AS FEATURED IN COCA-COLA JOURNEYS:
Through every war and call to military action, our country has been protected by special people that volunteer to risk their lives to defend our freedom. And through every triumph and return home, our communities have the opportunity to thank those men and women.
This Veterans Day, The Coca-Cola Company is extending a special “thank you” to a group of men and women that fought for freedom during a time of strife and contention. Coca-Cola will honor four of the remaining six Alcatraz 11 and their families tonight during a special recognition ceremony.
The Alcatraz 11 is a group of American Prisoners of War (POW) that survived over seven years of torture, isolation and oppression in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. George Thomas Coker, Jeremiah Denton, Harry Jenkins, Sam Johnson, George McKnight, James Mulligan, Howard Rutledge, Robert Shumaker, James Stockdale, Ronald Storz, and Nels Tanner were the leaders of the total 500 POWs imprisoned in the infamous Hanoi camp. And their wives left at the homefront to fight for their husbands’ freedom showed the same strength and courage for justice.
Author Alvin Townley illustrates their tales of hope, survival and honor in his latest book, Defiant.
“This story was actually untold," Townley recalls. "No story had ever really been told about them that captured the essential element: theirs is a band of brothers story."
Each of the Alcatraz 11 depended on his partners to get through the long seven years. "The real meat of the story comes in how these guys supported each other and encouraged each other and organized themselves to really fight back against this propaganda and oppression machine that this North Vietnamese camp authority was running,” Townley adds.
From escaping the prison, to uniting against the North Vietnamese capturers, to finding ways to laugh during their years of imprisonment, these men devoted all of their energy to survive.
Not only were these soldiers a united team, but the wives of these 11 POWs also banded together as well. Townley became fascinated by the story as he uncovered the efforts of these women.
“What made this story astounding was that three of the wives of the Alcatraz 11 POWs founded the National POW-MIA movement back at home," he said. "These women were being lied to by the government; they were being told not to say anything to anybody about their husbands’ situations. They did what they were told.”
However, around 1968, several of the wives began to realize that if they didn’t stand up, break regulations and start telling their story, then these 11 soldiers would be forgotten.
“So they started this incredible movement that brought attention to the plight of the POWs," Townley said, "and these women brought this divided country together” to bring their husbands, now prisoners of war, home."
And through their efforts and the hope of the POWs, 10 of the 11 returned home. And their story can now be brought to life through the pages of Townley’s book.
“These were the eleven POWs who led the resistance," he said. "These were the eleven POWs that were so subversive and uncooperative that the North Vietnamese actually kicked them out of the main POW camp.”
Hearing the story of the prisoners had a profound effect on Townley, who professes “I never dreamed my heroes would become my friends.”
Retired Lieutenant General Mick Kicklighter, current director of the Department of Defense Vietnam War Commemoration Team (DODVCT), will recognize this year as 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War during the ceremony honoring the Alcatraz 11. Townley notes of this event with The Coca-Cola Company, “I really want to welcome home our Vietnam Veterans.” The event will also honor the thousands of veterans employed by Coca-Cola.
The photo featured below was taken at the Coca-Cola event honoring the Alcatraz 11 this past Veterans Day.