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Another Outstanding Vietnam War POW Memoir
Memoirs by former Vietnam War POWs and accounts of their time as prisoners by journalists and historians became something of a cottage industry beginning in the early 1980s. Many books by and about the POWs have been written since then. Some were bestsellers, including John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers (1999). Other notable POW memoirs include Nick Rowe’s Five Years to Freedom (1971), Jeremiah Denton’s When Hell Was in Session (1976), Jim and Sybil Stockdale’s In Love and War (1984), and Everett Alvarez’s Chained Eagle (1989).
The latest outstanding Vietnam War POW memoir — and one of the few that’s been published in recent years — is Porter Halyburton’s Reflections on Captivity: A Tapestry of Stories by a Vietnam War POW (Naval Institute Press, 176 pp. $21.95, hardcover and eBook). This short book contains 50 sharply written short essays that, in the main, contain accounts of positive moments during Halyburton’s 2,675 days (nearly seven-and-a-half years) in captivity.
“When I began writing these stories about my time in prison, I wanted to concentrate on the positive aspects rather than the negative ones,” he says. “I tried to include tales of great courage and leadership; accounts of creativity, innovation, education, and adaptation; stories about exceptional individuals; humorous incidents; and finally, a look at the things I learned that helped me survive and that still guide my life today.”
That said, Halyburton — a Navy aviator shot down over North Vietnam on October 17, 1965 — does recount non-positive aspects of life in the Hanoi Hilton, primarily the severe physical and psychological torture meted out to himself and other POWs.
There’s an especially compelling account of what Air Force F-105 pilot Fred Cherry put up with, including the eight months that he and Halyburton — an African American and a white southerner — shared a cell. In the North Vietnamese “stereotyped view of Americans,” Halyburton writes, “they were sure that a young, southern white boy would hate and look down upon all black people.” They were wrong.
More than once Halyburton heroically nursed Cherry back from almost certain death, caring for his wounds and illnesses. He writes about those vexing times plainly but also self-deprecatingly. The late Fred Cherry, Halyburton says, “later said that I saved his life, but he was the one who probably saved mine” by giving “meaning to my life beyond just survival and doing my duty. Caring for Fred helped me to put my captivity in a new perspective.” The two men would go on to become lifelong friends after they were released in 1973.
As for “creativity, innovation, and education,” Halyburton describes how, during the long hours he spent in the Hanoi Hilton, he learned German, wrote songs, composed poetry, and memorized hundreds of names of fellow POWs in the event that if he were released, he could report them to the authorities. And, most positively of all, he writes about his thoughts when he marched out of the main gate of the prison at 7:20 a.m. on February 12, 1973, his last day of captivity.
Going out that gate, he writes, “I turned to face the compound and said, ‘I forgive you.’ I did that because I knew I could not and should not carry that hatred back home with me, back to my family and my life of freedom.” He realized “that although hatred had been useful as part of the armor that had protected me” in the prison, “it was no longer needed. Hatred is a poison to the soul, mind, and body.
“When I walked through those gates and said those words, I was freed from two prisons. It was the most liberating act of my life and I chose to do it. One must choose to forgive.”
Is there a more fitting nickname for a battle-hardened, hard-charging infantry general than “Iron Mike”? That hardcore moniker belonged to U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John Wilson O’Daniel, who was born in 1894 and earned his combat spurs as a tough-talking, aggressive 25-year old lieutenant with the 5th Infantry Division in France in World War I; then commanding the 34th Infantry Division’s 168th Regiment in North Africa and Italy, and was the 3rd Infantry Division commander in France in World War II. After the war he headed up the Infantry Center at Fort Benning and then commanded 1st U.S. Corps in the Korean War. His motto was “Sharpen your bayonets.”
In 1953, while serving as the U.S. Army commander in the Pacific, O’Daniel was dispatched by President Eisenhower to Vietnam to advise the French military in its soon-to-be lost fight against the communist-led Vietminh. The following year, O’Daniel became the head of newly formed Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon, the predecessor of MACV, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, which formed in 1962 to direct the American war effort.
As MAAG head during the infancy of American military involvement in Vietnam, O’Daniel’s job was to train the newly formed South Vietnamese Army; to help resettle some 750,000 people who fled northern Vietnam when the country was divided following the 1954 French defeat; and to direct the small but growing American military advisory commitment to South Vietnam. After a three-war career of virtually unqualified success, O’Daniel’s work in Vietnam would prove to be mixed at best—and at worst, a failure.
Here’s how retired Army Lt. Col. Timothy R. Stoy assesses that situation in his comprehensive, admiring but fair-minded biography, Sharpen Your Bayonets: A Biography of Lieutenant General John Wilson “Iron Mike” O’Daniel: Commander, 3rd Infantry Division in World War II (Casemate, 320 pp. $37.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle)
O’Daniel, Stoy says, “was the right man to train and motivate the [South] Vietnamese Army.” He was “the right man at the right place and time” to take charge of the influx of refugees from North Vietnam. And he was “the right man to whip up support for the [fledgling] South Vietnamese government.”
On the other hand, he says, O’Daniel was “the wrong man to advise [French commanding Gen. Henri] Navarre on how to conduct the war against the Vietminh.” And “the wrong man to determine the size and organization” of the South Vietnamese Army. Why? In a nutshell, O’Daniel’s long military experiences centered on conventional, 20th century warfare, and his ironclad ideas about military tactics and strategy were particularly ill-suited to fighting an insurgent rebellion against a colonizing nation.
O’Daniel’s “total lack of knowledge” of the history of French colonial rule in Indochina “prevented his providing realistic advice to Navarre” on how to fight the Vietminh, Stoy says. O’Daniel — a “headstrong, aggressive, pugnacious trainer and fighter” — recommended “a force structure strong on conventional capabilities, but not fully appropriate to counter an insurgency.” What’s more, “nothing in his previous military experience gave him the necessary appreciation for the economic and policy constraints his and the French government were operating under.”
O’Daniel, who left Vietnam in late 1955 and retired from the military the next year, was a strong supporter of South Vietnamese strongman Ngo Dinh Diem. After leaving Vietnam, O’Daniel headed the rabidly pro-Diem and anticommunist American Friends of Vietnam, a private lobbying group, until 1963 when Diem was assassinated.
Iron Mike O’Daniel died at 81 in March 1975, a Vietnam War ultra-hawk to the end.
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