For years during the Vietnam War, hundreds of prisoners-of-war endured brutal treatment at Vietnam’s Hoa Lo prison, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” To evade their captors’ ruthless quest for intelligence, 11 men developed a system of stealth communication and strict adherence to U.S. military code — resistance that eventually landed them at an isolated jail known as “Alcatraz.” Kojo hears the story of the men who fought the Vietnam war from Alcatraz, and discusses efforts on the home front that would permanently change America’s treatment of POWs.
- Robert Shumaker Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (Ret.); former associate dean, Center for Aerospace Studies, University of North Dakota; former assistant dean, George Washington University
- Alvin Townley Author of "Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam's Most Infamous Prison, The Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned"
Vietnam POW Blinking Morse Code “T-O-R-T-U-R-E”
Retired U.S. Rear Admiral and former Senator (R-Al.) Jeremiah Denton blinks the word “torture” during a propaganda video made by his North Vietnamese captors.
Read An Excerpt From “Defiant”
Excerpted from “Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned” by Alvin Townley. Copyright © 2014 by Alvin Townley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn May of 1966, Americans got a disturbing firsthand look at what their prisoners of war were going through in Vietnam. In a TV broadcast from Hanoi, Naval Commander Jerry Meyer Denton whose plane had been shot down a year earlier sat emaciated in front of the cameras, forced into a sham broadcast. Denton rebelliously defended U.S. policy but he also blinked out an unmistakable message in Morse code. The word he spelled out T-O-R-T-U-R-E would tell the world of the fate that had befallen hundreds of U.S. fighters who languished in the notorious Hanoi Hilton.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIDetermined to continue the fight from inside prison, Denton and many POWs developed an underground resistance that would defy their captors' quest for intelligence. But that resistance would also condemn them to an isolated jail known as Alcatraz where the limits of their endurance would be cruelly tested. It's a remarkable story of determination during one of our country's darkest periods. And it's captured in a book released today called "Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam's Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought For Them and the One Who Never Returned."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Alvin Townley. He is the author of the aforementioned book. Alvin Townley, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ALVIN TOWNLEYAlways good to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Robert Shumaker. He's a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. He's also a former associate dean at the University of North Dakota Center for Aero Space Studies and the former assistant dean at George Washington University. Admiral Shumaker, thank you so much for joining us.
RETIRED REAR ADM. ROBERT SHUMAKERNice to be here, too.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Do you remember hearing about America's POWs during the Vietnam War? How did their story affect you and the public's mood toward the war effort, 800-433-8850? Alvin Townley, I think many of us are familiar with some of the famous names who survived as POWs during Vietnam. But how did you discover and become interested in the story of these 11 men?
TOWNLEYI stumbled upon it completely unexpectedly when I was writing my first book about Eagle Scouts, and a gentleman named George Coker. And he let me know about this group of POWs in Vietnam that was called the Alcatraz 11. And over the next couple years, as I was traveling the country, I began to meet some of these -- some of his fellow POWs and just discovered an incredible story that I don't think my generation knows.
TOWNLEYThose of us born after the war I think have some vague understanding of what happened during that war and some understanding of the POWs that were held there, but didn't really understand, you know, what these men went through for their country, how they endured and what their wives on the home front also did to get them home safely.
NNAMDICan you tell us a little bit about the history of the Hoa Lo prison in central Hanoi, Why it was built, who was in it before it held American prisoners of war?
TOWNLEYSo it was built by the French who had colonized Vietnam. It was built in the late 1800s. And it held thousands of Vietnamese prisoners before the Americans ever arrived in the 1960s. So it was a pretty dreadful place, as Bob can attest. I think he was the second American to walk in there. And it's kind of a colonial prison. It looks like something out of the 1800s. And it was just incredible for me to be there with a former POW and get to see where these guys were and what kind of conditions they were in.
NNAMDIWhat I found interesting is that the Vietnamese who were imprisoned there under the French employed some of the same survival tactics as the Americans eventually did, and that the commandant of the prison was once a prisoner there himself.
TOWNLEYYeah, it's fascinating how history repeats itself in different ways. And the Vietnamese learned that the way they could resist the French -- the only way they could resist the French was by being unified and by communicating with each other. So when the Americans came in they employed the same tactics. And the way they got through, the way they held the line was maintaining this wonderful unity among each other, even in this terrible circumstance. And they always, always communicated. And something I'd expect you'll ask Bob in a second, because Bob was one of the guys that helped pioneer the tap code.
NNAMDIHe was. As you pointed out, Bob Shumaker was the second American aviator to be taken captive in Vietnam. But it's amazing that you even survived after your plane was shot down. Can you take us back to what happened when your F-8 Crusader was hit and how you were captured and taken to Hanoi?
