Through the Valley by William Reeder

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Through the Valley: My Captivity in Vietnam (Naval Institute Press, 256 pp., $29.95, hardcover and Kindle) is a well-written chronicle of Army Col. Bill Reeder’s time as a POW and his struggles adapting back in the “real world.” The book came out in hardcover in 2016, and Naval Institute Press has just been published in paperback ($21.95).

In 1971, Reeder returned to Vietnam for his second tour, and was assigned to fly Cobra helicopters for the 361st Aviation Company, aka the “Pink Panthers.”  On May 9, 1972, Reeder’s Cobra was shot down. He survived the crash and for three days hid in the jungle, before being taken prisoner. The majority of the book recounts his treatment as a POW. He had a broken back, three types of malaria, three varieties of intestinal parasites, an intestinal disease called tropical sprue, and a broken tooth.

After his capture, Reeder was marched for three months to Hanoi. He was released with the other POWs who were held in North Vietnam on March 23, 1973. It is said that he was the last American POW captured who survived the ordeal.

In the book Reeder includes an image of the actual telegram from the military to his wife informing her he was missing in action. Many of the POWs, including Reeder, ended up divorcing. He is now happily married to his third wife and is on good terms with his children and ex-wives.

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Col. Reeder

The last chapter is an account of what happened to many of the POWS who were with Reeder after they were released. I found this chapter fascinating. Reeder did a huge amount of research to compile this chapter and track these heroes down.

This is an outstanding memoir and I highly recommend it.

—Mark S. Miller

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Captured by Alvin Townley

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As the fourth highest-ranking officer among the prisoners held in Hanoi by the North Vietnamese, Navy Commander Jeremiah Denton set a standard of behavior virtually beyond imagination in fulfilling the rigid expectations of the official Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States.

Denton’s seven-and-a-half years—from July 1965 to February 1973—as a prisoner have been well chronicled. That includes When Hell Was in Session, Denton’s 1982 memoir. The latest recreation of Denton’s POW experience is Alvin Townley’s Captured: An American Prisoner of War in North Vietnam (Scholastic Focus, 256 pp. $18.99, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), a book for Young Adults. The two men were friends until Denton’s death in 2014 at age 89. Captured captures the bravery of the American POWs’ resistance against North Vietnamese torture.

Of the Code of Conduct’s six Articles, Denton—who was promoted to Rear Admiral during his captivity—concentrated on two: First, he took a leadership position among prisoners when he was the senior officer of a group. Second, he emphasized providing the enemy with only name, rank, service number, and date of birth.

“And if you say more,” Denton ordered, “make them beat it out of you.” He stressed that a prisoner’s ultimate goal was to maintain personal integrity in order to return home with honor.

“[Jerry] defined leadership with a fearless sense of bold, almost unthinking, self-sacrifice,” Townley says. He “took the punches and the rope first. If he didn’t, how could he expect others to follow his orders?”

The North Vietnamese favorite (and most effective) type of torture was to bind a prisoner in ropes that compressed his body and drastically reduced blood circulation and breathing, and then leave him in that position for hours. Other tortures included long stretches of solitary confinement, often in darkness; imprisonment in a four-by-four-foot concrete cell; a parade through Hanoi that allowed the public to abuse the prisoners; feeding the men soup laced with human feces; and bombarding them with propaganda.

Denton advised his subordinates to “take torture and before you lose your sanity, write something harmless or ludicrous.” At the same time, he believed “a prisoner should not make any statement disloyal to the United States.”

Although he advocated a hard line, Denton understood that no one can hold out forever in the face of torture. During periods of unrelenting, brutal torture, all prisoners “signed the apologies, the confessions,” Townley notes.

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The North Vietnamese viewed American prisoners as political tools whose confessions could validate the United States as an aggressor nation in the eyes of the entire world.

In my mind, the degree of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man is incalculable. From that premise, I attempt to quantify the degree to which political, racial, and economic differences affect a jailer’s treatment of his prisoners. I often have wondered if the men who originally wrote the Code of Conduct ever had even an inkling of similar thoughts.

