Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam's Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned

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Overview

During the Vietnam War, hundreds of American prisoners-of-war faced years of brutal conditions and horrific torture at the hands of North Vietnamese guards and interrogators who ruthlessly plied them for military intelligence and propaganda. Determined to maintain their Code of Conduct, the POWs developed a powerful underground resistance. To quash it, their captors singled out its eleven leaders, Vietnam’s own “dirty dozen,” and banished them to an isolated jail that would become known as Alcatraz. None would ...

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Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam's Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned

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Overview

During the Vietnam War, hundreds of American prisoners-of-war faced years of brutal conditions and horrific torture at the hands of North Vietnamese guards and interrogators who ruthlessly plied them for military intelligence and propaganda. Determined to maintain their Code of Conduct, the POWs developed a powerful underground resistance. To quash it, their captors singled out its eleven leaders, Vietnam’s own “dirty dozen,” and banished them to an isolated jail that would become known as Alcatraz. None would leave its solitary cells and interrogation rooms unscathed; one would never return.

As these eleven men suffered in Hanoi, their wives at home launched an extraordinary campaign that would ultimately spark the nationwide POW/MIA movement. The members of these military families banded together and showed the courage to not only endure years of doubt about the fate of their husbands and fathers, but to bravely fight for their safe return. When the survivors of Alcatraz finally came home, one veteran would go on to receive the Medal of Honor, another would become a U.S. Senator, and a third still serves in the U.S. Congress.

A powerful story of survival and triumph, Alvin Townley's Defiant will inspire anyone wondering how courage, faith, and brotherhood can endure even in the darkest of situations.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Linda Robinson
Alvin Townley…has written a gripping account of the "Alcatraz Eleven," a group of American prisoners of war in North Vietnam who formed a tough core of heroic resisters despite brutal and relentless efforts to break them and convert them into fodder for the Communist propaganda machine…Most of the 11 prisoners have published memoirs, and histories have extensively documented their heroism and suffering, but Townley's telling of these important stories is fresh and vivid, thanks to his interviews with surviving prisoners and their family members. Defiant is an excellent book for younger readers with little knowledge of this searing chapter in American history, when a brash United States stumbled its way deeper and deeper into the Indochina morass.
Publishers Weekly
11/18/2013
The plight of the American pilots and other air crewmen shot down over North Vietnam and held prisoner in the infamous Hanoi Hilton is one of the best-known and widely written-about aspects of the Vietnam War. Many books, including memoirs by former POWs, have appeared since the men were released en masse in 1973. Townley (Fly Navy), drawing heavily on the previous body of POW literature, delivers an engaging account that focuses on about a dozen of the captives; he also relates the oft-told story of their wives at home who, against long odds, successfully lobbied the government on their husbands’ behalf. Much of the narrative looks at two of the longest-held and renowned POWs, James Bond Stockdale and Jeremiah Denton. Townley recounts in detail how Stockdale, Denton, and the other POWs endured years of almost unimaginable physical and mental torture, and the ways the men coped with the physical pain and emotional torment. In a fast-flowing narrative replete with reconstructed dialogue, Townley writes reverently of these POWs, whom he calls “American stalwarts,” “defiant patriots,” and “corralled incorrigibles.” 22 b&w photos. Agents: Jack Scovil and Russell Galen, Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency. (Feb.)
From the Publisher

"You told it exactly like it was. In this unexpected way, your book made it all worthwhile."—GEORGE MCKNIGHT, POW, 1965-1973

"Defiant is a riveting tribute to the unyielding men who endured years of brutal captivity as POWs in Vietnam and the families they left behind. The men of the ‘Alcatraz Eleven’ are true American heroes and their extraordinary stories will serve as an inspiration for generations to come."—SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN, POW, 1967-1973

"These heroic men and women remind us how courage, devotion, and faith can triumph even in the darkest of times. In Defiant, Alvin Townley masterfully tells the inspirational and unforgettable story of our Vietnam POWs and the Alcatraz Eleven." —PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER

"Alvin Townley’s story of the courage, valor and honor of eleven indomitable POWs and their wives is a new American classic that will be read as long as the breezes kiss Old Glory. As I read it I wept." —STEPHEN COONTS

"A moving, must read of extraordinary courage and mutual support in facing unimaginable hardship and torture." —ANN MILLS-GRIFFITHS, Chair, National League of POW/MIA Families

"This stirring tale by Alvin Townley of resilience and leadership under unimaginable conditions is a must read." —JIM LOVELL, Commander of Apollo 13 

