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

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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Six Years in the Hanoi Hilton by Amy Shively Hawk

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Amy Shively Hawk, the author of Six Years in the Hanoi Hilton: An Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in Vietnam (Regnery, 320 pp., $27.95) is the stepdaughter of Air Force Capt. James R. Shively. Hawk wisely  presents the harsh details of his May 1967 capture in the book’s prologue, giving the reader a heads up on what would become a painful six-year ordeal as a POW in North Vietnam.

The book’s three-part narrative begins with Jim Shively’s coming-of-age childhood, continues through his unexpected acceptance into the U.S. Air Force Academy and his assignment to the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

Shively, his stepdaughter says, was a top student in high school. “Not only did he excel academically, he was voted most popular and elected class president three years running,” she writes.

Graduating from the USAFA in 1964, Shively earned an MA in International Relations at Georgetown University. 1st Lt. Shively then completed Pilot Training qualifying to fly the supersonic F-105D bomber.

Then came the assignment to the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron in a secret base in Thailand. Like the other pilots, Shively was required to fly 100 missions. That began in December 1966. “Jim loved combat flying in Southeast Asia. In fact, it was the most fun he’d ever had in his life,” Hawk writes. “He loved the thrill of it, the intensity, the risk.” He was shot down on May 5, 1967, the first time the bombers were permitted to hit targets in Hanoi.

Part two of the book, “In Captivity,” contains vivid descriptions of the horrid POW prison conditions, including Jim’s injuries which went untreated, minimal meals, mosquitoes and rats, torture and other physical and mental abuse, and how the men devised ways to cope and support each other. Shively spent time in a tiny concrete isolation cell the prisoners called “Heartbreak Hotel.”

He and other prisoners periodically were moved from the Hanoi Hilton into other POW camps the men nicknamed Plantation, Zoo, Dungeon, Big House, Camp Faith, and Dogpatch. During the 1972 Christmas B-52 bombing of Hanoi, 209 prisoners, including Shively, were hastily moved to the jungle compound called Dogpatch. He was released with 590 other POWs in 1973.

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Part three, “Home Again,” highlights welcome home celebrations, and Jim Shively’s marriage to Nancy Banta, the author’s mother.

Jim Shively died on February 18. 2006, exactly 33 years to the day he was released from his North Vietnamese prison. When his sister Phyllis died, he wrote: “When I die I want people to celebrate. I want everyone to remember that I enjoyed my time here, and had a wonderful, exciting life filled with great adventures.”

The celebration continues in this book’s pages.

–Curt Nelson

The Day I Died by J.R. Tuorila

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Shot down during his second tour in Vietnam, Marine helicopter pilot Paul Montague spent five years as a prisoner of war in four North Vietnamese camps. In The Day I Died: A True Story of Patriotism, Faith and Survival (Tate, 339 pp. $15.41, paper), J.R. Tuorila, a clinical psychologist, tells the story of those years based on his friendship with—and 700 pages of documentation given to him by—Montague.

Many former POWs—such as James Stockdale, Robinson Risner, and Bud Day—have written books about their ordeals. Montague’s highly detailed story provides insights equally as revealing and interesting as those others.

In 1968, Montague and his copilot Bruce Archer survived a crash landing after a “hailstorm” of bullets shattered their UH-34D Chinook cockpit. Abandoned in the wreckage by the recovery team they had been carrying, the two men managed to crawl free but then fell into the hands of the NVA. That started an arduous journey that took them across South Vietnam to a jungle camp, then north to Camp Farnsworth, Plantation Gardens, and the Hanoi Hilton.

Three episodes of prolonged torture and an entire year of isolation marked Montague’s first two years as a prisoner. He obeyed the Code of Conduct throughout. After he returned to the United States, Montague admitted that he had been mentally broken. “The communists could break anyone over time,” he said, “and they had plenty of time to find the key to each prisoner’s weakness.”

Nevertheless, Montague’s devotion to God and country helped him win psychological battles and even earn respect from his captors. His resistance to torture reflected near super-human dedication to sticking to giving only his name, rank, and service number. Eventually, his reputation made him a leader among the POWs. In that capacity, although his action almost cost him his life, he countermanded the NVA rule for prisoners to bow to their guards.

