The Improbable Survival Story Of The Defiant “Alcatraz Eleven”

There is a new book out about those who endured and survived the POW camps of North Vietnam. It is called Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned. Because I am in the habit of watching C-Span’s Book TV on the weekends, I happened to catch a book reading by the book’s author, Alvin Townley.

Townley is a young man — he was an infant when the Vietnam War ended and the POWs were finally released and came home. He has written other books about naval aviation and The Eagle Scouts, but he became fascinated by the POW story. This book is a very insightful and respectful account of eleven of those POWs who were collectively called the “Alcatraz Eleven.” These were the leaders of the POWs in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” or Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, including the Jeremiah Denton, whose continued resistance first confirmed the torture of U.S. prisoners. Because of their leadership in organizing a united resistance by their fellow POWs against their captors, they were eventually removed from the Hanoi Hilton and were sent a few blocks away to another, even more filthy, prison that the POWs nicknamed, Alcatraz.

US POWs let out a collective cheer as their plane prepares to depart Vietnam.

Dark Cells, Darker Days

Alcatraz was worse, if one can imagine, than the horrifying conditions at the Hanoi Hilton. When these eleven resistance leaders arrived at Alcatraz, they were all put into solitary confinement in dark, windowless, 9-foot long and 4-foot wide cells. These eleven men all possessed strong personalities. Because of this, they found numerous and unique ways to resist their captors. Among other things, they created a unique code using 25 letters of the alphabet, minus the letter “K” set up in a 5X5 grid square, that could be tapped out by knocking on their walls or patterns of coughing. They would scroll up messages, place them between their buttocks, and leaving them in hiding places in the latrines. More importantly, they supported each other, especially after torture sessions where some of their numbers had given in and signed letters that the North Vietnamese had composed for propaganda purposes, or made broadcasts. Their instructions: resist as long as you can hold out physically, and then to resume resistance after they had recovered.

The truth is that they all did give in at some time. The torture was beyond our comprehension. One of the early POWs felt somewhat confident during his first interrogation thinking that, in line with the protections of the Geneva Convention, all he was required to do was give his name, rank, serial number, and date of birth and his captors were required to treat him humanely. The North Vietnamese told him that they had heard of the Geneva Convention, but they were not going to abide by it. Torture became a regular event for these men.

Add on to the physical pain the loneliness, the isolation, the fear for your life, or of ever getting out of that place, and the possibility of never being able to see your loved ones again, and I don’t know how any of us could survive that, much less, have the gumption, the intestinal and emotional fortitude to continue to resist. Sadly, one of the eleven would not come home. Ronald E. Storz died in that prison in 1970. You will learn about him in this book as well.

US POWs at the Hanoi Hilton under the constant watch of their North Vietnamese captors.

Heroes on the Home Front

Townley tells their story with power, clarity, and with a profound respect for these men in this new book. You will read about these eleven men with a renewed appreciation for their kind of courage and endurance. But you will also read about their wives and how they fought for their husbands here at home.

Navy Commander, Jim Stockdale’s wife, Sybil, proved to be as feisty, courageous and determined as her husband. Townley tells of how she would not take no for an answer, that she faced down the biggest names in government at the time, refusing to remain quiet about her husband. She organized the other wives and demanded answers as to what was happening to them and what the government was doing to help them. They organized the POW/MIA movement, and gained necessary media attention concerning the plight of their husbands and calling for action by the government on their husbands’ behalf. They finally started to get some in the government to pass on whatever information they had.

“I could tell that he feels very close to them after having spent so much time with them listening to their stories.”

I was impressed with Alvin Townley’s, knowledge of and relationship with the POW survivors and their families as I watched him read from the book and answer questions from the audience. I could tell that he feels very close to them after having spent so much time with them listening to their stories. There have been other books written about this period and these men. Indeed, many of the Alcatraz Eleven have written memoirs. The word is that this book sheds new light, even greater intimacy, and new details to what these men and their wives endured while they were being held in that prison in North Vietnam. I intend to buy this book and read it soon.

We can not appreciate enough what these men endured during their captivity, nor can we thank them enough for what they showed us about nobility, moral character, and courage. God bless them and their families.

Images Top: Hanoi, North Vietnam, American servicemen, former prisoners of war, are cheering as their aircraft takes off from an airfield near Hanoi as part of Operation Homecoming, 02/1973 (National Archives). Bottom: Exterior view of the prisoner of war camp (“Hanoi Hilton”), 01/01/1973 (National Archives).

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