"Defiant is Unbroken meets Band of Brothers – and then some…The devotion and undefeatable will of these courageous American heroes shines on every page and reminds us exactly what our great nation is made of." —CONGRESSMAN PETE SESSIONS 

"This moving and authentic epic of unrelenting heroism shines like the sun as an example of American men and women at their very best." —Medal of Honor recipient GEORGE "BUD" DAY, POW, 1968-1973

"Riveting. Powerful. Authentic. I had tears in my eyes reading Defiant. If I can still cry, I know others will too." —MIKE MCGRATH, POW, 1967-1973

"Defiant will make you proud to be an American, and Alvin Townley’s writing makes you feel as if you are there yourself. It would be a wonderful textbook for a course on how to be a POW, but it is also a book for anyone on how to face and overcome adversity!" —WESLEY D. SCHIERMAN, POW, 1965-1973

"Alvin Townley has captured the individual accounts of these eleven men and woven them into a captivating story of resilience, courage and love of country." —ROBERT H. SHUMAKER, POW, 1965-1973

"A unique American epic which must never be forgotten. Thanks to Alvin Townley’s ability to convert its heartbreaking reality into vivid prose, its men and women are alive as human beings as well as symbols of their commitment to each other -- and their country." —THOMAS FLEMING, author of The Officers' Wives

"Defiant is a must read for those who seek to understand and honor the very best of America and its heroes. Alvin Townley’s exhaustive research shows us how our prisoners of war in Vietnam served with inspired bravery and unrelenting courage. We can now know in detail how the most abused of them all survived years of brutality and solitary confinement." —MELVIN R. LAIRD, Secretary of Defense (1968-1972)

"In Defiant, Alvin Townley reveals a moving, inspiring, untold story of courage and sacrifice that stands as a vivid testimony to what the human spirit can overcome. This is an important and too often overlooked aspect of the Vietnam War’s history…For those interested in Vietnam's Band of Brothers, it is a must read." —JAY WINIK, bestselling author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval

"Defiant is an astounding story that will capture your heart and mind proving once and for all that determination trumps circumstance." —ANDY ANDREWS, New York Times bestselling author of How Do You Kill 11 Million People?, The Noticer, and The Traveler’s Gift

"I carried this book from room to room and kept trying to put it down, but I couldn’t stop reading. Alvin Townley shows the heart of what it means to be American in this tale of some of our greatest heroes. Defiant is superb." —GREGORY A. FREEMAN, author of The Gathering Wind: Hurricane Sandy, the Sailing Ship Bounty, and a Courageous Rescue at Sea

"Defiant is all about voices – those that went unused for days by solitary prisoners of war, and those of silently suffering women back home who eventually felt no choice but to speak out. Alvin Townley soberly evokes the terror, sadness, frustration, pain and inspiration they all felt, and along the way, gives us a Vietnam War most of us have never heard about, involving legions of American women and imprisoned men fighting together, thousands of miles apart." —ALAN HUFFMAN, author of Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer

"The story of human courage, individual and family perseverance, survival based on a warrior’s code of honor. Alvin Townley weaves the recollections of these remarkable men into a compelling narrative against the backdrop of war, freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation. An inspirational account of POWs who served with honor while in captivity and returned home with a commitment to serve their country." —LARRY BERMAN, author of Zumwalt: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell "Bud" Zumwalt, Jr.

"If you have ever wondered how real courage and ultimate perseverance should be defined, all you need to do is read these pages. If you have ever pondered whether Americans still have the grit and the ‘guts’ to show the world what it takes to defend freedom, reading about the ‘Alcatraz Eleven’ will bolster your confidence. What these men endured nearly defies description, but Alvin Townley has managed to pull it off brilliantly. The writing is hard-hitting and powerful, dynamic and breath-taking. So, too, is his retelling of the stoic courage of the loved ones stuck at home with uncertainty and doubt: uncertainty about their own abilities to bear up, then doubt in the fortitude and truthfulness of their own government. What the families did from afar, and how they ultimately put backbone into their own leaders and pushed accountability onto the captors of the POWs, is a story heretofore largely untold. It is a narrative as striking in its own right as the tales of the ‘Alcatraz Eleven’ themselves." —PHIL KEITH, award-winning author of Blackhorse Riders and Fire Base Illingworth

"Alvin Townley’s Defiant is a compelling recounting of the horror, hope, hell, and humanity that was daily life for the American prisoners of war who struggled through existence at Hanoi's most brutal prison camp. Expertly researched and compellingly written, Townley’s account of the reality of life both in Hanoi's prisons and for the families of the prisoners at home is inspiring reading and should be part of any Vietnam War library." —ANDREW WIEST, author of The Boys of ‘67