After he returned home in 1973, Montague worked to press charges against ten POWs who had violated the Code of Conduct “for a beer and a cigarette” at the Plantation and Hilton. Six days before the announcement that the men would be punished, one committed suicide. The charges were dropped against the remaining defendants. An appendix in the book lists the men’s names.

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Marine Maj. Paul Montague

The Day I Died is an excellent starting point for readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam War POW world, although the book covers Montague’s life before he was captured and afterward. The book also should interest those familiar with POW life because of Montague’s hard-core attitude. He displays an insurmountable stubbornness that resulted in behavior well beyond interesting.

—Henry Zeybel

The Longest Rescue by Glenn Robins

The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson, which came out in 2013, is now available in paperback (University Press of Kentucky, 296 pp., $19.95). In it, the historian Glenn Robins tells the story of Bill Robinson, the former crew chief on a USAF Vietnam War rescue helicopter, who wound up being the longest-held enlisted POW in U.S. military history.

Robins “brings a scholarly treatment to his subject’s time as a Vietnam War POW, as well as the rest of his life,” our reviewer John Mort wrote on these pages.

Robinson’s capture resulted in the iconic photo of him (on the cover). The photo of Robinson—who gave the Keynote Speech at Vietnam Veterans of America’s 2015 National Convention in July—and “the guerrilla girl” had great propaganda value for the North Vietnamese. The photo, however, was entirely staged and the girl knew no more about what was going on than Robinson did.

Robins, as Mort wrote, is “a thorough writer,” who tells “how Robinson and the young woman, Kim Lai, met again in 1995 when a Japanese documentary crew brought them together. They had a peaceful, cordial meeting, and it might even be said that they struck up a friendship.”

Glenn Robins, who is a history professor at Georgia Southwestern State University, also weaves in the stories of other Vietnam War POWs. He notes that Bill Robinson was well liked by the other prisoners. As Mort put it, Robinson “was cheerful, practical, and had a good sense of humor. A gifted mechanic, he kept things running. These characteristics would describe him in civilian life, too.”

—Marc Leepson

Life on a $5 Bet by Edward J. Mechenbier with Linda D. Swink

Way back when, several Americans wrote about their experiences as POWs in the Vietnam War. The books by Robinson Risner and John Dramesi made a great impact on me because they graphically detailed the physical pain and deprivation suffered by Americans held prisoner by the North Vietnamese.

In Life on a $5 Bet (Little Miami, 323 pp., $30), Edward J. Mechenbier, with the help of Linda D. Swink, has written an account of his time as a POW in Vietnam, but from a different perspective. His recollections focus on the psychological interplay between prisoners and their guards.

Mechenbier does take the reader into the torture rooms, describing a rope technique and other relentless punishments. But mostly he looks at what he calls “the funny side” of prison life. He contends that humor was the “mechanism that made the serious aspects of prison life more palpable.”

Regardless of the prisoners’ aims, though,the laughs were few and far between for me. When a prisoner won a psychological battle too convincingly, guards frequently beat him to even the score. Smiles I received based on a prisoner’s experience were tempered by the sorrow I felt for his predicament. “Singing in the Rain” might be a better title for the first half of the book—or, better yet, “Singing in the Monsoon.”

Although Mechenbier cited the Code of Conduct as a guide to proper behavior for a POW, the Code’s overly restrictive rules caused more hurt than help. The “die-before-you-talk” restrictions of the Code trapped men in untenable positions. Mechenbier admits as much. He mentions the Code a dozen times in a positive way, but he does not discuss the post-war controversy that caused its revision.

Mechenbier names a lot of names, none more than Kevin McManus, his F-4 backseater and Air Force Academy classmate who was shot down with him in 1967. Frequently together, they made the rounds of the Hanoi Hilton, Plantation, Zoo, Camp Faith, Camp Unity, and Dogpatch prisons for five years, eight months, and four days.

After repatriation, Mechenbier returned to duty as a fighter-branch test pilot because flying was all he wanted to do. He resigned his commission, however, when regulations required him to move to a non-flying job after eleven years. By then, his wife and he had adopted three daughters—from Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea—and then conceived a son of their own.

