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Remembering Ross Perot

Former POW says he'll never forget the welcome home

H. Ross Perot attends a ceremony at Fort Bragg, N.C., on April 5, 2012.

RUSSELL KLIKA/U.S. ARMY

By Published: July 13, 2019

A few weeks after Orson Swindle returned home from Hanoi on March 6, 1973 – after spending more than six years in North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps – he picked up his phone and heard Ross Perot's high-pitched twang for the first time.

The only thing that Swindle knew about this rich Texan was that he had tried to deliver Christmas presents to American POWs behind the enemy lines.

Perot was calling to invite him and fellow former POWs of Son Tay POW Camp to San Francisco to meet Colonel Arthur "Bull" Simons and the Special Forces commandos who had tried unsuccessfully to rescue them on Nov. 20, 1970.

The raid had been perfectly implemented but a total failure because the military command didn't know that the prisoners had been moved a few months before.

But on that night, Swindle and the other 55 or so captives could see all hell break loose in the direction of their old prison camp.

"It dawned on us, 'Oh my God, that's a raid,' " said Swindle, who was later moved to the infamous H?a Lò Prison, a.k.a. the Hanoi Hilton, where he shared a cell with John McCain. "The thing that sealed it for us was when we saw flames from jets with twin afterburners. We knew those were F-4s, and the North Vietnamese didn't have any of those.

"Even though it was highly disappointing that we weren't going to be rescued, our spirits were sky high," Swindle recalled. "We knew they were looking for us, and we had not been forgotten."

When the POWs got home, people asked what they wanted to do first. "Many of us wanted to meet those guys who risked their lives coming to Son Tay to get us out," Swindle said.

Bring on The Supremes

Perot was offering that. He paid for the former POWs and their wives to fly to San Francisco and stay at the ritzy Fairmont Hotel.

"As we walk into the Fairmont, standing at the door inside is Ross Perot. I'm about 6-2, but I'm a very gaunt-looking guy. And he's a short guy. I shake his hand, and he said, 'Hello, Orson. Hello, Gail.' As was his way, Ross was well-prepared for most everything.

"He said, 'Get checked in. We're going to have a big party this weekend.'

"And we did.

"The Supremes were performing at the Fairmont [in the Venetian Room] that evening, and, Ross being Ross, he had them stay afterwards. We all sat around while the Supremes sang to us."

Ironically, Perot took the group on a cruise in the San Francisco Bay that circles Alcatraz.

"There was a band on this cruise ship, and we danced and had great fun. Ross was right in the middle of us, enjoying every single minute."

Swindle wishes he'd had a drone to record the interaction of POWS and raiders.

"Most of the raiders were 19-, 20-, 21-year-old youngsters. Then they had these really seasoned, tough leaders – I can't even describe how tough these guys were. They could've bitten nails in two, I'm sure," said Swindle.

"We were in total awe of each other. They made that sacrifice to come in and try to get us out. They in turn were amazed that we could go through what we went through."

Summer of craziness

Swindle and Perot became close friends.

The retired U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel and former Federal Trade Commissioner helped with Perot's 1992 presidential campaign.

"That was my crazy summer," Swindle said, referring to Perot's decision to withdraw from the race in July, which threw the independent party into an uproar.

In August, Swindle, the state coordinator for Hawaii, flew to Dallas for a big confab of the state coordinators.

"I walk into this group, and nobody knows me," he recalled. "I sit down in the back of the room. They're all up in arms saying, 'He can't do this to us.' 'He's gotta run.' I listen and listen. Things get more animated, and they're saying, 'We gotta force him to run!' "

When Swindle had finally heard enough, he stood up and asked how many of them actually knew Perot.

"I don't think more than one person raised a hand. I said, 'I do know him personally. And I love him dearly. And I wanna tell you one thing. You're not going to force him to do anything.'

"I always told people, 'If you want Ross to do something, you just sorta explain to him what you're thinking, let him mull that over, and he'll come up with his own ideas. But don't try to force him. That's not a good move.' "

That's what Swindle did. He met privately with Perot.

Perot re-entered the race in October.

And to those who think Perot cost George H.W. Bush the election, Swindle says hogwash. He believes that Bush lost primarily because he abandoned his base.

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