"Alvin Townley has done a magnificent job of weaving together the powerful and complex story of eleven men who survived the unbelievable cruelty of their North Vietnamese captors. Defiant honors the bravery and sacrifice of our prisoners of war and their families as no other reporting has done to date. These men, many of whom I knew, deserve no less." —RICHARD G. CAPEN, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (1968-1971)

"Alvin Townley’s work speaks volumes of America and our service men and women, and their spouses….their honor, steadfastness, perseverance, spirit, and love of country…and clearly illuminates the differences in our militaries and governments. Reading ‘today’ of their time in captivity, brings the same emotions American shed upon their release and return in 1973." —GENERAL J.H. BINFORD PEAY III, U.S. Army (Retired); Superintendent, Virginia Military Institute; former Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Central Command

"With Defiant, Alvin Townley has done readers a huge favor. By describing the POWs' scenes of torture and deprivation in such detail--to the point we can almost feel our own bones crack under pressure--he reminds us that we should never take our civil liberties for granted. This book is a testament to the human spirit and how, in the worst of conditions with the best of men, it can be bent but never broken." —DAVID ABRAMS, author of Fobbit

"In a fast-flowing narrative replete with reconstructed dialogue, Townley writes reverently of these POWs" -- Publishers Weekly

Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-05
Grim account of the torture and isolation suffered by U.S. airmen taken prisoner in North Vietnam. Townley (Spirit of Adventure: Eagle Scouts and the Making of America's Future, 2009, etc.) composes a complex historical narrative covering roughly 1965 to 1973, following two parallel elements: the experiences of POWs in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton," contrasted with their families' anguish and, more broadly, the American military's declining fortunes in the conflict (and those of presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon). Operation Rolling Thunder, the Johnson administration's initial air campaign against North Vietnam, resulted in a spike in downed aircraft and, ultimately, hundreds of prisoners; the North Vietnamese were determined to treat captured airmen as "war criminals" not deserving of Geneva Convention protections and to extract confessions from them for propaganda purposes. Townley focuses on "the Alcatraz Gang," POWs who most resisted their captors, communicating covertly and documenting their torture in ingenious ways. "Their actions and unity not only ruined the Camp Authority's plans," writes the author, "but also enabled these men to keep their wits and self-confidence." Meanwhile, at home, their wives at first kept silent about their husbands' plight; the U.S. government "discouraged releasing any facts that might offend North Vietnam and disrupt the peace talks." As they connected with each other, they became impatient with governmental inaction. By 1970, they had taken a more public profile, forming the National League of Families, demanding action from the Nixon administration and even facing North Vietnamese diplomats at the long-running Paris peace talks. Eventually, the POW cause "[bound] citizens of all politics to the servicemen fighting the war, even as more Americans turned against the conflict." But most of the narrative focuses on the POWs' hellish daily experiences. An inspirational yet grueling read that demonstrates the price some paid for patriotism in a different era and another unpopular war.
From the Publisher
"You told it exactly like it was. In this unexpected way, your book made it all worthwhile."—GEORGE MCKNIGHT, POW, 1965-1973

"Defiant is a riveting tribute to the unyielding men who endured years of brutal captivity as POWs in Vietnam and the families they left behind. The men of the ‘Alcatraz Eleven’ are true American heroes and their extraordinary stories will serve as an inspiration for generations to come."—SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN, POW, 1967-1973

"These heroic men and women remind us how courage, devotion, and faith can triumph even in the darkest of times. In Defiant, Alvin Townley masterfully tells the inspirational and unforgettable story of our Vietnam POWs and the Alcatraz Eleven." —PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER

"Alvin Townley’s story of the courage, valor and honor of eleven indomitable POWs and their wives is a new American classic that will be read as long as the breezes kiss Old Glory. As I read it I wept." —STEPHEN COONTS

"A moving, must read of extraordinary courage and mutual support in facing unimaginable hardship and torture." —ANN MILLS-GRIFFITHS, Chair, National League of POW/MIA Families

"This stirring tale by Alvin Townley of resilience and leadership under unimaginable conditions is a must read." —JIM LOVELL, Commander of Apollo 13 

"Defiant is Unbroken meets Band of Brothers – and then some…The devotion and undefeatable will of these courageous American heroes shines on every page and reminds us exactly what our great nation is made of." —CONGRESSMAN PETE SESSIONS 