SHUMAKERSurely. Yeah, the F-8 Crusader was a single engine jet fighter flying off the Coral Sea aircraft carrier. And this was in the initial stages of the war in February of 1965. And it was a bad weather day and I got hit trying to attack this one target. And sometimes you have to act pretty quickly and I keyed down on the mic intending to say, 403 I'm hit. And had I ever completed that sentence I wouldn't make it because the airplane rolled upside down, pointed straight down and out I went. And I calculated later that the parachute opened about 35' off the ground.
SHUMAKERSo it was a hard landing. They teach us in flight training to distribute the shock of landing through seven points. And I perfected the one-point landing so consequently I'm about an inch shorter than I used to be. I broke my back on that.
NNAMDIYeah, that had to be a very difficult experience for you. Once you arrived at Hoa Lo, the Vietnamese started the campaign to interrogate and in those days what they called reeducate you. What did that involve?
SHUMAKERWell, they tried to get us to see their point of view. You know, most of the nations of the world have subscribed to the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. But they steadfastly said, no they didn't sign it and that we weren't in a declared war. We were there for criminals not prisoners of war, and wouldn't afford us that -- accord us that treatment.
SHUMAKERBut they would interrogate us for hours and hours. And we stuck to our guns. And our obligation was to give only four items of information according to the Geneva Conventions, which are name, rank, serial number and date of birth. But they keep trying to get us to understand their position. And they told Admiral Stockdale that they knew they couldn't beat us on the battlefield with our superior weaponry but they were going to win this war on the streets of New York City and Chicago and San Diego through their propaganda.
NNAMDIBefore you went into combat, what kind of training did you receive in the unlikely event that you would be taken prisoner?
SHUMAKERWell, you have to understand that I was the world's best fighter pilot. And of course if you ask any fighter pilot...
SHUMAKERBut we did acknowledge that, you know, there's that possibility of being captured. And so the military puts their fliers through survival schools. There's one at Warner Springs in California, another in Brunswick, Maine. But I -- we could push the realism only so far because we knew that in a week's time we were going home, you know. They tried to get us to understand how to capture snakes and eat frogs and things like that but really that wasn't the information we needed.
SHUMAKERWhat we really needed was the understanding that there's a lot more to war fighting than guns and bullets. There's a lot of propaganda and extortion involved.
NNAMDIAnd even though this is a kind of bad news good news story, on the one hand you don't want anybody else to be held captive. On the other hand, when you are there somewhat in isolation, it helps to see a friendly face arriving. What was your response like when you saw other people joining?
SHUMAKERWell, I was -- you know, I was there for eight years. Three of those were in solitary confinement. But the first three months it's really unsettling. You don't realize how much we as Americans rely on listening to 88.5 and other news sources. And it's disconcerting when all that disappears and you can't bounce ideas against other Americans.
SHUMAKERSo after three months, I was trying to peek out a little hole in my -- a worm hole in my wooden door and I spotted another American. And so after a while I took -- see, once a day a guard would come and we'd take our sanitation buckets, say, 100 yards off and dump it. So I took a chance and left him a note and he caught it. And I was just trying to cheer him up. You know, I said, well welcome to the Hanoi Hilton. And that's how the place got named. And then the next sentence said, if you get this note scratch your ear on the way back.
SHUMAKERAnd he came back and I had my eyeball against this worm hole and there he was scratching away. So it was a pretty happy day for me.
NNAMDIIn that situation that was like a long conversation for you. That's Robert Shumaker. He's a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, former associate dean at the University of North Dakota's Center for Aero Space Studies and a former assistant dean at George Washington University. He joins us in studio to discuss what we're calling the Alcatraz 11 with Alvin Townley, author of the book "Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam's Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought For Them and the One Who Never Returned."
NNAMDIAlvin, the code that the POWs used to communicate at the Hanoi Hilton was not quite Morse code, which I called it earlier. It was a system created by prisoners in Korea to communicate. How did it work and how did it spread among the prisoners?
TOWNLEYWell, the prisoners knew they needed to communicate with each other. And they knew that at some point they probably weren't going to be in big cells together so they had to figure out some way to communicate. And Morse code's hard to send if you're knocking, because they're long signals and short signals. So they came up with the tab code which is a five by five alphabetic grid. So if you think about the 26 letters of the alphabet, remove K and use C for K and you have 25 letters left. And you have 5 in each row and then 5 columns. And you would tap once to designate the letter's position in the rows and the next time you would tap it would designate the letter's position in the columns.