Retired Navy Capt. Allen Colby Brady spent more than six years as a prisoner in Hanoi during the time Denton was there. He recently published an account of that experience in Witnessing the American Century: Via Berlin, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and the Straits of Florida. His attitude and actions as a prisoner slightly differed from Denton’s. Still, considering the intensity of their environment, even the slightest differences provide extremely interesting comparisons.

—Henry Zeybel

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Men Come Home From Work… Late by Galen Hobbs

The plot of Galen Hobbs’ Men Come Home From Work…Late  (AuthorHouse, 364 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) involves two men escaping from two POW camps twenty years after the end of the American war in Vietnam War. Jake, who is in the Air Force, and Crow, a Navy SEAL, meet by chance and join forces to try to evade the Vietnamese Army.

When they arrive in Laos, they are joined by a Marine named Ed and by a woman named  Michelle, who appears to have no military affiliation.

They are pursued by a drug gang who are trying to kill them. The United States Embassy also wants them dead. They head west with many obstacles to deal with, harboring the hope in their hearts that they might link up with their families.

The book begins with an author’s note that the novel takes no position on the question of whether Americans were left behind “knowingly or unknowingly” in Vietnam as prisoners of war. Hobbs says he made up all characters’ names, places, and incidents.

Before the story begins, there are two pages of the something called “19 Rogers’ Rules.” The first rule is, “Don’t forget nothing.” The book does give the appearance of having included everything necessary to make the story move right along.

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This is a complex tale which seems somewhat muddled, but it held my interest.

The book, in essence, does make a case that the Vietnamese kept Americans after the war. However, it failed to convince me that there were any good reasons to do so.

Readers eager for another Vietnam War POW book could do much worse than to read this one.

I read it in one long sitting.

The author’s website is http://www.ghobbsauthor.com

–David Willson

Wisconsin’s 37 by Erin Miller  

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In Wisconsin’s 37: The Lives of Those Missing in Action in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 251 pp., $29.95, paper) Erin Miller, a young, first-time author, has skillfully parlayed an extensive and exhaustive research project—the outgrowth of a homework assignment—into a quite readable effort to tell the life stories of the men noted in her subtitle, some of whose remains were recently returned from the battlefield.

Miller is an admitted military neophyte who had to develop a glossary of people, places, and terms, to begin her research. The book stems from a response to an innocuous social media entry and is based on Miller’s deep dive into countless documents, as well as interviews with family members and comrades of the thirty-seven Wisconsin men listed as missing in action in the Vietnam War.

She wrote the book with the help of University Wisconsin U.S. History Professor John Sharpless, who calls the experience at once an “emotionally draining, and deeply rewarding.”

Miller and Sharpless present the story chronologically, from 1965-73, and add post-war information about individual histories and repatriation efforts. As of the time of publication in May of this year, twenty five of thirty seven remain unaccounted for.

The book is a thoroughly commendable memorial to the lives of these men. The biographies allow us to vicariously visit with each of them. We learn of their hopes, dreams and plans, as well as their families’ unanswered questions and loss.

–Tom Werzyn

John McCain: American Maverick by Elaine S. Povich

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Elaine S. Povich’s John McCain: American Maverick (Sterling, 208 pp, $24.95) is a coffee-table-like tome featuring large, glossy (and evocative) photographs on nearly every page. The photos are used to good effect to cover the many highlights of McCain’s notable life, including the five-and-a-half years he was held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

Povich, a Washington, D.C. journalist who has covered the nation’s capital for UPI, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, wrote a conventional bio of McCain—John McCain: A Biography—in 2009. This go-round she mainly uses McCain’s own words, including more than a few pithy pull quotes, to accompany the bare-bones text and the great many photographs from throughout McCain’s eventful personal and political lives.

Ken Burns, Mr. Documentary, provides a Foreword that—like the book itself—is a paean to McCain’s heroism and service.

McCain is, “without doubt,” Burns writes, “a genuine American hero—complicated, brave, flawed, sacrificing, confounding, inspiring—and above all human. I have had the great privilege of spending time with him on many occasions over the last two-plus decades and each meeting has only reinforced my conviction about his unique and inspirational greatness.”

Povich agrees.

“Above it all,” in McCain’s life, she writes, there is “honor—the code by which he has always lived. The worst times of his life were when he felt that honor tarnished, yet they were rare. McCain tries to do what he feels is right. He doesn’t always succeed. But he surely has a hell of a time trying.