"This moving and authentic epic of unrelenting heroism shines like the sun as an example of American men and women at their very best." —Medal of Honor recipient GEORGE "BUD" DAY, POW, 1968-1973

"Riveting. Powerful. Authentic. I had tears in my eyes reading Defiant. If I can still cry, I know others will too." —MIKE MCGRATH, POW, 1967-1973

"Defiant will make you proud to be an American, and Alvin Townley’s writing makes you feel as if you are there yourself. It would be a wonderful textbook for a course on how to be a POW, but it is also a book for anyone on how to face and overcome adversity!" —WESLEY D. SCHIERMAN, POW, 1965-1973

"Alvin Townley has captured the individual accounts of these eleven men and woven them into a captivating story of resilience, courage and love of country." —ROBERT H. SHUMAKER, POW, 1965-1973

"A unique American epic which must never be forgotten. Thanks to Alvin Townley’s ability to convert its heartbreaking reality into vivid prose, its men and women are alive as human beings as well as symbols of their commitment to each other — and their country." —THOMAS FLEMING, author of The Officers' Wives

"Defiant is a must read for those who seek to understand and honor the very best of America and its heroes. Alvin Townley’s exhaustive research shows us how our prisoners of war in Vietnam served with inspired bravery and unrelenting courage. We can now know in detail how the most abused of them all survived years of brutality and solitary confinement." —MELVIN R. LAIRD, Secretary of Defense (1968-1972)

"In Defiant, Alvin Townley reveals a moving, inspiring, untold story of courage and sacrifice that stands as a vivid testimony to what the human spirit can overcome. This is an important and too often overlooked aspect of the Vietnam War’s history…For those interested in Vietnam's Band of Brothers, it is a must read." —JAY WINIK, bestselling author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval

"Defiant is an astounding story that will capture your heart and mind proving once and for all that determination trumps circumstance." —ANDY ANDREWS, New York Times bestselling author of How Do You Kill 11 Million People?, The Noticer, and The Traveler’s Gift

"I carried this book from room to room and kept trying to put it down, but I couldn’t stop reading. Alvin Townley shows the heart of what it means to be American in this tale of some of our greatest heroes. Defiant is superb." —GREGORY A. FREEMAN, author of The Gathering Wind: Hurricane Sandy, the Sailing Ship Bounty, and a Courageous Rescue at Sea

"Defiant is all about voices – those that went unused for days by solitary prisoners of war, and those of silently suffering women back home who eventually felt no choice but to speak out. Alvin Townley soberly evokes the terror, sadness, frustration, pain and inspiration they all felt, and along the way, gives us a Vietnam War most of us have never heard about, involving legions of American women and imprisoned men fighting together, thousands of miles apart." —ALAN HUFFMAN, author of Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer

"The story of human courage, individual and family perseverance, survival based on a warrior’s code of honor. Alvin Townley weaves the recollections of these remarkable men into a compelling narrative against the backdrop of war, freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation. An inspirational account of POWs who served with honor while in captivity and returned home with a commitment to serve their country." —LARRY BERMAN, author of Zumwalt: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell "Bud" Zumwalt, Jr.

"If you have ever wondered how real courage and ultimate perseverance should be defined, all you need to do is read these pages. If you have ever pondered whether Americans still have the grit and the ‘guts’ to show the world what it takes to defend freedom, reading about the ‘Alcatraz Eleven’ will bolster your confidence. What these men endured nearly defies description, but Alvin Townley has managed to pull it off brilliantly. The writing is hard-hitting and powerful, dynamic and breath-taking. So, too, is his retelling of the stoic courage of the loved ones stuck at home with uncertainty and doubt: uncertainty about their own abilities to bear up, then doubt in the fortitude and truthfulness of their own government. What the families did from afar, and how they ultimately put backbone into their own leaders and pushed accountability onto the captors of the POWs, is a story heretofore largely untold. It is a narrative as striking in its own right as the tales of the ‘Alcatraz Eleven’ themselves." —PHIL KEITH, award-winning author of Blackhorse Riders and Fire Base Illingworth

"Alvin Townley’s Defiant is a compelling recounting of the horror, hope, hell, and humanity that was daily life for the American prisoners of war who struggled through existence at Hanoi's most brutal prison camp. Expertly researched and compellingly written, Townley’s account of the reality of life both in Hanoi's prisons and for the families of the prisoners at home is inspiring reading and should be part of any Vietnam War library." —ANDREW WIEST, author of The Boys of ‘67

