Posts tagged with: vietnam

defiantIn 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.” (more…)

When I first went to work for former Mississippi Congressmen Gene Taylor, I was going through a file cabinet and spotted a thick folder with the name “J.C. Wheat.” I sat down and read through it. J.C. was the father of Marine Lance Corporal Roy Mitchell Wheat. The folder contained all the things Congressman Taylor had done in helping to pay tribute to J.C.’s son. A Naval ship was christened in Roy Wheat’s name in 2003.

I felt a little guilty for not knowing much about Roy Wheat after I found out what he did. He was killed in Vietnam in August of 1967. A portion of his Medal of Honor citation reads:

Shouting a warning to his comrades, L/Cpl. Wheat in a valiant act of heroism hurled himself upon the mine, absorbing the tremendous impact of the explosion with his body. The inspirational personal heroism and extraordinary valor of his unselfish action saved his fellow Marines from certain injury and possible death, reflected great credit upon himself, and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Wheat and his family have a story. I remember seeing an old haunting photo of his parents at his Medal of Honor ceremony from 1968, stoically posed, but obviously wracked by grief. I remember reading an article that talked about how his mother, a devout Christian, prayed for his safe return from Vietnam. Wheat, who was from the small community of Moselle, Miss., was like a lot of country boys across America. He was God-fearing, loved to hunt, and dreamed of one day owning his own cattle farm.

The Virtual Wall helps to tell the stories of the men and women who died in Vietnam. Many daughters and sons write heart breaking notes wrapped in tribute and grief to fathers they never knew or barely remember. Often, they plead for men who served with their father to reach out to them so they can learn something new about their dad. Like the monument in Washington it supplements, the Virtual Wall testifies to the cost of war.

There are more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. Other names include John Geoghegan, a great representative of the courage of the men who fought in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. Geoghegan was killed trying to rush to the aid of one of his men, Willie Godbolt. Godbolt’s name is next to Goeghegan’s. Casualties on the wall are listed chronologically. The story of the men of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Ia Drang is superbly depicted in the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young. A popular movie based on the book was released in 2002.

This Memorial Day we might also remember the courageous but tragic stories of the men who took to the dangerous skies over Vietnam. Men like Harley Hall, Earl Hopper, Jr., Michael Blassie, and Lance Sijan. They all have stories that are made visible by the Virtual Wall. Sijan, who was brutally tortured by his captors as a prisoner of war, died still plotting his escape while in an emaciated condition. Defiant to the end, Sijan is a symbol of the very best of American values, resistance, and courage. His life and sacrifice is immortalized in the excellent book Into The Mouth Of The Cat: The Story Of Lance Sijan, Hero Of Vietnam.

John Wheat, who is Roy’s youngest brother, was quoted in a news story a few years back saying how important it was to recognize Roy as a hero. But he wanted people to remember the cost. Holding back tears, his brother declared:

When you see a man there that’s 19 years old, and you can look in the casket and his shoes are at the end of it. And his pants legs is neatly rolled up. It’s, that’s when you realize what war is.

denton“We can add our testimony to that of great heroes like Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, who have vividly related what Communism is really about.” – Admiral Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr.

World Net Daily Books has republished the classic When Hell Was in Session, the chilling account of Admiral Jeremiah Denton’s almost eight years as a prisoner of war of the North Vietnamese (1965-1973). The book, cowritten with Ed Brandt, was reissued in November 2009 with a new epilogue. A naval aviator, Denton and his navigator Bill Tschudy were shot down over North Vietnam in 1965.

One of America’s greatest heroes, Denton became the face of the prisoners because of two events: he spelled out the word torture in morse code through eye blinks in a North Vietnamese propaganda film; He was also the first POW off the first plane upon their 1973 release. As he stepped off the plane at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, he spoke for all the former prisoners:

We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander-in-Chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America.

“Under difficult circumstances” was an understatement. Denton and his fellow military captives faced extreme torture and brutal beatings because of their insistence on following the military code of conduct and not giving in to their captors. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his hard line defiance against the North Vietnamese propaganda machine and his courageous leadership despite prolonged physical and mental agony.

Denton’s account is more than a record of his imprisonment and torture, it is a deeply spiritual chronicle about his unshakable commitment to America and its ideals. He wonderfully contrasts this with the evils of atheistic communism. It is also a window into his own heart, as he depicts his faith in God despite extreme suffering. Denton spent over four years of his captivity in solitary confinement, with his hands and feet in chains during much of that time. During one heinous torture session Denton declared:

I was nearing despair. I offered myself to God with an admission that I could take no more on my own. Tears ran down my face as I repeated my vow to surrender to Him. Strangely, as soon as I made the vow, a deep feeling of peace settled into my tortured mind and pain-wracked body, and the suffering left me completely. It was the most profound and deeply inspiring moment of my life.

Denton talks about how many of the prisoners embraced their faith and it was what sustained them in their captivity. It has been chronicled on the PowerBlog before in a review of General Robinson Risner’s The Passing of the Night.

The obvious reason that makes this account such a tremendous defense of freedom is because of the extreme price that was paid for defending it. But with words, Denton too is skilled in discussing the rarity of freedom and the significance of the American experiment. The updated epilogue discusses his work with President Ronald Reagan as a United States Senator from Alabama in defeating Marxist dictatorships in Latin America. In 1980 Denton was the first Republican elected to the Senate from Alabama since reconstruction and also the first Roman Catholic. In the new epilogue Denton offers a defense of the founding principles of the nation and laments the moral decay and secularization of America. He calls these factors a situation that is making America’s survival “extremely perilous.”

