The wives of POWs in Hanoi’s most notorious prison camp raised their voices to make sure Washington and the world knew the plight of their husbands.
THE POWS CALLED IT ALCATRAZ, a Hanoi jail where 11 Americans were separated from other prisoners and held in solitary confinement because they were the leaders of POWs who refused to cooperate with their captors and maintained their own code of conduct. They were subjected to especially brutal treatment. Back home, their wives began a relentless campaign to get the government to step up its efforts to free the prisoners and make sure North Vietnam followed the Geneva Convention. In an excerpt from Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned, author Alvin Townley describes how two wives in particular defied the code of silence imposed on POW families and took their cause public to put pressure on the government.
“Why do you want to fight against the just cause of Vietnam?” Hanoi Hannah asked American GIs on Jan. 30, 1968; it was Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. “You can see you are losing. Lay down your arms! Refuse to fight! Demand to be taken home, now! Today! Do you want to die in a foreign land, 8,000 miles from your home?”
As the broadcasts droned on, the 11 POWs at Alcatraz learned that North Vietnam and the Viet Cong had staged coordinated attacks throughout the South around Tet. According to Hannah, the People’s Army and the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (Viet Cong) had routed the Americans, the South Vietnamese army and the puppet regime in Saigon. Reality differed somewhat. A small unit breached the U.S. Embassy, rockets rained on the American base at Cam Ranh Bay and General William Westmoreland’s own headquarters came under fire. Ultimately, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces recovered from the surprise attack and effectively beat back the surge, but American casualties topped 20,000, with more than 5,000 killed from January through March of 1968. Insurgent losses were many times higher, yet the Communists accepted prices Americans would refuse to pay.
In the days immediately following Tet, the North Vietnamese prison camp authority covered the walls of one Alcatraz “quiz room” with photographs from the offensive. A young sergeant walked the POWs along the walls, showing them images of victorious Communist forces, burned ruins in Saigon and defeated Americans. Other photos showed images from the United States: peace marches, protests and student rallies. Sam Johnson tried not to believe the pictures.
“What do you think?” asked the sergeant.
“I don’t know,” Sam answered.
“Look around you,” he said. “You can see we are winning the war. How can you think the war will not be over soon? The United States will retreat and go home, and we will be the winners.”
A guard the POWs called Rabbit visited during the same week and happily cast even more doubt into the minds of the Alcatraz Eleven. “Our just cause is winning,” he gloated to Sam during a quiz. “Now you can see!”
“What do you mean?” Sam asked.
“You have seen proof!” Rabbit exclaimed. “Our photos, our radio! The United States has given up and will lose the war in Vietnam!”
“I cannot believe your photos or your radio.”
“The bombing has stopped,” Rabbit said. “Your country has deserted you. You will never go home. You have been left here to die.”
“I can’t believe that,” Sam said. If he let himself believe that, he’d crack in a week—but months had passed since he’d last heard an American jet over Hanoi or wailing air raid sirens. Somewhere deep inside, he worried Rabbit might be telling the truth.
“You will see,” Rabbit said with disturbing finality. “We are right.” He sent Sam back to his concrete box, which now felt a little more like a tomb.
Sam told himself that Rabbit and Hanoi Hannah were lying, as they had before. Without any information to the contrary, however, he wondered what had transpired in South Vietnam and what it meant for the men in Alcatraz. How many more years would they spend in their claustrophobic cells? Would the war ever end? Their government wouldn’t abandon them, would it?
Locked inside Cell 3, Sam found the walls alive with discussion tapped in code. Rabbit had lectured many of the POWs that day, and everyone had an opinion. “The U.S. will never give up on us,” George Coker flashed to Nels Tanner, who sent his message up and down the long cellblock.
“Never happen,” agreed the optimist, Jerry Denton. “They won’t leave us here.”
The men on both sides hoped their leaders were correct.
By March 1968, 78 percent of the U.S. public believed the war would lead nowhere. Calls for withdrawal became more widespread. In Tet, the administration and the public saw a long-discounted insurgency stage a campaign across the whole of South Vietnam. The United States had nearly 500,000 troops deployed to Southeast Asia, and an endless cycle of aircraft carriers constantly came and went from Yankee Station, yet somehow America had still not won.
In the aftermath of Tet and a narrow victory over primary challenger Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, President Johnson decided not to seek a second term. Even as he prepared to pass the Vietnam conflict to yet another U.S. president, he reiterated his hope for peace while also restating his commitment to South Vietnam’s struggle against Communist forces.
At the Paris peace talks in May, the North Vietnamese demanded a complete halt to the bombing before serious talks began. The United States, however, wanted to prevent Hanoi from using a halt to regroup, as it had done during previous bombing pauses. Further delaying peace, Ho Chi Minh and Le Duan, one of the North Vietnamese leaders most committed to military victory, still believed that the longer they waited, the stronger their negotiating position would become. Consequently, the final year of President Johnson’s term would yield little diplomatic progress while nearly 17,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam.