"Alvin Townley has done a magnificent job of weaving together the powerful and complex story of eleven men who survived the unbelievable cruelty of their North Vietnamese captors. Defiant honors the bravery and sacrifice of our prisoners of war and their families as no other reporting has done to date. These men, many of whom I knew, deserve no less." —RICHARD G. CAPEN, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (1968-1971)

"Alvin Townley’s work speaks volumes of America and our service men and women, and their spouses….their honor, steadfastness, perseverance, spirit, and love of country…and clearly illuminates the differences in our militaries and governments. Reading ‘today’ of their time in captivity, brings the same emotions Americans shed upon their release and return in 1973." —GENERAL J.H. BINFORD PEAY III, U.S. Army (Retired); Superintendent, Virginia Military Institute; former Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Central Command

"With Defiant, Alvin Townley has done readers a huge favor. By describing the POWs' scenes of torture and deprivation in such detail—to the point we can almost feel our own bones crack under pressure—he reminds us that we should never take our civil liberties for granted. This book is a testament to the human spirit and how, in the worst of conditions with the best of men, it can be bent but never broken." —DAVID ABRAMS, author of Fobbit

"In a fast-flowing narrative replete with reconstructed dialogue, Townley writes reverently of these POWs" —Publishers Weekly

"Inspirational." —Kirkus Reviews

"Defiant is a significant document of human survival and endurance under unspeakable circumstances, and, in a time when the White House levels charges of torture against fellow Americans, provides a reality check." —World Affairs

"A gripping account of the ‘Alcatraz Eleven,’ a group of American prisoners of war in North Vietnam who formed a tough core of heroic resisters despite brutal and relentless efforts to break them and convert them into fodder for the Communist propaganda machine. … Townley’s telling of these important stories is fresh and vivid, thanks to his interviews with surviving prisoners and their family members. Defiant is an excellent book for younger readers with little knowledge of this searing chapter in American history, when a brash United States stumbled its way deeper and deeper into the Indochina morass. … Townley also adds an important, and often overlooked, dimension to the prisoners’ stories — that of their wives’ campaign at home to thrust the plight of the P.O.W.’s into the national spotlight." —The New York Times Book Review

"Townley shines a light on [the POWs’] courage and what their families back home went through." —The New York Post

"Townley recounts, in detail, how Stockdale, Denton, and the other POWs endured years of almost unimaginable physical and mental torture, and the ways the men coped with the physical pain and emotional torment." —VVA Veteran

"Defiant is a page-turner. … Defiant focuses on the prisoners — ‘war criminals’ to the Vietnamese — who were upgraded from bad (Hanoi Hilton) to worse (Alcatraz). ‘No one group endured any more than the 11 brothers,’ Townley writes, and he proves his point. ‘We should not forget,’ and you won’t." —Marine Corps Times  

Library Journal
09/01/2013
Of the hundreds of American POWs held by the North Vietnamese, 11 who led efforts to resist interrogation were considered dangerous enough to separate from the others. As they remained isolated in the Hanoi prison that became known as Alcatraz, their wives launched a superhuman effort to bring them home. Townley (Legacy of Honor) considers their courage during the war and (but for one) experiences afterward.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250006530
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 2/4/2014
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 105,814
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Alvin Townley

ALVIN TOWNLEY is the acclaimed author of Legacy of Honor, Spirit of Adventure, and Fly Navy. He lives in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.

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Read an Excerpt

1

 

 

BLACK SEA AND AMERICAN FIREPOWER

Even at 43,000 tons and nearly three football fields in length, the USS Ticonderoga rolled with the swells of the South China Sea. She had cruised the waters of the Pacific Ocean for more than twenty years now, surviving a 1945 kamikaze attack off Taiwan and steaming victoriously into Tokyo Bay six months later. In the summer of 1964, Ticonderoga had deployed to monitor a new conflict in Asia—one between Communist North Vietnam and the American-allied government in the South. Should the growing unrest finally draw America into war, she would respond with her force of more than fifty modern aircraft.

The carrier’s flight deck resembled the busiest of airports, as if the substantial traffic and activity at O’Hare or LaGuardia were compressed onto a 2-acre expanse of concrete surrounded by a 52-foot cliff. Idle planes sat chained mere feet away from the ship’s narrow landing strip. In between aircraft recoveries, taxiing jets laden with fuel and bombs jockeyed toward the two forward catapults that sent aircraft screaming off the bow, bathing everything behind them with heat, noise, and thick exhaust. Among the jet blasts and spinning propellers scurried men in grease-smudged pants and shirts of every color. Some lugged heavy chains, others pushed carts of ordnance, all shared a common mission.

