of our country. Best wishes and highest esteem – Tom Moorer, Admiral – Chief of Naval Operations.” (Photo: Virginia Historical Society)
Phyllis died in 2014 but not before she learned that this center, in honor of their service and sacrifice, would be named The Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center. Above a portrait of the couple engraved in stone is a quote from the man who spent 2,432 days as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
Paul Galanti: There’s no such thing as a bad day when there is a doorknob on the inside of the door.
Charles Fishburne, WCVE News.