Alvin Townley salutes America's defiant heroes

Q&A | The Alcatraz Eleven were the most subversive prisoners of war in Vietnam
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 2/16/15, 03:30 pm

The most famous prison during the Vietnam War was the Hanoi Hilton, but it wasn’t the worst. Eleven defiant American prisoners, including a future senator and a future congressman, were such troublemakers at the Hanoi Hilton that their captors segregated them in a nearby prison they came to call Alcatraz because of the isolation there. Author Alvin Townley tells the story of these 11 men in the new book, Defiant.

Talk about some of the things these men were subjected to when they were in prison. What they were subjected to that was the worst was eight years of uncertainty. They were shot down in 1965. They all thought they would be home by Christmas of 1965. They were there through 1965, ’66, ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70, ’71, ’72. They didn’t come home until 1973. I know that was a long time for me to say that. Think about how difficult it was to live that. Not only just live it, but survive it with honor and survive it under circumstances that were as brutal and as nasty as any American serviceman has ever experienced in any conflict. 

Not only were they there a very long time, they felt really alone, didn’t they? Very much so. Really the North Vietnamese were not telling America whom they had captured. If somebody was missing, their family never knew until some point in the future if they were living or dead. The North Vietnamese tried to keep these prisoners of war (POWs) as lonely and as isolated as possible because they didn’t want them to be able to collaborate. They needed to get propaganda and intelligence out of these guys, and they knew that prisoners who could communicate were prisoners who would not cooperate. So they did everything they could to keep these guys separated. The POWs did everything they could to stay united and to stay in touch with each other.

Can you explain the system they used to communicate and how they came to adopt it? Imagine for a second the alphabet divided into a five-by-five grid, five across the top and five down the side. There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet, so you have to take away the letter K, and we’re going to use C for K.Across the top you have A, B, C, D, E. Down the side you have A, F, L, Q, V. To communicate a letter, you tap once to designate its row and then again to designate its column. B, for example, is one, one-two. C is one, one-two-three. … When you walked into the Hanoi Hilton when these guys were tapping, it just sounded like a bunch of very quiet small woodpeckers tapping. They could do this so quickly. Sometimes I think that my generation pioneered abbreviated text messaging. These guys were using “GM” for good morning and “GN” for good night.

They had one particular acronym that they often signed off with, which was “GBU.” What did that stand for? It stood, literally, for God Bless You. It meant a whole lot more. It meant, may God bless you, may God be with us. It also meant, I know what you’ve been through. I’ve been there too. We are going to get through this. We’re going to get home together. There were instances where guys came back from torture sessions and they had broken because everybody broke. They came crawling back to their cells and they were lying on these mats in these filthy cells crying. They didn’t even want to go home anymore because they had broken. They thought that they had soiled their honor, and they thought that they were the only person who broke. The guys would tell stories of hearing this tap come through the wall, GBU, and that gave them the strength to go on. That gave them the faith that they were going to be okay. 

You said all of them, at one point or other, were broken. How did they recover and not let that be the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning? They found themselves in this bizarre circumstance where the Geneva Convention did not apply. They were 7,000 miles away from home and there were no rules.

The reason the Geneva Convention didn’t apply was because it was an undeclared war? That’s right. The Americans were trying to get protection under the Geneva Convention, and the North Vietnamese, with some justification, said, it’s not a declared war and you’re a war criminal. … The North Vietnamese yelled at them, and they beat them up a little bit, but nothing too bad. Then, something happened in late 1965. We’re not sure exactly what, but Hanoi decided it needed more propaganda and more intelligence so they began torturing the prisoners. They would have the prisoners in these interrogation rooms, two of which are still there in Hanoi in the museum now. I’ve actually been in these rooms where all this happened. 

The POWs would be in pajama shorts sitting on the floor with their legs out in front of them with leg arms on, their hands being manacled behind their backs—not just handcuffed, but manacles so their wrists were locked together. This guy named Pig Eye would come in, and he’d take rope and he’d lace up their arms until their elbows touched. The POWs had never felt anything so painful before and they thought that was what was going to break them, but they were going to try to hold out a little bit longer. They found even with that much pain they could still hold on. They still would resist signing that confession, still resist saying that they were a war criminal. 

Then Pig Eye would come back and he’d [take] their arms and he’d pull their arms over the head, drive their nose down to their knees which are flat out, and these guys broke. Anybody would of broke. Nobody could handle that kind of pain. They signed those confessions. … They would go crawling back to their cells feeling absolutely dejected. They didn’t even want to go home anymore. Remember, when they got shot down they were injured immediately, most of them on the ejection. Within five minutes of ejecting, they had lost their weapon, their radio, their aircraft, their flight suit, their ring if they were wearing one, their watch. They lost everything except their name, their honor, and their faith. Those were the only three things they had left, and they were not going to surrender their honor without a fight. 