Commander Jim Stockdale landed amid this chaos on August 4, 1964. He taxied to a stop, shut down the engine of his Vought F-8 Crusader, and climbed out of its single-seat cockpit. He stepped down the ladder to the deck and gazed west into the sunset. Then he watched distant lightning flicker to the north, over the Gulf of Tonkin. Hungry after a long day of patrols, he headed below deck for dinner, away from the noise and commotion.

The ship’s wardroom was testament to the adage that if a navy man gave his life for his country, he’d die clean and well fed. Stewards served dishes of hot food to officers seated at linen-covered tables. A mess officer made sure everyone maintained decorum. If an aviator had already flown his missions for the day, as Jim had, a hot shower might follow the evening meal. Later, each would fall asleep in shared staterooms. Squadron commanders—known as skippers—like Stockdale often rated a room to themselves. Regardless of their rank or roots, these naval aviators—most of whom had yet to see age thirty-five, and many younger than thirty—shared a certain confidence.

That armor was forged by surviving flight after flight and beating the grim statistics of midcentury military aviation. At the outset of flight training, many instructors warned students that their aircraft would try to kill them. Many planes succeeded. In 1956 alone, naval aviation lost 776 aircraft and 535 lives. One study gave career aviators a 23 percent chance of dying in a crash. Another offered even odds that they’d eject before they retired, an unpleasant prospect given the severe injuries pilots often sustained when blasted out of their cockpits and into an unforgiving airstream. Then the pilot could only hope his parachute would open correctly and prevent a tragic freefall.

Yet despite these risks, a certain breed of man still volunteered, men who believed they could meet any challenge and hungered for the chance to prove it. Jim Stockdale knew too many who’d died amid smashed metal and hot-burning wreckage, but he believed that he would avoid that fate; he would return. Through a combination of heavenly grace, raw talent, and navy training, he controlled his airplane and his destiny. Those that perished had made some mistake, had committed some error, had not lived up to the standard. Stepping into a jet cockpit on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier required trust in self and machine as well as a belief in the former’s dominance over the latter. He, just like everyone else in the wardroom, thought he could control the uncontrollable.

After dinner, Jim retired to Fighter Squadron 51’s briefing room, where fewer rules of etiquette applied. These rooms were the domain of the ship’s aviators and seemed like both an office and a fraternity house. In the room’s red lighting, Jim relaxed as pilots often do—by talking about flying. Suddenly, he heard propellers turning on the flight deck: A-1 Skyraiders. Just as he began wondering why Ticonderoga had decided to launch aircraft at this late hour, an officer from the ship’s Combat Information Center opened the ready room door and asked Jim, “Are they ready to go?”

He explained that two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin expected an imminent attack from North Vietnamese torpedo boats; the American ships were presenting a show of force as they gathered intelligence. Two days earlier, Jim had defended one of these destroyers, the Maddox, from three such boats, firing the navy’s first shots in the escalating conflict with North Vietnam. This evening, Ticonderoga again received orders to scramble her Combat Air Patrol—the two Crusaders from Jim’s squadron that remained armed, manned, and ready on catapults 1 and 2. Jim knew both CAP pilots were relatively inexperienced, and this mission’s sensitive nature called for a veteran. Jim had the cooler head of a senior officer and the fresh experience of his recent attack on the torpedo boats. Besides, he didn’t want to miss a fight. So he buckled his survival gear over his flight suit, grabbed his helmet, and climbed the ladder to the flight deck. He opened the metal hatch and stepped out into the din and darkness of nighttime flight operations. Toward the bow, Jim saw swarms of men wearing reflective coats and holding lighted wands to direct the launch of his squadron’s two aircraft. He dashed across the darkened flight deck to the closest Crusader, climbed to the cockpit, and relieved its startled pilot. “Unstrap and get out,” Jim ordered. “I’m getting in!”

As deckhands finished harnessing the Crusader to the catapult, Jim looked to his rearview mirror and admired the lean body of his aircraft. Behind the cockpit lay a monstrous turbojet engine that would send him racing through the sky faster than the speed of sound. Missiles hung beneath the plane’s swept-back wings. Quite literally, he sat perched on a rocket’s nose, about to join the fray. James Bond Stockdale—call sign 007—had never wanted to be anyplace else.