TOWNLEYAnd so for example, B would be (one tap) first column -- or rather it was first row (two taps) second column.
TOWNLEYAnd C would be first row, (three taps) third column.
TOWNLEYAnd Admiral Shumaker actually was one of the people that had started to really develop it and start to spread it among the POWs. And basically within a couple weeks I think every new man that arrived in Hanoi Hilton learned that code.
SHUMAKERIt was a saving grace for us. And, see, the Vietnamese felt that if they isolated us and they would bombast us with loud speakers about their propaganda that we would be more susceptible if we were in complete isolation. So this code got us by. And the way we would ring up a person on the other side of the wall -- and I realize that half your listeners weren't even born at this time -- but for we old guys, we would go (tapping) and that means shave and a haircut. And the answer is (tapping) two bits. And you knew there was an American on the other side.
SHUMAKERAnd so if you wanted to send, for example, WMAU (sic) you'd send (tapping) that's W. M is (tapping) I'm sorry, WAMU. A little typo there.
NNAMDIJust tapped it out. I would have to be incarcerated for a while before I could do that myself.
SHUMAKEROh, it comes to you pretty quickly.
NNAMDIThe three letters G-B-U which stood for God bless you, became an important code that the men sent to each other as they signed off from their messaging. What kind of meaning did it hold, well, beyond the obvious?
SHUMAKERWell, it meant that the fellow in the other cell was experiencing the same thing you were and that you had hope to survive for the next day. And we wanted to return but wanted to return with honor. And so that was very important to us to maintain our honor in this whole process.
NNAMDIHonor, Alvin, and humor. It struck me how humor seemed to keep spirits up in such awful circumstances. Can you talk a little bit about how these men used humor even during some of their darkest moments?
TOWNLEYThis is one of the saving graces about writing this book because it was a tough book to write. Some of the stories were so difficult about the isolation and the torture and the separation from their families. But at the end of the day these were a bunch of fighter pilots and they're competitive guys. And, you know, I'm not a military guy, but I certainly was in college in a fraternity, so it was like a bunch of frat guys together in this prison. And they were all in this together. And they weren't getting out so they just chose to make the best of it to the extent they could. And humor was so valuable. And they told jokes, they enjoyed playing pranks on each other.
NNAMDII'm sure they all heard the story of the one point landing, I'm sure.
SHUMAKERWell, I'll tell you another quick one, too. You can imagine the food wasn't very good. And we'd been on cabbage soup for about six months, just a little leaf of cabbage in water. And this is 1967 and the Americans were hitting Hanoi pretty hard. So that's a noisy operation. Sometimes there'd be six bombing raids a day and the guns would be going off, the missiles shooting, the airplanes, you know, in afterburner. And I heard from the other side of the camp an American voice, which was rather unusual because they had us collared so we weren't allowed to talk.
SHUMAKERAnd what he was saying was as if he were talking to the American bombers coming in, he was shouting, "Bomb the cabbage patches."
NNAMDIOoh, talk about your gallous humor. Here, let's turn to the phones. Put on your headphones, please. Here is Cathy, in Washington, D.C. Cathy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CATHYThank you very much. And I'm so sorry for the people who are on the radio today. And I'm so sorry for their suffering. But I was peace protestor. I'm 70 years old and it's important to remember this week that a few days ago Pete Seeger died. And one of his songs was "When Will We Ever Learn." And we can't learn unless we know the truth. And part of the truth about the Vietnam War is that there was a lie told about the Gulf of Tonkin, its so-called incident. And when Robert McNamara wrote his memoirs, he admitted that it was a lie. And that lie sent hundreds of thousands -- I don't know how many -- U.S. soldiers went off killing how many millions of Vietnamese.
CATHYAll these things that were just described happened. But it was based on a lie.
NNAMDIWell, interestingly enough that is dealt with in the book. And if you'll just listen, Cathy, I'll pose it in this way. Among the big names who passed through the Hanoi Hilton was Senator John McCain and, of course, Adm. Jim Stockdale, who became a force in the resistance at the prison. A lot of people remember Jim Stockdale as Ross Perot's running mate and remember his much maligned performance at the 1992 vice presidential debate. But, Alvin, what they may not know is that Adm. Stockdale played a key role in the war in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Can you remind us of what happened the night of August 4, 1964 and how it turned the tide of the American involvement in the war?
TOWNLEYWell, first thing, one of the things that was most valuable to me about writing this book was getting to know Adm. Stockdale in a whole different way. And I hope that America -- if for no other reason -- reads this book and really gets to see what kind of amazing leader he was and what he endured for his country over in Vietnam and what he did for his fellow POWs. And that's really, to a large degree, what their battle became about. It was about supporting their brother POWs. But Adm. Stockdale had been one of the pilots overhead the night of the alleged incident in the Gulf of Tonkin that really sent America deeper into the war.