That spring of 1968 marked the Alcatraz Eleven’s fifth month in exile. Jim Mulligan watched the overcast winter skies become clearer each day during his morning walks to the latrine. In the early morning, the sun began heating Jim Mulligan’s roof and his exposed wall. Then as it arched across the sky, it directed its rays on his cell’s door and iron transom. Heat from the roof tiles, door, metal plate and walls seared his lungs with each breath and began roasting him from the inside out. As the cell grew hotter, he crouched by the narrow opening under the door to suck the slightly cooler air from outside.
On May 26, he lay on his sweaty back and prayed for aid. “Lord, you’ve got to help me,” Jim pleaded. “I can’t stand it any longer, Lord. Lord, you’ve got to do something.” Seemingly in response, Jim heard the distant rumble of a thunderstorm. Inspired, he offered another plea, “Lord, make it rain, make it rain.” Before the day ended, the rain arrived, cooling the tiles and walls surrounding him. “Thank you, Lord, thank you, Lord,” he repeated. “When I get out and tell this story someone will say, ‘It was just coincidence, the mere arrival of a fast-moving tropical cold front.’ But you and I know it was more than that. In my direst need I begged for your help and you answered me. Thank you, Lord.”
Whether divinity interceded or not, Jim believed it had. As days of captivity ticked by, the Lord became a crucial member of the Alcatraz brotherhood.
By June POWs estimated temperatures inside the cells at more than 110 degrees. Sweat, body odor, honey bucket and heat combined to make each breath nauseating. Long-term dehydration eroded the POWs’ minds and bodies. Night brought only slight relief, as the walls radiated heat long after sundown. Worst of all, the inmates knew no relief would come until fall.
Jerry Denton realized that if something didn’t change sooner than that, these POW pilots would have survived their ejections, years in Hoa Lo’s dismal cells and countless torture sessions only to be broiled to death. He finally struck upon a plan. He and Coker, known as CAG, placed the men on a gradual hunger strike; they each took slightly less food each day and claimed they’d become too hot to eat. Thus, they avoided a direct challenge to the camp commander, whom they called Rat. The next time Jerry saw a guard, he requested an audience with the camp commander. With Rat curious about the men’s waning appetites, Jerry got his hearing.
A guard escorted him up the steps near Cell 1 through the courtyard gate, along the narrow stucco quiz building and through one of its three doors to a small room with a concrete floor. A single light bulb burned overhead, and green shutters covered a window that overlooked the rear of Jim Mulligan’s and CAG’s cells.
Rat was seated behind a desk, waiting for him. When he’d taken his seat, Jerry said to Rat, “I want to congratulate you on carrying through on the excruciating treatment and putting us to a slow death by heat.”
“No, Denton,” Rat responded. “I did not know conditions were that bad. Our orders are to keep you isolated and in irons. We have no orders to kill you. We will study.”
The appearance of Cat, commander of the entire North Vietnamese prisoner detention program, on June 19, 1968, hastened the Camp Authority’s assessment. When CAG saw Cat through his peephole, he frantically tapped to Jim Mulligan, “That’s the Cat.” As part of Cat’s tour, Rat arranged an interview with Mulligan.
“Why do you not eat?” Rat asked when the interview began.
“I am not well,” Jim replied. Rat translated for Cat, even though Cat understood English.
“Where are you sick?” Cat asked.
In answer, Jim stood up and took off his shirt. The officials gawked at his pasty, emaciated torso. Muscle had disappeared and bone showed through skin. “You are impolite,” said Cat, switching to English. “Put on your clothes. I will punish you for your bad attitude.”
“You can’t punish me any more than you punish me now,” Mulligan shot back. “I am more dead than alive. You keep me in the leg irons and you do not give me fresh air and I am dying here. I am lonesome for my family. I get no mail. I do not care what you do any more. I am sick and I am dying….It is too hot and I need fresh air.”
The outburst surprised the officers, but Cat maintained his composure and leveled a soft question at Jim, asking about his family.
“I miss my wife and six sons,” he answered. “On July 1 it is the birthday of my wife.”
“If you eat your food the Camp Authority may have for you a letter on the birthday of your wife,” Cat said. “Will you try to eat for me your meal today?”
Jim issued a halfhearted answer, and Rat ordered him back to the sauna of Cell 11. Jim bowed and shuffled off, purposely looking even more lethargic than he felt. Within the hour, Cat and Rat entered the courtyard with a chubby supply officer nicknamed Piggy. Piggy opened Jim’s door and winced at the wall of blistering air that hit him. He braced himself on the door and immediately jerked his hand away from the scalding iron and wood. Jim smiled and pointed to the iron-plated transom, which registered an even higher temperature. Piggy hustled off to talk with Cat and Rat.