The square-faced forty-one-year-old had wanted this job since his boyhood, when his father, a retired navy chief petty officer, had taken his seven-year-old son east from Abington, Illinois, to Annapolis, Maryland, to witness midshipmen on parade at the U.S. Naval Academy. He heard the drums. He felt the spirit of the storied institution in its eighty-five-year history, its revered graduates, its regimented students, its unmistakable purpose. Four years later, Jim’s father took him to see the celebrated polar explorer Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd deliver the 1935 graduation address at Iowa Wesleyan College. Fresh from an Antarctic expedition, Byrd had worn his service dress whites that day. The high-collared uniform, appointed with gold naval aviator’s wings and rows of ribbons across the left side of the chest, captivated young Jim. He promised himself that one day he, like this admiral and adventurer, would accomplish something great.

Occasionally, a father’s dreams for his son coincide with his son’s own aspirations; this became the case for Vernon and Jim Stockdale. Father and son hoped that the academy would accept Jim into the brigade after he graduated high school. Jim’s father provided the encouragement, Jim did the work, and in June 1943 he joined the Class of 1947.

Regular performance reports ushered him quickly up the ranks after graduation. The reports graded him on an extensive list of qualities related to running an organization and carrying out his duties as an officer. The navy had developed Jim into an exceptional aviator, but it had first taught him to lead men. Those lessons in leadership had in no way diminished his love of flight and of the open sky. By the time he had begun his present tour as squadron commander with Fighter Squadron 51—the Screaming Eagles—he had already excelled as an aviator and officer in the eighteen years since he entered the fleet. He’d even served as an instructor at the elite navy test pilot school at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland.

From the dark cockpit, his blue eyes watched for the catapult officer’s signals. Jim saw him spin his hand rapidly and pressed the throttle forward, feeling the Crusader’s engine strain against the catapult, which would soon accelerate his plane from a standstill to 150 knots. Those jarring three seconds of his flight would be the only ones when he’d relinquish control. Jim signaled the officer with his external lights, and moments later catapult and engine launched pilot and jet into the black void at deck’s end. Aloft, Jim climbed northwest toward the fight.

Shortly after 9:00 P.M., he neared the sector the two destroyers were patrolling and descended through clouds and rain, firing several bursts from his four 20 mm cannons to ensure each barrel worked smoothly. According to reports coming through his radio, the two ships had identified contacts on their radar that the crew suspected were hostile torpedo boats.

Once below cloud level, Jim spied two wakes glowing with phosphoresce on the dark sea; he traced them to Maddox and Turner Joy. He dropped lower, to 1,000 feet, darting over the waters around the ships, searching for the reported boats. He canvassed the entire area but saw nothing. Around 9:30 P.M., Maddox fired illuminating star shells to the east, where her radar had detected inbound contacts. Turner Joy began shelling with no results. Then a new cry went up: “Torpedo in the water!” During the next hour, the Maddox reported twenty-two enemy torpedoes, yet Turner Joy reported none. The ships maneuvered across the sea, zigzagging to avoid the feared torpedoes, firing at suspected targets that seemed to appear and disappear on their radars, and directing the aircraft overhead toward the same. The executive officer aboard Maddox observed Jim’s daring maneuvers and thought the aviator either insane or the finest pilot he’d ever seen.

By the time Turner Joy and Maddox ceased firing, the destroyers had sent more than three hundred rounds into the night. Inside his cockpit, Jim wondered what kind of circus he’d joined. While frenzied men aboard the ships had reported wakes, searchlights, muzzle flashes, torpedoes, and enemy boats, Jim had seen absolutely nothing. Perhaps unbeknown to the crew, the peculiar atmospheric conditions over the gulf were capable of causing false radar contacts, and the stormy murkiness of that August night—a radarman aboard USS Maddox called the night “darker than the hubs of hell”—had added to the confusion.

Exhausted, irritated, and low on fuel, Jim winged home to Ticonderoga. He found the ship’s wake on the vast sea and lined up behind its distant runway of lights, which steadily grew larger in his view. He finessed his throttle and controls until he thundered over the carrier’s stern. His wheels squeaked onto the deck, and he felt his tailhook snag an arresting cable. When the jet had decelerated and stopped safely, he climbed out of the cockpit, still mulling the night’s strange turns.

He walked into the ready room, and his squadron mates asked, “What the hell has been going on out there?”

“Damned if I know,” Jim said. “It’s really a flap. The guy on the Maddox air control radio was giving blow-by-blow accounts … turning left, turning right, torpedoes to the right of us, torpedoes to the left of us—boom, boom, boom! I got right down there and shot at whatever they were shooting at.”