In his book there is another contrast that depicts his shock about the moral and cultural decline of America. After he left the Navy much of his work has focused on defending religious liberty and working to deliver global humanitarian aid through the Admiral Jeremiah Denton Foundation. 85 years old now, Denton spoke at The National United States Marine Corps Museum in February of this year, where he quoted the Marine mottoSemper Fidelis,” in telling the assembled to stay faithful in the fight for the future of this country.

When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, that event visibly marked the collapse of a Communist ideology that had oppressed, tortured and killed millions for decades. But now, 20 years later, Communist authorities are once again taking aim at an old target — the Christian Church. Samuel Gregg looks at the alarming persecution of Roman Catholics in Vietnam in his commentary, “Corruption, Communism, and Catholicism in Vietnam.”

Gregg articulates the horrifying reasons for the continued persecution that Catholics in Vietnam are subject to:

Some of the reasons for this treatment of Vietnam’s Catholic Church are historical. Vietnam’s rulers are acutely aware that Catholics were among the most committed anti-Communist Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Many Vietnamese also identified Catholicism with French colonial rule.

This background, however, is of marginal significance in explaining the violent crackdown presently being experienced by Catholics throughout Vietnam. Put simply, it’s about government corruption.

Catholic clergy and lay Catholics are not the only target, but the property of the Catholic Church is also emerging as another target for the government:

In late 2008, for example, Vinh Long provincial officials announced their intention to “appropriate” the land of a convent of nuns which also functioned as an orphanage in order to build a hotel. More recently, land in Hanoi that the government itself acknowledges has been owned by a Catholic monastery since 1928 was simply given over by the state for residential construction.

In an era where religious tolerance is becoming more widely accepted it is disheartening to see corrupt governments still persecuting the faithful.

Colonel Robinson Risner 1973 – Retired as Brigadier General in 1976

“I want to show that the smartest and the bravest rely on their faith in God and our way of life,” was Robinson Risner’s answer to why he wrote The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese. 2008 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of American prisoners of war from North Vietnam and the publication of Risner’s often horrific but ultimately triumphant account.

Many books written by and about American military prisoners during the Vietnam War focus on the deep Christian faith of many of these captives. Their prayers and cries to God depict desperate circumstances, but also a sustaining and unwavering faith in the face of horrendous torture and cruelty. Risner’s account expresses a beautifully simple faith. By simple I mean he absolutely believed in the power of prayer and for God to give him strength to endure his dark trial. He notes in his book:

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.

Risner was shot down twice over North Vietnam. He was captured the second time in September of 1965 and taken to the Hanoi Hilton. As a senior ranking officer Risner was marked for additional torture and solitary confinement while in prison. Eventually he would spend a number of years in solitary confinement.

Risner was also featured on a Time Magazine Cover in April of 1965 as an American pilot serving in Vietnam. Risner’s picture on the cover of Time undoubtedly contributed to his abuse and the resolve of the North Vietnamese to break his spirit and beliefs. The North Vietnamese felt he was a celebrity figure in America, and breaking him would lessen the resolve of others who looked to him for leadership. Senator John McCain, the most well known prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton, credited Robinson Risner as one of the leaders who helped sustain him and that Risner would always be a hero to him.

Risner and other senior officers orchestrated a campaign of resistance to limit and sabotage the use of military prisoners for propaganda purposes and to maintain a military posture and morale all despite continued torture. Risner showed his resolve after spending 32 days in stocks attached to his bed, and forced to lie in his own waste. When he was brought to his first torture session his arms were bound and his shoulders were pulled out of his sockets. Then his feet were hoisted up behind him, and his ribs were separated. Risner tried to slam his head against the cement in order to knock himself out because the pain was so unbearable. Risner describes the pain as incredibly horrific and the screams were so deep and vicious he did not think they were his own.

He discusses a time when he was in stocks for so long he had to get out and by prayer he says he was able to unlock them. Another time he prayed for the annoying prison speaker to stop its incessant noise and it ceased. Risner’s book is full of fascinating stories and the will of so many American fighters to always resist in whatever way they could. He talks about the importance of communication, the tap code, and how it saved lives.

Risner was especially adroit at showing little emotion when the North Vietnamese tried a carrot and stick approach. In fact, when American prisoners finally felt like they were going to leave for real after being informed, they showed no emotion. They would not give their captors the satisfaction. (more…)

With respect to the extension of political, economic, and religious freedom, East Asia contains some of the more challenging spots on the globe. I’ve commented in the past on Korea and China. It seems safe now to place in the column “making progress” a nation that had been one of the most totalitarian, Vietnam.

Concerning the sphere of religious freedom, Zenit offers this interview (Daily Dispatch 01-25) with French Archbishop Bernard-Nicolas Aubertin of Tours. Aubertin characterizes the situation of the Catholic Church in Vietnam thus: “Things are really progressing, slowly, perhaps, but advancing.” Here is one question and answer:

Q: The last visit of French bishops to Vietnam goes back to 1996. On your return, did you express admiration for the progress made by and for the Catholic community of Vietnam? Ten years later, do you feel that a step forward has been taken?

Archbishop Aubertin: Personally, I did not take part in that trip then, but I have visited Vietnam since 1990. And this trip, at the beginning of December, was my eighth stay. I have had the opportunity to witness enormous changes.

It is obvious that the Christian, the Catholic community, has greater possibilities of expression. Little by little, seminaries have authorization to reopen. Not all, of course, but there has been a change from contingents of extremely regulated seminarians to a much greater openness. And, little by little, a certain number of confiscated buildings and goods have been restored. Not all: We are still very far from that. But, little by little one can see that they have been restored to the Church.

Moreover, permissions have been given to build churches. The building of seminaries is permitted and authorizations for ordinations have been granted quite abundantly. All this shows that the Church is moving toward a much more favorable situation.

Concerning economic development (at the grassroots level), there’s this story.

But there’s also this, which indicates that progress is slow and uncertain.