Later that day, work crews entered the courtyard and began covering the roofs with palm leaves and planting vines along the buildings, creating shade to combat the sun. Most important, the workers detached the metal plates covering the transoms. Rusted screws slowed the work, but within two days, each cell had some protection from the rays above and an airway to vent the heat. The conditions remained oppressive, and the POWs would still suffer through a long summer, but at least they could breathe.
Soon after workers pried the iron plate from Jim Mulligan’s cell, a guard delivered a plate of rice, seaweed soup and a banana. Jim ended his hunger strike, gulping down every scrap in the relative cool of his cell; he guessed the temperature had fallen nearer 100. On July 1, Cat kept his promise and gave him a letter from Louise.
As peace negotiations began in Paris that spring of 1968, Sybil Stockdale, the wife of Alcatraz POW Jim Stockdale, prepared for her annual migration from Coronado, Calif., to Sunset Beach in Connecticut. Before she departed, another military wife suggested she meet with Louise Mulligan. Mirroring military hierarchy, leadership roles on the homefront fell to the wives of senior officers. Thus Sybil led San Diego’s League of Wives, and Louise essentially led the less-formalized POW wives on the East Coast, although she would never have claimed that position. That summer, Sybil drove from Connecticut down to Virginia Beach for dinner with Louise, and the two POW wives sat down to what would be a momentous meal. Sybil shared ideas about mobilizing clergy and other public figures on behalf of the POWs, a tack that would give the wives more activist roles; no longer would they just provide each other with emotional support. They discussed the need to comply with the government’s Keep Quiet policy (the families of POWs were urged to keep the prisoners’ status secret; they were not to disclose anything more than prisoners’ names, ranks, service numbers and dates of birth), but the two headstrong women recognized that someone else had to take initiative considering the government’s lack of progress. By the dinner’s end, it was agreed that Louise would formalize the POW movement on the East Coast and coordinate operations with the League of Wives on the West Coast. Together they would operate under the umbrella of the League of Families of American Prisoners of War and Missing. Sybil’s League of Wives, Louise’s network and other small groups would begin using the common League of Families name, even as they retained their independence and, for the moment, remained primarily regional organizations.
Louise first needed to identify all the POW/MIA wives— from every branch of the military—living in the greater Norfolk area, but the Navy, Army and Air Force refused to release any names. Undeterred, Louise and other local wives in her network soon learned that the Department of Defense had obtained foreign footage of POWs and was showing the reels at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach; Defense had invited nearby Army and Air Force wives and family members to help identify individual prisoners. Nobody had invited the Navy wives, so they simply showed up. They met their Air Force and Army counterparts and welcomed them to their sisterhood.
By the fall, Sybil had become fully convinced that government diplomats either could not or would not act to help the POWs. Her tolerance for the Keep Quiet policy had ended when Ambassador Averell Harriman welcomed the early release of three more POWs in August. As Sybil and most members of the military community saw it, agreeing to selective early release violated the Code of Conduct. Their men had pledged—sworn—to accept no parole or special favors; their orders stated they should come home in order of shootdown.
Lieutenant Commander John McCain—the future U.S. senator shot down in the same month that the Eleven arrived at Alcatraz—had resisted intense pressure from Cat to accept early release that very summer. Cat had hoped for a publicity victory by releasing the badly injured son of the newly installed commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Jack McCain, but the young McCain flatly refused to accept Cat’s offer. Guards beat him for four straight days and extracted a confession. Other men also accepted punishment and deprivation rather than the favor of early release. The POW wives and their incarcerated husbands alike were galled by those who went home before their fellow prisoners.
In early September, Sybil read a San Diego Union article titled “Red Brainwash Teams Work on U.S. Pilots,” which described the treatment of POWs. She immediately sent a pointed telegram to Harriman, demanding to know how he would protect her husband and other POWs against these Geneva violations.
Harriman cabled: “Dear Mrs. Stockdale…North Vietnamese representatives here have indicated to me that the release last month of three pilots was a gesture of good will. I have urged them to give serious consideration to further releases, including those pilots that have been held the longest time, and those that have been injured. I am sure you realize that the welfare and early release of our men held prisoner continues to be uppermost in my mind.”
The ambassador’s encouragement of more early releases left the POW wives aghast at the State Department’s lack of military understanding—not to mention its failure to make any substantive progress on properly freeing any prisoners or guaranteeing their Geneva rights. Sybil could hardly believe her country’s POW policy revolved around arbitrary North Vietnamese benevolence. She wanted President Johnson to publicly shame Hanoi for its violation of the Geneva Convention—and she wanted him to bring her husband home. She felt he should either decide to win the war by employing America’s full arsenal or agree to withdraw after the prisoners were freed. More hesitation seemed only to assure more anguish for the POWs and their families, who all lived in limbo.