“Did you see any boats?”

“Not a one,” he answered. “No boats, no boat wakes, no ricochets off boats, no boat gunfire, no torpedo wakes.”

After he filed his debrief, baffling reports from Maddox and Turner Joy began filtering into the ready room. The destroyer captains first claimed their guns had sunk or damaged several boats. Then they began to question their equipment and their men; they second-guessed the entire incident. No witness aboard either ship had definitively seen anything. Shortly after midnight, the commander of the two destroyers, Captain John Herrick, cabled a telling flash message that advised, “Review of action makes many recorded contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by Maddox. Suggest complete evaluation before any further actions.” When Jim learned of Herrick’s last communiqué, he tossed his helmet at the ceiling and stormed off to bed, annoyed that he’d just risked his life for absolutely nothing.

Ever since Jim and his wingmen first dueled with and damaged three torpedo boats on August 2, President Lyndon Johnson saw conflict in the Gulf of Tonkin as an excuse to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Even as uncertain and conflicting accounts of what had transpired two nights later arrived in Washington, President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara decided to retaliate for what they considered two North Vietnamese provocations: one on August 2 and one on August 4. In their living rooms, thirteen hours after the second incident, Americans watched their president condemn the attacks and announce the nation’s response. “[America’s] reply,” he said, “is being given as I speak to you tonight. Air action is now in execution against gunboats and certain supporting facilities in North Vietnam which have been used in these hostile operations.”

As Johnson spoke, viewers could envision a deluge of bombs avenging the two reported attacks, when in fact the bombs had yet to fall. Jim Stockdale had been rousted out of his bunk only several hours earlier, as August 5 dawned on the waters off Vietnam, to lead the first wave of aircraft off Ticonderoga; the planes had launched less than an hour before Johnson’s speech. In a move that foreshadowed the disconnect that would persist between battlefield pilots and Washington strategists throughout the coming war, President Johnson announced the attacks before bombs had been dropped. His words helped alert the North Vietnamese to the American warplanes that were at that moment approaching their coastline, led by the skeptical yet duty-bound aviator who’d been involved in both Gulf of Tonkin incidents.

In the years following, the government never ascertained exactly what transpired on the Gulf of Tonkin that night of August 4, when the supposed second attack took place. For his part, Jim Stockdale maintained that he’d seen nothing but “black sea and American firepower.” Given the twenty-year collision course charted by Washington and Hanoi, however, if the August incident had not escalated the conflict, another incident almost certainly would have. Regardless, President Johnson used the episode to pass the Joint Resolution on Southeast Asia—widely known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—on August 7. The resolution, which passed unanimously in the U.S. House and almost so in the Senate, authorized the president to send combat forces into Vietnam without a declaration of war.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the military escalation that followed led the United States into a long war—one never officially declared—that would drastically affect millions of Vietnamese and American lives. It was a war that would leave Jim Stockdale and hundreds of other U.S. servicemen languishing in North Vietnamese prisons, some without their families’ knowledge, while their country became ensnared in a long, costly conflict originally meant to end in quick victory.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Alvin Townley

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Table of Contents

Prologue: A Dark Place

1. Black Sea and American Firepower

2. Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton

3. Dead or Alive?

4. I Submit

5. T-O- R-T- U-R- E

6. My Dearest Syb

7. Lord, I Just Need Your Help

8. I Love a Parade

9. Superman!

10. Your Adoring Husband

11. BACK US

12. A Snake You Can’t Kill

13. A Helluva Story

14. The Bad Camp

15. To Tell the World

16. We Will Break You Now

17. Blackmail

18. The Captain of My Soul

19. GBU

20. Mayday!

21. O Say Can You See?

22. Peace Is at Hand

23. God Bless America

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 6, 2014

    Highly recommend

    Once I started reading this book, I could not put it down. As hard as the content was to read, the book is so worth reading. One of the men the book was about (Nels Tannèr) lives in my hometown. It is heart wrenching to really know what he really went through.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2014

    Moving and inspirational

    This is truly an inspirational and touching story of the men who gave so much and who's morals and ethics should serve as an example to all.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2014

    hard to believe what these men endured as well as the families a

    hard to believe what these men endured as well as the families and what they went through. couldn't put the book down. all I can say is God Bless each and everyone of these men and their families. I know they mostly do not think of themselves as heroes but I can't think of a better name for them.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2014

    riveting account of amazing men in horrible circumstances

    riveting account of amazing men in horrible circumstances

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 7, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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