TOWNLEYAnd I'll let Cathy and others read the book to get the full story, but he always had a lot of doubts about what happened that night. And that haunted him, I think, through his whole experience. So it's a very interesting perspective. And really in the book, though, I tried to stay away from the political aspects of the war and really focus on the heart of these of POWs, the heart of their families back home and how they were all able to support each other and get through a really tough situation.
NNAMDIBut as you pointed out, it haunted him even throughout his imprisonment in Hanoi. Bob, what was it like for you to see Jim Stockdale so harshly attacked after that vice presidential debate?
SHUMAKERWell, it was sad for me because I think so much of him. He was kind of my mentor in my military career and we were both graduates of the Naval Academy. And in those days it was purely a technological education. And he just, by chance, through this graduate course at Stanford, wandered into a philosophy course taught by Professor Rhinelander. And it changed his whole outlook on life. And he had an approach -- he passed away several years ago. But it was a Socratic approach where he would ask a question of himself and then proceed to answer it. And so he was a fill-in, Ross Perot asked him just for legal purposes to act as his candidate.
NNAMDIDidn't intend to keep him.
SHUMAKERThat's correct. Right. And as it turned out it, he stayed on. So it was kind of sad to see him stumble a little bit. He had a hearing aid problem. And then he asked the Socratic question, who am I? And the audience, I think, reacted, if you don't know who you are, well, why are you here.
NNAMDIIt was very difficult for Jim Stockdale. But we're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation about the Alcatraz 11. You can still call us. Cathy, thank you for your call. 800-433-8850, you can send email to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Alvin Townley, the author of the book, "Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam's Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned." And Robert Shumaker, he's a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, a former associate dean at the University of North Dakota Center for Aerospace Studies and a former assistant dean at George Washington University. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think we learned about POWs and their families from the Vietnam experience?
NNAMDIBob Shumaker, eventually a hierarchy was established at the prison and men learned about your operational plan. How was that communicated and what was the plan?
SHUMAKERWell, all the communication was through the tap code. And we were all military officers, well, with the exception of a few notable enlisted guys. But we were used to that culture, that is the senior person was to take charge and to issue policies. And that's what we did. And the policy was that we would take torture to the extent of all we could handle and then fall back on lies and things like that. And you had to remember the lies because the Vietnamese were recording all this information. And they'd come to you several years later to corroborate your story.
NNAMDIThat was probably one of the more difficult parts, first the lying may not have been that difficult, but remembering the lies I can imagine would have been very difficult.
SHUMAKERWell, that's true. But we told some real whoppers there. Like, you know, my job on an aircraft carrier I told them was to run the pool tables. Well, anyone that's been on an aircraft carrier or any boat knows you don't play pool on ships.
NNAMDII think a lot of listeners remember Jerry Denton from the famous, televised 1966 interview from prison when he definitely told the North Vietnamese that he supported the U.S. government while simultaneously blinking out the word torture in Morse code. Tell us about Jerry and role he played for you and other POWs in the prison.
SHUMAKERWell, he was a Navy commander, which would correspond to a lieutenant colonel in the other services. And so he was fairly senior. It turned out he was not the most senior toward the end, but he stood up and showed leadership when the chips were down. And we followed his orders and we survived.
NNAMDIYou can see the 1966 video of Jerry Denton if you go to our website, kojoshow.org, and look at today's show. You and your fellow POWs were tortured and eventually you ended up having to tell lies in order to make it appear that you had been broken, but what did you learn about the limits of human endurance during those times?
SHUMAKERWell, it was an abrupt learning experience, in that I had entered this process thinking they're never going to break me, you know, I'm tough as can be. But you learn that the human body can only take so much. They would start you off in routine torture, like I was on my knees on a concrete floor for 12 days. And they jabbed me with a bayonet, you know, if I'd lean back on my haunches. But the thing that got everybody over there was the rope trick. And it was just an excruciating thing where while you were in a seated position they would handcuff you, hands behind the back and elbows tied together and then they'd pull a rope up over your neck and down to your feet, so that by tightening it up your head would touch your feet.
SHUMAKERAnd they ran an iron bar down my throat to keep me from screaming. So everybody that went through that treatment had to come up with some kind of a story and go beyond the big four.
NNAMDIHow did you deal with the guilt of having to give in, even though you were telling lies? You didn't feel like you could be broken, but at some point you say I have to say something.