After resigning from active duty, Mechenbier joined the Ohio National Guard to fly the F-100. He soon took command of an A-7 squadron, leading it for seven years. Recognizing greater opportunities for advancement, he transferred to the Air Force Reserve, giving up flying. He excelled as a high-level jack-of-all-trades and eventually attained the rank of major general. A specially designed program for generals allowed him to return to the cockpit of the C-141.

While performing his National Guard and Reserve duties, Mechenbier held several full-time jobs as a civilian in the flying industry, about which he tells many interesting stories.

His final official Air Force flight was piloting a C-141–known as “the Hanoi Taxi” because it was the plane that had brought him and the other POWs home from Vietnam in 1973—on a mission to Hanoi to repatriate the remains of two American MIAs in 2004, a fitting finish to forty-four years of military service. In the photo above, he is saluting the remains on the tarmac in Hanoi.

The title, by the way, is based on a bet between Mechenbier and his father regarding an appointment to the Air Force Academy.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam…Viet-Bloody-Nam by Davide A. Cottone

Davide E. Cottone’s Vietnam… Viet-Bloody-Nam (P.I.E. Books, 270 pp., $26.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is about Manfred and Tony, two Australians born shortly after World War II who grow up to be close friends. They take very different paths, but late in the book—and late in their lives—they reunite.

Manfred’s  number comes up, and he goes into the Australian Army, and is sent to Vietnam. Tony goes to college and become a leader in the antiwar movement.

Early in the novel Manfred reflects: “He knew that every person who came back from active duty in war was damaged goods to some extent.” There is no doubt in this reader’s mind that the author of this book thinks that is so. The book is written to make that point and the point that the Vietnam War “became one foul deed for another.”

Manfred arrives in Vung Tau on February 3, 1969, when the “whole country was writhing in the shadow of the previous year’s major Tet Offensive.”  He is posted to Nui Dat Camp in Central Phuoc Tuy Province. His duties are described as “counter-insurgency—cordon and search.”

As a craftsman, Manfred is assigned to the 102nd Field Workshop at the First Australian Logistics Support Group. He works as an armorer, looking after small arms and as an armament fitter who maintains and repairs heavier equipment. After being in-country for a while, “what he could not understand was why the Viet Cong could not surrender.”

He points out that in World War II the average soldier spent forty days in combat.  In Vietnam, he says, the average soldier had 240 days of combat in just one year. He sees himself and other troops as sustainable cannon fodder. Much is made of Agent Orange and what it can do.  Napalm also is discussed.

When a tank detonates a land mine Manfred takes a massive hit to his right ankle and his left thigh and shrapnel to his chest. When he returns to Australia, he and other Vietnam veterans are met with hostility at airports and are called baby killers, spat upon, and pelted with eggs and rotten tomatoes.

It seems that the vilification of Vietnam veterans took place in Australian as well as in the United States. Gen. William Westmoreland is quoted as saying life is cheap in Asia. It is mentioned that the VFW refused membership to Vietnam veterans.

I have not read many novels or memoirs about the Australian participation in the Vietnam War, so I found this one an eye-opener. However, I’d hoped for better in Australia.

Aussie troops locked and loaded after a mission outside Bien Hoa in 1965

Lots of space is devoted to Tony’s very different life at home as a hippie antiwar protester. Tony “frolicked with the nymphs, swam with the fairies and floated on clouds of marijuana” while Manfred was “crashing and bashing [his] way through the jungles in Vietnam, in the mud, and the rain, being bitten by mozzies and sucked on by leeches.”  I guess we all had a choice, and these days I find myself thinking often that I made the wrong one.

Those readers eager for information about how the Vietnam War affected Australia will learn a lot by reading this novel, as there is a lot of potted history in it, and the author is a talented story teller. I enjoyed much of the book.

—David Willson

Defiant by Alvin Townley

Alvin Townley’s Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned, which was published last year, is now out in paperback (Thomas Dunne/Griffin, 432 pp., $17.99).

