It’s not often that as you are reading book, you realize this is a story and characters who will stay with you the rest of your life. It’s even better when the story is true, and the characters are actual people, many of whom are alive today.
This was my experience reading “Defiant,” by Alvin Townley.
**I was provided a copy of “Defiant” for my review in exchange for my personal opinion.**
“Defiant” focuses on 11 Americans interned at the Hanoi Hilton, out of the hundreds of Americans being held and mistreated by the North Vietnamese. These 11 men were pegged by their captors as being the most unruly, the most obstinate – the most defiant – out of all the Americans they held. They were then singled out and transported to a smaller camp they called “Alcatraz,” to keep them away from the general population.
“Defiant” introduces us to each of these men – Jim Stockdale, Jerry Denton, Bob Shumaker, Harry Jenkins, Sam Johnson, George McKnight, Jim Mulligan, Ron Stortz, George Coker, Howie Rutledge and Nels Tanner – as they arrive at the Hanoi Hilton. All pilots who lost their planes, from the Navy and the Air Force. A couple of the men were in their 20s when they were captured. The rest range from mid-30s to early-40s.
For nearly a decade, these men endured physical and psychological torture the likes of which I’d only heard vague references to in the past. Every time they claimed their human rights under the Geneva Convention, their condition worsened as their captors were antagonized.
Meanwhile, their families were back stateside, waiting. Some of the spouses had the benefit of a visit from a military chaplain and commander’s spouse to tell them their husband was missing or captured. But some didn’t, they just knew their husband was gone and couldn’t get official confirmation from the government. All of them were told the same thing: “Keep Quiet.” Tell no one about your family’s situation. Don’t talk to the press, don’t tell anyone outside of immediate family (if you must even tell them), don’t even discuss it with other families on base.
The justification for this unofficial order was, supposedly, the Pentagon was afraid that news of the POWs’ capture would embolden the North Vietnamese to mistreat their prisoners and attempt to capture more. Their thinking was, if we don’t “embarrass” them on the international stage, they will have no motivation to mistreat the downed pilots.
With that spectre hanging over the families’ heads, they dutifully kept silent – for years.
Unfortunately, disgustingly, that wasn’t the case at all. Because the North Vietnamese were able to act without any outside scrutiny, there was nothing holding them back from brutalizing their prisoners. They refused to allow the POWs to refer to themselves as “prisoners,” only “criminals,” as in war criminals. And as war criminals, they were told they had no protection from the Geneva Convention’s ban on torture.
Some of the most famous stories from the Vietnam POWs, like the POW who blinked the message of “T-O-R-T-U-R-E” during a televised interview where he “confessed” to (false) war crimes and the one who confessed to committing war crimes under orders from Clark Kent, come from this group of men.
I’m not someone who watches Holocaust movies (never watched “Schindler” and never plan to), the “Saw” movies or anything that I know will involve gruesome depictions of gratuitous violence. Just not my thing. I agreed to read and review “Defiant” with hesitation. I knew it would be rough. Even after it arrived, I didn’t pick it up right away.
But then I did. And I am so glad.
This is one of the most inspirational non-fiction reads I’ve picked up in a while. “Inspirational” might seem like a strange word to describe the story of the Alcatraz 11 and their families, but it’s true. To read about the agonies these men endured physically, and what they overcame mentally, is breathtaking. And they didn’t only endure for their own sakes – hundreds of other POWs would credit the leadership of the Alcatraz 11 as instrumental in their own survival.
In the same way, the waiting families in the states fought their own battles. Imagine going years without knowing whether your loved one was alive or dead, and being told you weren’t allowed to share your burden with anyone else, even within the military community (yes, that’s right). Once they discovered they were alive, they were told again to stay silent and wait and hope for the best. The wives courageously disobeyed.
There came a point in the narrative where I suddenly realized, they’ve been gone for nearly a decade…but they do come home. They’ll come home to families that look different than when they left, many to children who don’t even know them. What kind of reintegration will that be like? How do you overcome 8 years of separation? The POWs’ faith plays an important part in that respect. When Howie Rutledge learns that his son became paralyzed through an accident during Howie’s captivity, his response to the news made me cry openly.
There were many opportunities for reflection while I read through the Alcatraz 11’s experience. Probably the biggest takeaway for me personally was being reminded that in the end, I am my soldier’s #1 advocate. The US government was on the path to pulling out of Vietnam without securing the return of our own POWs until the POW/MIA organization – formed by these POWs’ families – put the pressure on the Pentagon and White House to get firm commitments from the North Vietnamese government.
I’ve already gone on longer than I do for most book reviews, and I could continue with twice this much again. I loved “Defiant,” I will definitely read it again, and I strongly encourage each of you to grab it ASAP. It is time well-spent.