Holding on to Hope

Local woman returns POW bracelet to veteran after 40 years fearing his death

By Justin Franz
POW on March 11, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

For more than 40 years, a small metal bracelet sat in Cheryl Buckham’s jewelry box. The stainless steel piece was engraved with black letters: CDR. EUGENE McDANIEL 5-19-67.

Buckham never met McDaniel and for years she assumed the man on the bracelet she wore in high school was long dead. That was until a few weeks ago when she searched his name on the Internet. It turns out, the U.S. Navy captain and pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 was alive.

“I was over the moon when I learned that he was still alive,” she said. “I was so emotional I couldn’t even sleep that night.”

Her discovery set into motion an effort to return the remembrance bracelet to McDaniel and finally meet the man she had prayed for all those years ago.

Buckham, now 60, grew up in Florida and came from a military family. In the late 1960s, as the Vietnam War became more divisive, Buckham and some of her high school friends decided to wear prisoner or war remembrance bracelets. Voices in Vital America, a POW support group, made remembrance bracelets by the thousands with names of service members captured overseas. Buckham’s bracelet had McDaniel’s name on it and she wore it on her wrist throughout the war, always keeping the missing man in her thoughts.

McDaniel was a native of North Carolina and after college joined the U.S. Navy’s flight program in 1955. He earned the rank of commander and was deployed to Southeast Asia in the mid-1960s aboard the USS Independence.

On May 19, 1967, while piloting his 81st combat mission over Vietnam, McDaniel and his “backseater” were shot down on a bombing mission. The two men survived, but were later captured by enemy forces. McDaniel spent the next six years in captivity. According to a book he later wrote about the experience, he was brutally beaten by his captors and was frequently held in isolation. McDaniel never saw his “backseater,” Lt. James K. Patterson, after being captured, and some believe the lieutenant was handed over to the Russians. Flight officers often held sensitive information that could be used during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Six years after he was shot down and captured, McDaniel was released and came home to a hero’s welcome in 1973. But news of McDaniel’s release never reached the Florida high school student who wore his name on her wrist. Buckham said she watched the news whenever she heard about prisoners of war coming home, but never heard updates about McDaniel and assumed he was dead. The bracelet was eventually placed in a jewelry box that Buckham took with her when she moved to the Flathead Valley in the 1990s.

Earlier this year, when leaving work, she noticed a pair of dog tags on a co-worker’s key chain. The observation started a conversation about missing soldiers and Buckham mentioned the bracelet she wore in high school. She told her co-worker she believed the man was long dead, but her colleague suggested she go online and search for his name on the Vietnam Wall. Much to Buckham’s surprise, McDaniel’s was not there. She searched the Internet some more and discovered McDaniel was alive and well, living in Virginia with his wife.

Buckham launched a plan to return the bracelet and reached out to P.O.W. Network, which forwarded the metal band and a letter to McDaniel, who is now 84. A few days later, Buckham received a call from the man whose name she remembered for four decades.

After his release, McDaniel remained in the Navy and served as liaison to the U.S. House of Representatives. He retired with the rank of captain in 1982.

“It was so moving (to get the bracelet),” McDaniel said. “This person has been part of my life for 40 years. She prayed for me by name and actions like that let me know that my service was appreciated. That I wasn’t forgotten.”

Buckham said she is thrilled to know that McDaniel is still alive and that it has been wonderful getting to know him and his wife. She is proud to have honored someone she considers a hero.

“This man had been through so much,” she said. “All veterans have.”