One of those men was Jeremiah Denton, who famously appeared on television in what was supposed to be a propaganda victory for the North Vietnamese. Instead, Denton expressed his support for the American government and blinked the word “torture” in Morse code under the bright lights. It was the first time Americans discovered what was really happening in the POW camps. Can you describe the extraordinary leadership by Jeremiah Denton and Jim Stockdale? They were the two highest-ranking Naval officers. They had been classmates at the Naval Academy. Stockdale was just a tad higher ranking than Denton, but really they would function together. At different times, Stockdale would be isolated and Denton would be isolated, and one would kind of step into the void. Future Air Force General Robbie Risner, who was also even higher ranking, he was isolated a lot of the time so he really couldn’t lead, but Stockdale and Denton were probably the two ringleaders, and certainly the most obnoxious. I’m laughing as I say that, but, at the end of the day, the North Vietnamese were prepared for POWs who would cooperate. They got the defiant POWs known as the Alcatraz Eleven, the 11 worst POWs. These guys just wouldn’t cooperate. They were obnoxious, they were uncooperative, and they were just relentlessly subversive. The North Vietnamese just didn’t know what to do with these guys. They were such good leaders, and they were just so maddeningly effective.

They actually ended up singling out these 11 and kicked them out. Five of the guys were senior Navy commanders. The other six were a smattering of malcontents and misbehavers and troublemakers.

In the book, you talk about the role the wives played. I want you to say more about that. Let me give you some context. I want you to imagine for a second you’re Jane Denton. You have seven children. You’ve been a military wife for 18 years. When your son tells you there’s a captain at the door, you immediately know that your husband is either dead or missing. You go down there, and there’s a captain, a minister, and the captain’s wife. In this case, with the Denton family, they said, “Jane, we think he’s alive. Let’s come in and talk about it.”

They came in, and she was obviously upset. They were telling her they were going to try and find him and see what was going on, but that regardless of what happened she shouldn’t say anything. She thought that was strange, but this was 1965. She had been a military wife for 18 years. She followed orders. 

All the wives followed orders until about another year or two, when they started getting some very ingeniously encrypted messages from their husbands. … These wives realized their husbands were not being well-treated like the government was telling them. The government was lying to them. They also realized negotiations were going nowhere and that if they didn’t take action, if they didn’t take responsibility for bringing their husbands home, nobody would. They really rose up and united America behind the idea of returning the POWs. For the first time, they helped America make a distinction between the politics of a war and the men fighting the war. For those people that have ever seen that black-and-white POW/MIA flag, that’s the symbol of one of the most extraordinary women’s movements in American history, and almost nobody knows it. 

These women who defied orders to stand up for their families emerged as heroes. They did. The title of the book is Defiant, and I think sometimes people seem to miss the fact that the women were, just as the men. That was really my intent with that title. It’s an extraordinary story about really reuniting with honor. The POWs use the phrase “return with honor” as their driving mission. But when you read the book, it’s really about reuniting with honor. It’s husbands and wives who are split apart, and they’re apart for eight years. During that whole time, the wives are trying their best to bring their husbands home and to get on with life, to make sure their kids can have dinner, make sure their kids are going through the teenage years appropriately. The husbands are trying to do everything they can so that when they come home—and they never stopped believing that they would come home. When they come home, they want to be able to stand in front of their wife with their heads held high and say, “Honey, you be proud of me.”

Can you tell me about the POWs’ return? After eight years, the POWs finally came home in February 1973. It was the first time America had ever welcomed home veterans returning from Vietnam. When the POWs came home, that, to America, was the end of this war that had dragged on for too long. It was a symbol; it was the final note of that war. 

America had come together around the POWs so much because of the wives. They had parades. They invited these POWs to come speak and to be part of events. The POWs thought it was wonderful, but they soon realized that most other Vietnam veterans didn’t get that reception. I think it’s really important for all of us to remember all the people that served in Vietnam. Whenever I speak, whenever I do interviews like I’m doing today, I always say, on behalf of me and on behalf of the POWs, welcome home and thank you to all the other veterans of Vietnam.

Listen to Warren Smith’s full interview with Alvin Townley on Listening In.

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. He previously served as WORLD's vice president and associate publisher. He currently serves as president of MinistryWatch and has written or co-written several books, including Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan to Change the World Through Everyday People. Warren resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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