“If he is remembered for anything, McCain has said, he would like it to be that he ‘served his country. And I hope, we could add, honorably.’

“He has done so. And honorably.”

—Marc Leepson

A Double Dose of Hard Luck by Leo Aime LaBrie

Leo Aime LaBrie, with help from Theresa McLaughlin, has assembled an extremely interesting history of prisoner of war life in A Double Dose of Hard Luck: The Extraordinary Story of a Two-time Prisoner of War, Lt. Col. Charles Lee Harrison (Page Publishing, 134 pp. $12.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

The title speaks for the book’s contents: Charles Lee Harrison “had the unfortunate distinction of being only one of two Marines to have ever suffered captivity as a prisoner of war twice in two separate conflicts,” retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Orlo K. Steele writes in the book’s Foreword.

During World War II, Harrison spent nearly four years (December 1941-September 1945) as a prisoner of the Japanese. During the Korean War, Chinese communist forces held him for six months in 1950. In 1965-66, Harrison served in Vietnam—where he was not captured.

Harrison saw action in all three wars. In World War II and Korea, he and fellow Marines fought for their lives against enemy forces that greatly outnumbered them. His first capture followed the siege and invasion of Wake Island by the Japanese. The second came when Chinese soldiers swarmed a truck convoy during the Chosin Reservoir campaign.

An enlistee at age eighteen in 1939, Harrison’s career lasted until 1969 when he retired as a lieutenant colonel. Along the way, he received a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant.

La Brie’s pre-World War II picture of military life—when a private’s pay rate was $20.80 a month, plus clothing allowance—provides a departure point for recognizing how much changed and yet remained the same after three quarters of a century.

His main sources are a transcript of Harrison’s ten-hour oral history from 2002; history books; magazine and newspaper articles; and a 2015 interview with Jane Harrison Williams, a daughter. Gen. Steele personally recorded Harrison’s oral history.

LaBrie, a U.S. Air Force veteran, recreates POW life by showing the extremes of stress and pain that men are capable of enduring, especially under the cruelty of the Japanese. He masterfully weaves Harrison’s reactions and observations into the history presented by other sources to give his stories an authenticity that drove me to read the book in one evening and the following morning.

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He depicts the communist approach to brainwashing without actually using the word. Instead, he refers to it as “interrogation,” “propaganda,” “lectures,” or “indoctrination.”

Harrison and fellow prisoners saw through the ploys and used them to their own advantage.

An array of photographs shows Harrison at different stages of his career.

—Henry Zeybel

Some Never Forget by R. Cyril West

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Some Never Forget (Molan Labe, 302 pp., $12.95, paper; $.99, Kindle) is the second book in R. Cyril West’s POW/MIA Truth series. His first was The Thin Wall.

Some Never Forget is an intriguing mix of conspiracy theory related to the betrayal of POWs being left behind in Southeast Asia by their government, along with American Indian Tlingit mythology. The latter is an attempt to reap the sort of magic that Tony Hillerman made his own and nobody else has been able to hold a candle to.

West believes there are baskets full of dirty government secrets. It’s hard to argue with that. He begins the story begins in Sitka, Alaska, in 1980, nine years after Walter Greene’s son went missing in the Vietnam War. Greene is tormented about the unknown fate that befell his boy—especially after the Department of Defense suddenly changes his son’s status from MIA to KIA.

Greene sees this clerical change as redolent of meaning. After he gets a warning from a government functionary and weird things start happening on his homestead, Greene is galvanized into action.

He believes it is a lie that all the POWs came home. He wants to get to the bottom of things. We are assured that the end of the novel will make us gasp. It sort of does.

The first page of this paranoia thriller gives us the phrases “Korea Veteran,” “Don’t Tread on Me,” and “Fuck Hanoi Jane.” When I read the third, which is lettered on Greene’s leather jacket, I thought I knew all I needed to know about his mindset. I was pretty much right.

I guess I am in the “anti-American” crowd that Greene wishes to steer clear of.  I hope I am wrong.

The author’s web site is http://www.rcyrilwest.com/some-never-forget

—David Willson