In focusing on telling the stories of about a dozen captives, this well-written book draws heavily on the previous body of POW literature. It also goes over the story of the POW wives at home who, against long odds, successfully lobbied the government on their husbands’ behalf.

You can read our review in the January/February 2014 print issue of The VVA Veteran.

—Marc Leepson

 

The Longest Rescue by Glenn Robins


In The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson (University Press of Kentucky, 259 pp., $31.50, hardcover, $19.25 e-book) the historian Glenn Robins brings a scholarly treatment to his subjects’s time as a Vietnam War POW, as well as the rest of his life.

Unlike most Vietnam War POWs Robinson was an enlisted man. In fact, he holds the record for the longest term as an enlisted Vietnam War prisoner: eight years. After several stateside deployments, he worked out of Thailand as part of USAF air rescue crews, manually (that is, looking down directly into the jungle) helping chopper pilots as they lowered hundred-foot cables to downed pilots. Before the fateful day in 1965 when he himself was shot down, Robinson had received a Silver Star not for his exploits—as Robinson, a modest man, would be certain to say—but for doing his job well.

William Robinson’s capture resulted in the iconic photo of him (which appears on the cover), a big man, with his head downcast, being ushered at gunpoint down a village path by a girl not half his size. The photo of Robinson and “the guerrilla girl” had great propaganda value for the North Vietnamese, symbolizing a small nation—North Vietnam—standing up to an overwhelming enemy, America.

The photo was entirely staged shortly after Robinson’s capture, and the girl, Nguyen Kim Lai, knew no more about what was going on than Robinson did. Robins, a thorough writer, relates how Robinson and Kim Lai met again in 1995 when a Japanese documentary crew brought them together. They had a peaceful, cordial meeting, and it might even be said that they struck up a friendship.

Robinson spent his eight years in various prisons around Hanoi. Some were new, some were primitive, and some a vestige of the French era. He was tortured—most damagingly, with the rope torture in which his arms were yanked behind his back at the elbows, then tied to the ceiling. Horrible at this must have been, it was the prolonged bad food, and the scarcity of it, that was perhaps his worst ordeal. Robins delivers a harrowing account of Robinson’s appendectomy, which he endured with only a local anesthetic.

Robins, a history professor at Georgia Southwestern State University, also weaves in the stories of other POWs. Most fascinating of these may be that of Marine Lt. Col. Edison Miller and Navy Commander Walter Eugene Wilber, who—presumably to avoid torture—went over to the other side and tried to convince other POWs to do the same. These two are mentioned fairly often in POW memoirs, but they probably deserve their own book.

Robinson was well liked by other prisoners. He was cheerful, practical, and had a good sense of humor. A gifted mechanic, he kept things running. These characteristics would describe him in civilian life, too.

William Robinson signing copies of The Longest Rescue

His father spent his POW pay, but Robinson forgave him—and kept forgiving him. When he returned, with a battlefield commission as a lieutenant, Robinson worked through his life-lasting injuries, and made a career in the Air Force. As a civilian, he took on ordinary jobs, put up with a difficult marriage before settling into a good one, and supported POW/MIA causes.

In his ordinariness, he’s an extraordinary man.

—John Mort

More Than Merely Names by Patricia B. Hopper

The latest edition of MORE THAN MERELY NAMES: An Updated List of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action from Southeast Asia (Task Force Omega, 362 pp., $28, paper) provides an alphabetized list of information about 3,768 American military personnel, civilians, and foreign nationals who have been listed as POW/MIA or KIA/BNR (body not recovered) from the Vietnam War.

This loosely bound book, first published in 1998, is the work of Task Force Omega’s chair, Patricia Hopper. Her nonprofit group works for a full accounting,and the return of POWs and MIAs who, Hopper says, “have the right to return home, whether they are alive or dead.” Hooper believes that there still are, as she puts it in the book, “live American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia and our government knows it!”

The individual listings that make up the heart of the book contain the missing person’s original rank, the promoted-to rank, incident date, country of loss, branch of service, incident date, status in 1973, current status, home of record, birthday, name location on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and other information.

The book’s website is  www.taskforceomegainc.org/index_files/Page903.html

—Marc Leepson