NEW YORK TIMES – SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW
Limits of Endurance
‘Defiant,’ by Alvin Townley
By LINDA ROBINSON
JAN. 31, 2014
Alvin Townley, the author of books about naval aviation and Eagle Scouts, has written a gripping account of the “Alcatraz Eleven,” a group of American prisoners of war in North Vietnam who formed a tough core of heroic resisters despite brutal and relentless efforts to break them and convert them into fodder for the Communist propaganda machine. Readers of even passing acquaintance with the Vietnam War will most likely know of Jeremiah Denton’s televised 1966 interview — one of the first glimpses of the life of United States military pilots who had been shot down and captured. American viewers watched in horror and puzzlement as Denton, an emaciated, hunched figure dressed in gray prison garb, defiantly telegraphed the word t-o-r-t-u-r-e by blinking out the letters in Morse code. His brave act was followed by yet more torture, and some time later Vietnamese authorities bundled him along with 10 other men out of the infamous Hanoi Hilton, as Hoa Lo prison in the North Vietnamese capital was known (and where John McCain, probably the most famous P.O.W. of the war, would be held). The destination of the Eleven was an even filthier hellhole a few miles away, which they nicknamed Alcatraz.
The Vietnamese strategy was to separate the individuals who were organizing the other captives to form a united front of resistance. By means of an elaborate code transmitted through knocks and coughs, and through scrolled messages tucked in buttocks or hidden in showers or latrines, the prisoners made plans and bolstered failing spirits after torture sessions had caused some to capitulate and sign letters or make broadcasts. The instruction they had received in their survival training was to hold out as long as body and will allowed, and to resume resistance after any breakdowns.
The leader of the Eleven was Navy Cmdr. Jim Stockdale, the senior officer. He endured unspeakable suffering — which he gallantly made light of when he and the nine other captives were freed in 1973 after the Paris peace accords were signed. (One of the Eleven, Ronald E. Storz, died in prison in 1970.) Stockdale warned his wife that he had a new stride, not mentioning the damage to his left leg from the crash of his A-4 Skyhawk and the subsequent abuse by his captors. Among other horrors, “Defiant” recounts how Stockdale, after days-long bouts of torture, slashed his wrists in an attempt to die rather than give up the names of his fellow plotters.
Most of the 11 prisoners have published memoirs, and histories have extensively documented their heroism and suffering, but Townley’s telling of these important stories is fresh and vivid, thanks to his interviews with surviving prisoners and their family members. “Defiant” is an excellent book for younger readers with little knowledge of this searing chapter in American history, when a brash United States stumbled its way deeper and deeper into the Indochina morass.
Townley also adds an important, and often overlooked, dimension to the prisoners’ stories — that of their wives’ campaign at home to thrust the plight of the P.O.W.’s into the national spotlight. The policy under Lyndon Johnson was to keep the issue quiet to hasten progress at the peace talks, but Stockdale’s wife, Sybil, was not to be trifled with. Brushing off W. Averell Harriman’s bland reassurances, she and the other wives increasingly gained the courage to speak up, ask questions and demand answers. Sybil Stockdale rallied the other wives to form a national organization for the families of P.O.W.’s and M.I.A.’s that commanded widespread media attention and became a powerful force that continues today. In a memorable scene, Henry Kissinger asked Sybil, “What did you do to my general?” after she dressed down Gen. Alexander Haig, the chief of staff, and demanded to see Kissinger himself. Richard Nixon’s defense secretary Melvin Laird supported the women’s efforts, and his deputy assistant secretary Richard G. Capen supplied the women with whatever information he could gather. Along with telegram-writing campaigns, the women helped promote the sale of silver bracelets stamped with the names of those captured and missing — linking citizens with their compatriots who fought and now languished in their name — and compelled a country not to forget.