Louie Zamperini, the indomitable hero of the newly-released film Unbroken, has inspired thousands of Americans in countless ways. And over a memorable dinner and quiet lunch together in California, this World War II prisoner of war inspired me to find a POW story that, for too long, the dark shadow of Vietnam had unfairly hidden.
Beyond those shadows, I discovered the “unbroken” heroes of that less-celebrated war – the eleven resolute POWs who led the American resistance in Hanoi, and their courageous wives who united a polarized nation in support of their husbands. Together, these men and women endured the longest and harshest single deployment in U.S. military history: eight long years of torture and uncertainty, of defiance and faith. I would spend three years coming to know them; never has America had such a band of brothers and circle of sisters. Never have such heroes and heroines gone so under-recognized.
In early 1965, American POWs begin filling cells inside North Vietnam’s infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison. They assumed their country would free them by Christmas. In fact, these men would solemnly mark eight Christmases in Hanoi – each spent cold and hungry, many spent beaten and bloodied. Five hundred POWs would eventually join those first captives. Eleven determined officers would ultimately lead them home.
To extract information and propaganda statements from captives, interrogators implemented a brutal and unrelenting torture regime that would last four full years and would break every single POW in Hanoi. But after each gruesome session with “Pigeye,” North Vietnam’s answer to “the Bird” in Unbroken, POWs would simply prepare themselves for the inevitable next round. Even under threat of Pigeye’s terrible ropes, POW leader and future U.S. Senator Jeremiah Denton defied his captors in a televised interview, refusing to parrot propaganda and secretly blinking TORTURE in Morse code. Other senior POWs likewise led by example.
Denton, along with ten others including future Medal of Honor recipient Jim Stockdale and current Congressman Sam Johnson, rallied the POWs to resist their captors and keep faith, year after agonizing year. By late 1967, they had proven so subversive that the North Vietnamese exiled these eleven troublemaking leaders – Vietnam’s own Dirty Dozen – to a miserable dungeon called Alcatraz. There, they would spend two years (nearly 24 hours per day) in solitary 4’ x 9’ concrete tombs, locked in irons, being tortured with ropes, incessant propaganda, and sleep deprivation. They were known as the Alcatraz 11. They might have remained in those suffocating cells indefinitely were it not for the women who loved them.
At home, their wives had received uncertain news: “Your husband is missing.”
Then they received disturbing instructions: “Keep quiet. The government will handle it.”
Wives of Alcatraz 11 POWs like Jane Denton, Sybil Stockdale, and Louise Mulligan (who had 17 children between them) at first trusted the government, which promised POWs were being well-treated. But when their husbands ingeniously and covertly communicated the realities of imprisonment, the wives broke the government’s “Keep Quiet” policy. They rallied the public and united the nation behind the POW cause. Soon millions wore POW-MIA bracelets – America’s first cause-related wristbands. The black-and-white POW-MIA flag with its “You are not forgotten” motto became the symbol of their cause, which grew into one of history’s most important women’s movements.
These determined ladies ensured their husbands’ repatriation in February 1973, after some men had logged more than 2,900 days in captivity – unequaled in American history. At the POWs’ homecoming, America for the first time truly celebrated veterans returning from Vietnam.
The thanks and welcome we give today’s veterans stems directly from the movement started by the hard-fighting wives of the Alcatraz 11 and their fellow POWs.
So as Americans fill theaters to watch Louie Zamperini’s tremendously heroic World War II epic unfold, I hope our nation will also remember the heroes of the more-complex and less-celebrated war in Vietnam. Let us honor all those equally-brave men and women who did their duty under difficult circumstances and created an echoing legacy of inspiration and service.
You are not forgotten.
Alvin Townley is author of DEFIANT (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) about the leading 11 American POWs in Vietnam and their wives at home, who founded the POW-MIA movement.