Grim account of the torture and isolation suffered by U.S. airmen taken prisoner in North Vietnam.
Townley (Spirit of Adventure: Eagle Scouts and the Making of America's Future, 2009, etc.) composes a complex historical narrative covering roughly 1965 to 1973, following two parallel elements: the experiences of POWs in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton,” contrasted with their families’ anguish and, more broadly, the American military’s declining fortunes in the conflict (and those of presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon). Operation Rolling Thunder, the Johnson administration’s initial air campaign against North Vietnam, resulted in a spike in downed aircraft and, ultimately, hundreds of prisoners; the North Vietnamese were determined to treat captured airmen as “war criminals” not deserving of Geneva Convention protections and to extract confessions from them for propaganda purposes. Townley focuses on “the Alcatraz Gang,” POWs who most resisted their captors, communicating covertly and documenting their torture in ingenious ways. “Their actions and unity not only ruined the Camp Authority’s plans,” writes the author, “but also enabled these men to keep their wits and self-confidence.” Meanwhile, at home, their wives at first kept silent about their husbands’ plight; the U.S. government “discouraged releasing any facts that might offend North Vietnam and disrupt the peace talks.” As they connected with each other, they became impatient with governmental inaction. By 1970, they had taken a more public profile, forming the National League of Families, demanding action from the Nixon administration and even facing North Vietnamese diplomats at the long-running Paris peace talks. Eventually, the POW cause "[bound] citizens of all politics to the servicemen fighting the war, even as more Americans turned against the conflict." But most of the narrative focuses on the POWs’ hellish daily experiences.
An inspirational yet grueling read that demonstrates the price some paid for patriotism in a different era and another unpopular war.