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Book Review: A Prisoner's Duty (by Robert C. Doyle) : MH

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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A Prisoner's Duty: Great Escapes in U.S. Military History, by Robert C. Doyle, Bantam Books, New York, 1999, paperback, $6.50.

Soldiers' duties do not end when they become prisoners of war. In A Prisoner's Duty: Great Escapes in U.S. Military History, Robert C. Doyle presents a collection of amazing but true stories of soldiers and civilians who risked their lives to fulfill the POW's ultimate duty: escape.

The first recorded escape in the New World was that of Squanto, an Indian captured by English fishermen and sold into slavery in England. There he learned English and stole aboard another fishing vessel headed across the Atlantic Ocean to return home, only to find that his tribe had vanished. He subsequently helped the Pilgrims survive in the new colony they established in Massachusetts, and was in turn rescued from a hostile Indian tribe by Captain Miles Standish.

Among the many whites who fell into Indian hands was John Knight, who escaped on the morning of his scheduled execution. Knight apparently used a piece of wood that was to have been part of his funeral pyre as a weapon.

One of many privateers captured and imprisoned in Britain during the American Revolution, Captain Joshua Barney donned a British uniform and went over the wall of Mill Prison, eventually making his way to France and then back to America. During the Civil War, many Union prisoners escaped by means of the same Underground Railroad network that slaves had used to escape bondage. Escaped Confederate POWs were often helped by northern sympathizers to reach Canada, then returned to the South aboard blockade runners. Confederate Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan led six of his men in an improbable escape from a maximum-security prison by digging through 2 feet of masonry with two table knives.

During World War II, American authorities set up escape routes from Germany and France. It was usually with outside help that the most successful escapes were made, the escapees and their cohorts risking SS death squads or the prospect of transfer to a Nazi death camp. The few American POWs who escaped the Japanese in the Philippines had help from Filipino guerrillas, whom they usually joined.

Few Americans escaped from North Korean or Chinese prison camps during the Korean War. Likewise, few Americans escaped from North Vietnam, but several were awarded the Medal of Honor for their performance as POWs, a tougher duty in many ways than combat. Doyle reminds readers that civilians can also be held captive. He includes the stories of the embassy personnel held in Iran, as well as the journalists and educators who spent months or years in captivity in Lebanon.

Doyle, who has a doctorate in American cultural studies from Bowling Green State University, served as a U.S. Navy intelligence officer during the Vietnam War. A Prisoner's Duty stems partly from his own experience. The result is an engrossing book on a fascinating subject.

Calvin G. Bass

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