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The Alcatraz Gang: Eleven American POWs in Hanoi’s Notorious Camp

Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison,
the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned

Alvin Townley (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2014)

Picture yourself locked “in a dimly lit, windowless concrete box, approximately nine feet long by four feet wide,” with a bamboo mat and a bucket, one or both of your ankles locked in irons, left there like a caged animal. Now imagine spending two years there, alone—the isolation interrupted only by routine interrogation and occasional torture sessions, some lasting days—and you are getting close to describing the experiences of a handful of American prisoners of war whose North Vietnamese hosts had designated them as troublemakers. These were the men of Alcatraz.

In all, more than three hundred and fifty American servicemen were being held captive by North Vietnam when US involvement ended in 1973. Few tales of American valor are as dramatic and gut-wrenching as those of the Vietnam-era POWs, some of whom were held for eight years, twice the length of US involvement in the Second World War. Defiant, by Alvin Townley, whose previous book chronicled the world of US Navy aviation, is the story of eleven of these captives whose leadership and resistance to their captors’ treatment, including efforts to use them for propaganda purposes, caused the North Vietnamese so much trouble they were rounded up, blindfolded, and removed to a special prison they dubbed Alcatraz. They would spend two years there, isolated from the main group of American prisoners, segregated even from one another, forbidden to communicate amongst themselves, and tortured repeatedly for their refusal to capitulate. According to a camp functionary they nicknamed “Rabbit,” the Alcatraz Eleven were the “darkest criminals who persist in inciting the other criminals to oppose the Camp Authority.” We would call them heroes.

Related Essay

In Hanoi, Going Forward and Backward

It was eerie to enter Vietnam’s airspace for the first time this past October after entering it in my imagination many times since America was at war there so many years ago. I was cruising in the comfort of a well-appointed Vietnam Airlines Airbus cabin, attended by a pleasant and efficient crew. But I was thinking about another plane in another time—an A-6 Intruder attack jet flown by my father, Navy Commander Jerry Denton, who entered this same airspace on July 18, 1965, for what turned out to be a rendezvous with destiny.

Some of the men featured in this book would become public figures. Commander Jeremiah Denton and Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Johnson would later be elected to Congress, and Commander James Stockdale would later be Ross Perot’s vice-presidential running mate in 1992. Others, such as Air Force Captain Ronald E. Storz, whose Cessna L-19 observation plane was forced down on the wrong side of the inaptly named demilitarized zone, are less well known. Some were senior officers, some junior, but all were united in their determination not only to survive but to do so with honor and dignity by refusing to be subjugated or used by their captors to propagandize against their own country.

 

The eleven men profiled in Defiant were aviators from both the Air Force and the Navy. As such they accepted risk as a part of daily life. One study from the 1950s estimated that there was a twenty-three percent chance a Navy aircraft carrier pilot would die in a crash during his service. It takes a certain breed to face that challenge. Lieutenant Commander Robert Shumaker, one of the figures in this book, found that as a naval aviator he had “a code to live.” As Townley writes, “He and his shipmates heard a call to duty and they answered, volunteering despite the risks and hardships of aviation. They also craved the rush of adrenaline like their white-collar counterparts needed their morning coffee.” This same spirit fueled their resistance to their captors.

Each prisoner enters the scene with a short biography—family background, life in the military, and the inevitable mission that ended when his aircraft was shot down or otherwise disabled and he parachuted helplessly into captivity. Defiant draws out the sense of contrast in the transition from aerial warrior to helpless prisoner. Jim Stockdale “remembered flying imperiously over the paddies and jungles of Vietnam, the nation of peasants who still farmed with oxen, who fought in sandals, and whose weaponry, he thought, would never down a pilot like him in an airplane like an A-4 Skyhawk. Yet they’d bagged him.” Bob Shumaker, after bailing out and realizing there was no way to escape capture, reflected that an hour earlier his “Crusader had roared over the waves firmly under his control. Now, he huddled in the scrub brush of a third-world country, dirty, out-gunned, unable to speak the language. With no realistic options, he raised his hands.”

The flyers wound up at Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, named for the pottery kilns that had dotted the neighborhood before the French colonial administration cleared the area to construct the massive prison in the late nineteenth century. Hoa Lo could also be translated as “hell hole.” Shumaker gave the prison the name that stuck in his first secret note left for a new prisoner in the decrepit bathhouse they all shared: “Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton.”