On the third anniversary of her husband’s shootdown, Sybil began to compose the article that would at long last break from the military’s Keep Quiet policy. She shared the idea with her confidant at the Pentagon, Commander Bob Boroughs, who expressed concern that the article could jeopardize the clandestine communication between Jim and Naval Intelligence. Still, Sybil adamantly believed the POW/ MIA community needed someone to take the first step across the line that the government had, in her opinion, so senselessly drawn. Boroughs tabled his objections; he knew Sybil had made her decision, and privately he seemed to believe it was the right course.
She submitted her article to the Copley News Service, which owned the San Diego Union. They called several days later to ask if Sybil wanted to sell them the story. “Heavens no,” she said. “I just want to tell the world the truth about what’s happening to Jim.” Copley assigned a reporter to write an article about her story. The Oct. 27, 1968, San Diego Union carried the reporter’s piece in section A, ending Sybil’s three years of silence. The article described North Vietnam’s Geneva violations, announced the role of the League of Families and quoted Sybil as saying, “The North Vietnamese have shown me the only thing they respond to is world opinion. The world does not know of their negligences and they should know!” Sybil read over her words and wondered when the government would upbraid her for breaking its policy. As it turned out, the Pentagon was too preoccupied with military efforts to respond. With Johnson’s term winding down and the antiwar movement growing, the State Department and the rest of the administration also remained silent.
Louise Mulligan soon learned about the article. Like Sybil, she had lost faith in the government. Though the people in the Washington bureaucracy proved accessible—she could always speak with someone at the White House, Pentagon or State Department—all their words and promises had done nothing for her Jim. In a meeting with Harriman, Louise shared her first letter from her husband. Jim made comments about receiving bananas, vitamins, oranges, meat and vegetables—along with Piles Of Whole grain rice and Plenty Of Warm soup. Louise had figured out the hidden message and knew Jim received none of those things, but Harriman missed the code for “POW.” He did not think Jim playing “that famous game of solitaire” had any connection to solitary confinement. Louise rolled her eyes as her last bit of patience with the Johnson administration slipped away.
Back at home in Virginia Beach, Louise rallied the other East Coast POW wives, and together they composed a letter to the Department of Defense announcing their decision to bring their cause to the public. That members of the rule-bound military world would break ranks showed the depth of their disillusionment with the government. The Pentagon offered no resistance, and the women now accepted responsibility should their publicity bring harm to their husbands.
In early November, the Alcatraz prisoners heard Hanoi Hannah announce that Richard Nixon had defeated Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election. Sam believed Nixon would draw a tougher line with regard to the war. The Camp Authority anticipated the same and toughened its own stance.
With the prospect of a new man in the White House and a new secretary of defense, many POW families saw an opportunity for change. Sybil Stockdale wrote California Governor Ronald Reagan, hoping he’d serve as her emissary to the new administration, but Reagan’s staff refused to schedule an appointment. Livid, Sybil dispatched a biting telegram to his office. The next week, Reagan called her directly; she would never forget first hearing his resonant voice. When the two had finished their conversation, he had promised to pass Sybil’s message to President-elect Nixon. For the first time since her long ordeal began, Sybil felt that a politician genuinely cared.
By early January 1969, five other San Diego wives had written articles about the plight of POW/MIA families. Following the plans Sybil and Louise hatched that previous summer, the East and West Coast organizations continued transitioning from support groups to leagues of advocacy, from regional entities to one with national scope. The League of Families now also had member groups from across the country, including one organized in Texas by Sam Johnson’s wife, Shirley. Leaders like Louise Mulligan spent entire days talking on the phone with activists throughout the country, sharing information, encouragement and ideas. Together, these independent but coordinated groups pressured the military, the government and every other possible source for information, and they began educating Americans about the Geneva Convention. They flooded elected officials and the media with POW-related news and encouraged POW/MIA families to become activists and educators, telling their stories to communities and press across the country.
The League organized a nationwide telegram-writing campaign in the days before the presidential inauguration, and on January 20 more than 2,000 telegrams concerning the POW/MIA issue landed in the White House. President Nixon took office facing a community of families his administration could neither ignore nor silence. The new president responded to several families, informing them that he shared their concern and that “the subject of [prisoner] release and welfare will have an urgent priority in our talks in Paris.” He would also share his concern with his new secretary of defense. Having proven they could mobilize America’s military families and grab Washington’s attention, the coalescing national network began distributing materials to the public, providing instructions for cabling the North Vietnamese delegation at the Paris peace talks to inquire about America’s captive and missing servicemen. Members of the League courageously defied their government’s Keep Quiet policy and raised their voices, hoping Washington and the world would listen.
Alvin Townley has published three other books: Legacy of Honor, Spirit of Adventure and Fly Navy.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.