SHUMAKERYeah, well, I tried to commit suicide. I banged my head against the wall because I didn't want to give them any information or be useful to them. And they pulled me away from the wall. And so I wrote some confession, which brings me to the point that if this ever happens again, I think everybody ought to discount anything that comes out of a prisoner because it's…
NNAMDIWas being tortured, yeah.
SHUMAKER…almost always forced.
NNAMDIAlvin, as these men fought for their lives at the prison, how was the mood of the American public changing toward this war?
TOWNLEYWell, the support for the war decreased dramatically, I guess, in 1968 really with the Tet Offensive. And really had been waning for a large part throughout the whole time we were in Southeast Asia. But one of the things that the wives of all the POWs and in particular, some of the wives of the Alcatraz 11, one of the roles they played was reminding America that regardless of what America may have thought about the war, that we all could agree on the POWs and supporting the men over there who are fighting the war, who are the prisoners and wanting to bring everyone home safely.
TOWNLEYAnd so that was really one of the first times that America started to make a distinction between the war we were engaged in and the way we were supporting the troops. And so it was really important. And by the time the POWs came home, America, I think, was very much ready just to forget about Vietnam. But in February of 1973, when the POWs came home, there was an outpouring of joy and love and respect to these men that I don't think any other veterans had ever received. And it was really a -- I'm getting choked up just thinking about it right now -- but it's just a beautiful ending to a very difficult chapter in our country's history.
NNAMDIWe have a question from Ann, in Washington, D.C. Ann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNYeah, thank you for taking my call. Yeah, my question is are there still American or war prisoners in Vietnam?
NNAMDIAs far as you know, Alvin Townley?
TOWNLEYI don't believe there are. I think that the DPMO, Department of Defense has done a wonderful job of trying to account for all the missing servicemen we have over there. And the Vietnamese government has been very helpful in doing that. And I think that the National League of POW/MIA Families, which is headquartered here in northern Virginia, has also been very dedicated to that cause. And I think we've done and are still doing a great job, as well as we can, about making sure America knows what happened to all their servicemen. But I think that there are no living Americans left in Southeast Asia and nor were there after the war.
SHUMAKERYeah, I might interject and say that part of the Vietnamese strategy was not to release everyone's name. So only about a third of these 591 prisoners' names were released. And so that set up a lot of consternation about their families. But we were very careful within prison, if we got some information that so-and-so was here, such-and-such a name, just like a newspaper reporter, we'd have to get confirmation of at least two people before we'd put them on our list. And each of us would memorize these 591 names, just in case one of us was able to escape and come out with the information.
NNAMDIAs bad as the Hanoi Hilton was, you and 10 other men, including Jerry Denton and Jim Stockdale were sent to a far worse location where you'd spend more than two years. That location was eventually called Alcatraz. How did you keep yourself occupied during endless days of solitary confinement? What was it like there?
SHUMAKERWell, a lot of us were technologically trained and so the fellow that lived next door to me for two and a half years is a Congressman from Texas. And he wanted to learn how to speak French. And I knew a little bit of French. So I give him five words of French a day. And I'd have to amplify it with this French word rhymes with some American word. And after two years, my vocabulary was getting exhausted. And then there was a rescue attempt made over there by some very heroic Americans. It's called the Son Tay Rescue. And even though it was unsuccessful, it caused the Vietnamese to take us out of solitary confinement, put us into larger groups.
SHUMAKERAnd even though I'd never been more than 10 feet away from this fellow that lived next to me for two and a half years, I'd never seen him. When I first saw him he spoke French better than I did. So I never figured that out.
NNAMDIAlvin, did the experience of these POWs have any kind of effect on U.S. policy toward training soldiers before they go into combat, where they might be taken prisoner?
TOWNLEYIt did. The U.S. government, I think in many cases, hired some former POWs as consultants, actually, to help them with the survival training, which they call SERE, so Survival Escape -- what is it?
SHUMAKERResistance and Evasion.
TOWNLEYResistance and Evasion. But the code of conduct was changed just slightly to make sure that people didn't put themselves in too great physical jeopardy of death or anything to hold the line on the big four like Bob mentioned.
NNAMDII'm afraid we're just about out of time. But, Bob, you've lived quite an extraordinary life since those eight years you spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, accomplishing a great deal. Congratulations on that and thank you so much for joining us.
SHUMAKERThank you for having me.
NNAMDIRobert Shumaker is a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. He's also a former associate dean at the University of North Dakota Center for Aerospace Studies and a former assistant dead at George Washington University. Alvin Townley is the author of "Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam's Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned." Alvin, thank you for joining us.
TOWNLEYIt's a pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.