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Niece ensures uncle's time as POW in Vietnam secured in D.C. so others can learn
Content originally published by the Denver Post on November 25th, 2015.
By Catherine Elsby
ARVADA —Kathrynn Mann of Arvada knew the trove of wartime documents she found was special.
But she didn't know just what to do with the notes her uncle took in a Vietnam prisoner-of-war camp.
Now, thanks to her, the details of the five years Air Force Col. John Stavast spent in the Hanoi Hilton will be available to scholars and historians via the Library of Congress.
"The magnitude of this was overwhelming to me," Mann said. "The more I read about his time in prison, the more I thought, 'How could you do this to my Uncle John?' To my family, he was Superman."
She was just 14 years old when Major John Stavast (his rank at the time) was shot down over Vietnam on Sept. 17, 1967.
The Denver native was flying an RF-4C with the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron when his plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile. Stavast lost control of his aircraft and had to bail out at 20,000 feet.
Captured, Stavast was taken to the Hoa Lo Prison, or what the American POWs commonly referred to as the Hanoi Hilton.
"He was a prisoner the whole time I was a teenager," Mann said. "I didn't really know what was going on with him. I didn't know about the conditions of the torture — it's heart-wrenching, heart-breaking."
Held captive for five years and six months, Stavast was released on March 14, 1973. He documented his time in prison, much to Vietnam's dismay.
"Having a piece of paper to write on was a big deal — it was considered contraband," Mann said. "He had to keep it hidden."
Stavast was creative and used toilet paper and flattened cigarette boxes to take notes.
In April of this year, Mann received a phone call stating what she, and the rest of her family, hadn't known: Her uncle's notes were still intact.
Stavast died in 2004. When his wife, Shirley Stavast, passed away in April, the Stavasts' close friends in Austin were entrusted with disposing of her belongings. They uncovered "an unbelievable treasure trove of stuff," Mann said.
"In July, I went to their house in Austin," Mann said. "They started bringing down all these boxes ... there were thousands and thousands of papers."
Amongst the boxes was the original letter Shirley Stavast received stating that her husband was missing: "It is with deep personal concern that I officially inform you that your husband, John E. Stavast, has been missing in action since September 17, 1967."
Another notable item was a piece of toilet paper with a list of POWs over whom John Stavast was in charge as a senior ranking officer — amongst them John McCain, who went on to serve as a U.S. senator.
Recognizing the importance of these artifacts to our country, Mann decided she could not keep everything herself.
"This is really cool stuff, really neat," Mann said. "It doesn't belong in a box in the closet."
Mann contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, an Arvada Democrat, to see what to do with the records.
"She connected with us and said, 'Hey, I have all these things from our uncle, somebody should want these things,' " Perlmutter said. "We said, 'Absolutely!' This is something the Library of Congress would go nuts for, and we contacted them and they did go nuts."
Perlmutter is thrilled about the impact Stavast's documentation will have.
"They will have preserved, both in written form as well as other artifacts, what it was like to be a prisoner of war in Vietnam, which can only be described as the most difficult of circumstances," he said.
Bob Patrick, director of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, is ecstatic that Mann entrusted them with Stavast's items.
"This man's findings are absolutely remarkable," Patrick said. "The release of the POWs and the way those men served this country was incredible. They were viewed as noble in what they did. They showed great fortitude and strength. It's going to be a great resource in this archive."