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‘Never Lose Faith in the United States’

FullTextImage/img/@altAlvin Townley speaks about the “Alcatraz Eleven.” -- VMI Photo by Kevin Remington.

Former POW and Author Speak on ‘Alcatraz Eleven’

LEXINGTON, Va., Feb. 21, 2014 – They communicated through walls using a “tap” code.

They passed notes when they could.

This is how the “Alcatraz Eleven” – the most influential and subversive American POWs in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War – communicated. And that communication was part of how they survived.

It is their story, and that of the families who fought for them back home, that was the subject of a talk last night in VMI’s Gillis Theater by 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. His talk was sponsored by the VMI Leadership Book Program.

Townley was accompanied by retired Rear Admiral Robert Shumaker, an eight-year prisoner of war eventually banished to North Vietnam’s “Alcatraz” prison, and Michael Denton ’81, son of former POW then-Navy Cmdr. Jeremiah Denton. VMI alumnus and retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Berger ’61, also a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam, was in the audience.

Defiant chronicles the stories of 11 American POWs in North Vietnam, all at some point imprisoned at an isolated compound that became known as “Alcatraz.” The “Alcatraz Eleven” endured years of torture, starvation, and isolation.

“That was probably the worst assignment any POW received,” Townley told the audience of cadets, faculty, staff, and area residents.

Yet throughout the almost unimaginable circumstances, the men found ways to stay united and support each other.

“They had no choice, they had to survive and they had to support each other, and that’s what they did,” said Townley.

While the men were being held, their families at home were also coming together in support, at first following the government’s orders to remain quiet about their loved ones but later rallying for action on behalf of their husbands and fathers.

“They started a nationwide and eventually a worldwide movement to improve the treatment of POWs. … This was actually one of the greatest women’s movements in American history,” noted Townley. “It tells an incredible story about how these women mobilized the country on behalf of their husbands.”

Welcomed by a standing ovation, Shumaker described his own experiences at Alcatraz, including teaching a fellow captive French by tapping out five words a day.

Shumaker was the second American taken as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, shot down and captured in February 1965 while flying an F-8 Crusader. He retired from the Navy in 1989, with military decorations including the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star (2), Legion of Merit (4), Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart (2).

Shumaker also addressed what he learned from his imprisonment, including a need for a good sense of humor, communication with others in times of stress, and never losing faith in the people or government of the United States of America.

“What you learn from that experience is what a wonderful country we belong to,” he said, “a country that never forgot us.”

VMI Regimental Adjutant Cadet Benjamin Kier ’14 sees the opportunity to learn from speakers such as Shumaker as part of the distinctive education of Virginia Military Institute.

“There are very few colleges in the country at which being part of a book program would grant you the opportunity to have dinner with one of the most defiant POWs in North Vietnam,” said Kier. “I attended this event because I felt like as a future second lieutenant in the Army it is important for me to be aware of the possible dangers I might face and how to face them honorably, as Rear Admiral Shumaker did.”

The Leadership Book Program is a cadet-led program, sponsored by the Center for Leadership and Ethics, that encourages reading and discussion on leadership topics. Prior to the presentations Townley and Shumaker joined cadets of the program for a tour of post and dinner in Crozet Hall.