The POWs’ resistance was framed by a post–Korean War Code of Conduct in which members of the military pledged to “continue to resist by all means available” if captured, and to “keep faith with [their] fellow prisoners.” They were allowed to give their interrogators only their name, rank, serial number, and birthday, known as the Big Four, and were to “evade answering further questions to the utmost of [their] ability.” The code had been written after American prisoner discipline and morale had broken under harsh treatment at the hands of the North Koreans and Chinese. The men profiled in this book had been trained to know what to expect if they were captured, and taught some survival and resistance techniques. Yet no training could have prepared them for the real-life horror of captivity.

 

North Vietnam was a signatory to the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, but the Communist government in Hanoi claimed that the rules for humane treatment of prisoners did not apply in “undeclared wars of aggression,” and thus apparently felt free to treat American prisoners in the most barbaric fashion. They were given barely edible food (in one case, the guards purposefully mixed excrement in the soup) and their wounds were allowed to fester. They were kept isolated from the outside world, given no reliable news, and no mail from home, except when used as an incentive to cooperate by the Camp Authority. Sometimes the jailers would employ softer methods, such as three-hour “re-education” lectures. But the more common method of persuasion was physical torture.

“No training, no briefing, no experience, no imagination, prepared Harry for such agony,” Townley writes of one of the many torture sessions, this one endured by Commander Harry Jenkins. “The pain became a ferocious devil unleashed inside his body.” The prisoners were often at the mercy of a thuggish guard called “Pigeye,” a specialist in the limits of human pain and endurance “who would extract more screams from the Americans in Hanoi than any other individual.”

He would bring a prisoner to the point of blacking out, often by contorting his body with ropes. Then, just before his victim would pass out, he would release the constraints in a way that not only denied the prisoner the relief of unconsciousness but also rushed the constricted blood back into his veins, bringing a burst of new and searing pain. “The US military’s meticulously-developed resistance training then became irrelevant,” Townley relates, this time about Commander Howard Rutledge, “as Pigeye wrapped Howie with his grimly effective ropes and beat him with bamboo rods.”

Townley’s descriptions of the diabolical techniques employed by the North Vietnamese are graphic, detailed, at times even clinical. The reader finds it hard to grasp how the prisoners survived such sustained torment. It is inspiring how these men resisted to the limits of their endurance. Yet they could not win. They eventually gave the enemy information beyond the Big Four, insignificant and often comically false biographical or other militarily useless details. But their “confessions” were enough to make them feel like traitors, which was what the Communists really wanted. Through savage beatings, Jim Stockdale was forced to sign a propagandistic denunciation of the war, illustrating that the true purpose of breaking the men’s bodies was to break their spirits.

 

The POWs relied on each other to survive and resist. They shared their experiences with each other when they could—how they were savaged, and what they had given up to the enemy. They purged their souls, and forgave each other. When it came to survival, there was no judgment among these men. They believed that resistance to the point of death would make sense only if the alternative meant they would commit genuine treason. Indeed, when POW Sam Johnson persisted in a hunger strike that was slowly killing him, Jerry Denton said to him, “Sam. I’m giving you a direct order. Stop the fast. Don’t hurt yourself.” Johnson obeyed, and years later these two prisoners would be elected to Congress together, as would another former POW, John McCain.

Even locked away in solitary confinement in Alcatraz, the POWs were able to communicate by tapping on the walls. Since the enemy knew Morse code, they used an alternative developed by Korean War POWs called the tap code. “In the conflict that was to come,” Townley writes, “few things would prove more valuable . . . to every single American who would arrive at the Hanoi Hilton.” Since they could communicate, they could plan, organize, and resist. The tappers used shorthand similar to abbreviations used today in text messages, sometimes as a means of economy but also to convey deeper meanings. The sign-off GBU for example, from “God bless you,” also conveyed, “I know you’ve been tortured, I understand your situation, and I know what you’re going through.” It said, “I know it’s not easy, but we’ll make it.”

POWs also communicated with notes left in the bathhouse written with stolen pencils, bamboo shards and ink, or old matches. At another prison, Cu Loc, nicknamed the Zoo, prisoners found ways to bore small holes in the dilapidated walls to communicate by speaking or pushing through notes. The jeopardy was that snap inspections could turn up important documents before they could be swallowed, which would lead to more punishment.

