In an age where words like “courage” and “bravery” are often tossed about casually, a new book captures the immense heroism and resolve of 11 American POWs during the war in Vietnam. Alvin Townley closes his new book Defiant with these words, “Together, they overcame more intense hardship over more years than any other group of servicemen and families in American history. We should not forget.” Townley easily makes that case by telling their stories and expanding on previous accounts by including the battle many of their wives waged to draw attention to their plight back home.
Defiant focuses on the Alcatraz 11, captured servicemen who were isolated by the communist North Vietnamese in a prison they nicknamed “Alcatraz.” Like many early POWs, these men were tortured. But they faced unimaginable cruelty with steely resistance. Before they were moved to Alcatraz, they were all pivotal leaders at Hoa Lo Prison, reinforcing the Code of Conduct and communicating through the tap code. At a staged propaganda news conference in 1966, Naval pilot Jeremiah Denton was able to blink out in Morse Code the letters T-O-R-T-U-R-E, allowing the American government to know for the first time the horrific conditions inside the prison. The aviators were beaten with fan belts, kept in stocks and leg irons, tortured with medieval rope devices, and locked away in isolation for years. In his book, When Hell Was in Session, Denton proclaimed, “We can add our testimony to that of great heroes like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, who have vividly related what Communism is really about.”
Townley’s book does a masterful job of weaving the stories of these men together to portray how their courage and resistance exemplified, to the highest degree, the principles of freedom. James B. Stockdale, the senior officer of the 11, like other tortured prisoners, was permanently crippled by his captors. His defiance continually inspired those imprisoned with him. Stockdale quoted Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim about the men under his command, “A certain readiness to perish is not so very rare, but it is seldom that you meet men whose souls, steeled in the impenetrable armour of resolution, are ready to fight a losing battle to the last.”
On the home front, many of the wives of the POWs challenged the American government’s ineptitude in dealing with the imprisonment of their spouses. Their organization, in large part led by Sybil Stockdale, helped to build a national campaign which saw the rise of the first bracelets worn for a cause and challenged a somewhat more sympathetic Nixon administration to engage the issue. Their work raised the vital issue of the mistreatment of the POWs on a national stage. That fact coupled with the resistance of hardliners like those locked away in Alcatraz, would lead to more humane treatment in the future. Sadly, Ron Storz, an Air Force aviator, died in captivity at Alcatraz after years of brutal torture by the North Vietnamese.
Townley has written a monumental book about some of the most courageous men in American history. Vietnam has opened up in the last few decades. Americans can visit the country relatively easily. But just a few decades before that, many American aviators who were shot down over the skies of Vietnam were brutally tortured and tormented by an evil and sadistic communist regime. One of the strengths of this account is that Townley stresses the Christian faith of these men. Many of them recovered that faith during years of isolation and torture. In his book The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese, Robinson Risner declared:
To make it, I prayed by the hour. It was automatic, almost subconscious. I did not ask God to take me out of it. I prayed he would give me strength to endure it. When it would get so bad that I did not think I could stand it, I would ask God to ease it and somehow I would make it. He kept me.
Finally, though, the pain and aching increased to where I did not think I could stand it any longer. One day I prayed, ‘Lord, I have to some relief from this pain.’ I quoted the Biblical verse that He would hear us and that we would never be called upon to take more than we could bear.
They memorized verses from the Bible to sustain them and many of the prisoners believed they were in a holy war against godless communism. Townley touches on a particularly inspirational story how they fought their communist captors for the right to worship publicly because it was their right and not something to be merely tolerated. The values they held may seem lost to many Americans today, and I think many of the readers of this account will realize the loss of those values carry a heavy price. Men like Jeremiah Denton, Bob Shumaker, and Howie Rutledge were locked away so long that they came back to a very different America, struggling to define a common purpose.
Townley is terrific at telling this complex, often sad, but heroic story. By retelling their years of suffering, he captures a sacrifice that seems unimaginable, until you comprehend the ideals and character of the men behind it. Defiant is a reminder of the power and discipline of free people who are committed to liberty and defending higher truths. In his 1973 homecoming, Stockdale stepped off the plane, after enduring years of isolation and torture, and told the assembled:
As that Athenian warrior and poet Sophocles wrote over 2,400 years ago, ‘Nothing is so sweet as to return from the sea and listen to the raindrops on the rooftops of home.’