On Nov. 29, 1970, 43 U.S. servicemen gathered in the Hoa Lo prison compound, often called the “Hanoi Hilton,” and performed an act of retaliation — a church service.
Nine days earlier, after a failed attempt by U.S. Special Forces to liberate the prisoners, the North Vietnamese captors had removed them from their cells and incarcerated them in a single holding area. For several men, it was the first face-to-face encounter with friends they had made through tap-code communication.
The first Sunday after they were removed from their cells, they attempted to hold a church service but were threatened with severe punishment. Seeing the men’s disappointment, then-Lt. Cmdr. Edwin A. “Ned” Shuman — a naval aviator who would spend five years as a POW and who died Dec. 3 at age 82 — stepped forward. “I want to know — person by person — if you are really committed to holding church,” he said, asking each of the other 42 men for support until he achieved a unanimous commitment.
The following Sunday, they tried again. This time, Cmdr. Shuman, the highest-ranking officer in the group, began to lead the soldiers in the Lord’s Prayer. The guards quickly grabbed him and took him away to be tortured.
The remaining officers continued reciting the prayer in unison, drowning out the shouts of the North Vietnamese guards who were beating them with gun butts.
“Forty-two men in prison pajamas followed Ned’s lead,” recalled retired Col. Leo Thorsness in his memoir “Surviving Hell: A POW’s Journey.” “I know I will never see a better example of pure raw leadership.”
From then on — until the men were released with other long-serving POWs as part of Operation Homecoming in 1973 — they held a weekly church service.
“It was the first confrontation of the camp’s regulation,” said Everett Alvarez Jr., a naval aviator who was held as a POW for 8 ½ years by North Vietnam and at one time served as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. “For those of us who were religious or spiritual, it was a very important part of our morale, optimism, and overall, it was a part of our survival.”
Edwin Arthur Shuman III was born on Oct. 7, 1931, in Boston. His father, a retired Navy captain, was a sailor and a yacht designer. The son was a 1954 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and he retired as a Navy captain after 34 years in the military.
Capt. Shuman died at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Maryland. The cause was complications from a fall he suffered on a boat on his way to a goose hunt, said his wife, Donna Shuman.
Ned Shuman flew 17 combat missions in Vietnam before his bomber was shot down north of Hanoi on St. Patrick’s Day 1968. When he ejected, he broke his right arm and shoulder. His injuries, poorly treated at the North Vietnamese prison, left him with a disfigured hand and permanent nerve damage.
Then-Lt. Cmdr. Shuman spent the first 17 months of his incarceration in solitary confinement. He told the Baltimore Sun that he figured he lost about 50 pounds on a prisoner’s diet of watery soup. In a written account, he recalled his punishment for attempting to talk with another prisoner:
“I . . . was beaten for four hours, off and on, with a rubber whip . . . followed by sitting on a stool or kneeling on the floor with my arms strapped behind my back for six days and nights.”
Elsewhere in his account, he wrote, “I learned to detest Communists in general and North Vietnamese Communists in particular, and everything they stood for.”
He was awarded the Silver Star, one of the nation’s highest military honors. According to the award’s citation, his captors “subjected him to extreme mental and physical cruelties. . . . [But] through his resistance to those brutalities, he contributed significantly toward the eventual abandonment of harsh treatment by the North Vietnamese.”
Capt. Shuman’s decorations included the Legion of Merit, three awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross, two awards of the Bronze Star, two awards of the Purple Heart and an Air Medal.
Among the POWs close to him at Hoa Lo prison was a future U.S. senator and presidential candidate, John McCain, R-Ariz. “I am deeply saddened by the death of my dear and beloved friend Ned Shuman,” McCain said in a statement. “It was an honor to be in the company of a true hero.”
After the war, Capt. Shuman became a squadron commander at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach and worked at the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk. He ran the Naval Academy’s Sailing Center from 1978 until 1982. His final active-duty assignment before his retirement in 1984 was commander of the Naval Annex in Bermuda.
Capt. Shuman, an accomplished sailor, won the 1979 Transatlantic Race from Marblehead, Mass., to Ireland, and he was the skipper of the 54-foot ocean racer Alliance during the disastrous 1979 Fastnet race, in which 15 yachtsmen were killed in a treacherous storm in the Irish Sea. Only 85 of 303 boats — including the Alliance — managed to complete the race.
His memberships included the Golden Eagles, an elite aviation organization, and several local and international yacht clubs, including the Annapolis Yacht Club and the Storm Trysail Club.
His first marriage, to the former Eleanor Sue Allen, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 35 years, Donna Horton Shuman of Annapolis; three children from his first marriage, Edwin A. Shuman IV of Crownsville, Md., Mary Giardina of Virginia Beach and J. Brant Shuman of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; a stepson, Robert Borte III of Pasadena, Md.; three sisters; two brothers; nine grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Capt. Shuman tried not to reflect on his time spent in captivity. “It’s not productive to dwell on bad things that happened in the past,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 1991. “Being a prisoner of war is not supposed to be a picnic, and it wasn’t. There isn’t a society in the world that doesn’t mistreat prisoners, including ours.”