The prisoners did what they could do to stay organized, cohesive, healthy, and motivated. It required resourcefulness, and entailed risk. Not every POW was up to it—when the troublemaker prisoners sent to Alcatraz returned to the Hanoi Hilton after twenty-five months of solitary confinement, they found a number of those left behind had not kept up the resistance. They soon reinstilled a sense of discipline and purpose among the other prisoners, bolstered by the legitimacy of having survived an ordeal worse than theirs.

 

Defiant also tells the stories of the POWs’ families, the wives and children who held life together on the home front. They did not know the full measure of the suffering their men were undergoing. Many did not even know whether they were alive. Beginning a few years after US involvement in the war started, the North Vietnamese began to cruelly keep the names of captives secret so the government would be neither accountable nor responsible for returning them alive after the war. It was often not clear whether someone identified as missing in action was in fact a prisoner. Sybil Stockdale’s first indication that her husband was alive came from an article in the Soviet newspaper Pravda.

Others knew that their husbands were captured. Jerry Denton, for example, was shot down and captured in July 1965, at a time when the North was inclined to trumpet such news. But this was little consolation to his wife Jane when she and her children watched a taped interview of him broadcast on the national news in May 1966. He was a gray, emaciated shell compared to the proud naval aviator they remembered. Still, Denton’s interview defined the resourcefulness and bravery of these men. In the weeks preceding his interview, Denton was subjected to barbarous torture sessions to ensure that he would propagandize against his country for the North Vietnamese cause in his upcoming media session. Townley recounts how Denton blinked continuously in the interview, pretending to be adjusting to the television camera lights. He was actually sending a message back home by repeatedly blinking the word T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code.

The blinking was clever, but Denton’s answers to the Japanese reporter interviewing him were heroic. When asked about US war policy, he replied: “I don’t know what is happening but whatever the position of my government is, I support it—fully . . . Whatever the position of my government is, I believe in it, yes sir. I’m a member of that government and it’s my job to support it and I will as long as I live.”

“Because of what he’d just said,” Townley tells us, “he didn’t think he was going to live much longer.”

The POWs’ wives coped with keeping their families together emotionally and in other ways. (Sybil Stockdale had to fight the slow-moving Navy bureaucracy to keep her husband’s paychecks coming.) Over the years the families became better organized and put pressure on the government to highlight the plight of those being held in North Vietnam. President Richard Nixon took up the banner in late 1969, and the POW wives organized the National League of Families in 1970 with the support of Senator Bob Dole. The league was so effective in raising awareness of the POW issue that it even attracted support from antiwar Democrats.

Discussing the families, Townley tells the stories of two enduring symbols of that era: the POW/MIA flag, designed by World War II veteran Newt Heisley, and the aluminum bracelets bearing names of the missing and imprisoned. The latter were based on bracelets made by Montagnard tribesmen in the Vietnamese highlands in hopes the Americans would not forget their friends in the fight against the Communist North. The POW/MIA bracelets became very popular over time; remembering the Montagnards did not.

 

In 1973, most of the POWs came home. Of the Alcatraz Eleven, one, Ron Storz, did not survive. Their stories of captivity, begun almost a half-century ago, seem otherworldly in retrospect, taking place in the context of a poorly understood conflict in primitive, inhuman conditions. But there are strong strains of contemporary relevance. One is the implicit contrast between how the North Vietnamese treated their American prisoners and how the United States deals with detainees today. The prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, dubbed the “American Gulag” by people who apparently have never read Solzhenitsyn, is a Caribbean paradise compared to the Hanoi Hilton. It is the only prisoner of war facility in human history in which the inmates gain weight. The Americans in “Alcatraz” maintained their solidarity and identity by whistling “America the Beautiful” and undertaking other gestures that could earn them beatings. At Guantánamo, detainees were handed Korans upon their arrival, along with daily prayer schedules.

Defiant is a significant document of human survival and endurance under unspeakable circumstances, and, in a time when the White House levels charges of torture against fellow Americans, provides a reality check. People who use the word torture so promiscuously and with such carelessness should read this book and get to know Pigeye.

James S. Robbins is the author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.

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