I heard about this book last fall while watching a football game in Annapolis. Leigh and I had taken my dad’s offer of his tickets, and he mentioned that his classmate Rear Admiral Bob Shumaker had the seats behind him. He said to make sure I introduce myself to him if he was there. RADM Shumaker had spent eight years as a Prisoner of War (POW) in Hanoi.
We had just sat down when we overheard the conversation between the gentleman directly behind us and a woman who obviously was at her first Navy football game.
“What did you do in the Navy?”
“I was in prison for 8 years.”
A prolonged silence followed.
“In Vietnam.” He continued.
Although she was in her 50’s, her questioning was almost childlike and innocent. It was fascinating to witness. He spoke of his POW experience in general terms yet he was very direct and forthright with his answers; candid and gentle in the same breath. While it was my first time meeting him, it was clear he is a consummate gentleman. As the discussion proceeded not once did I hear resentment or bitterness. Honesty and humility are often awkward dance partners; RADM Shumaker is as gracious, graceful and genuine a conversationalist you will meet.
Leigh chimed in as she had just read a book about WWII POW Louis Zamperini; an in-depth discussion of his story and the similarities of their experiences followed. What I recall most is RADM Shumaker’s respect for his kindred spirit. This is when we got the heads up on the book Defiant. Although I knew he was a POW, I had no idea of the distinguished role RADM Shumaker played in the POW camps known as Hanoi Hilton and Alcatraz.
RADM Shumaker is not the first POW I have interacted with. In fact, my 4 years at the Naval Academy were book-ended by close and personal interactions two of these distinguished men; and the POW experience was a dominant thread woven throughout the leadership curriculum at Annapolis from 1977 – 1981.
The night before Induction Day, I stayed with Captain Jack Fellowes and his family at their residence on the Naval Academy Yard. CAPT Fellowes and my father were company mates with the USNA Class of ’56. Filled with apprehension and “night before” jitters preceding my induction in July 1977, I don’t recall many details. I do remember his jovial, fun-loving spirit coupled with a sacred irreverence I found appealing.
Several days later Captain Fellowes visited my summer ‘Hotel Company’, our Plebe Summer training group. His introduction touched on his upbringing, prior enlistment, and early challenges at the Academy in the early 1950’s. He concluded that era by stating, “I graduated tenth in my class, right behind his old man” he said nodding at me.
After the eyes of my Company mates looked toward me he followed with, “But I won’t tell you from which end!”
He then talked about flight school and his assignment to an aircraft carrier which led to his plane being shot down over North Vietnam. I don’t think any of us sitting on the floor in our dormitory hallway saw that coming. He talked about his capture, transport and subsequent mistreatment. He then told us after his first night of torture his hair had turned completely white. I still get chills thinking about that statement.
Immediately after graduation, Leigh and I spent 6 weeks house-sitting for Marlene and Captain Mike McGrath while he was assigned temporary duty in Italy. His book, “Prisoner of War; Six Years in Hanoi” includes his sketches of various torture techniques used by the North Vietnamese captors. His drawings of the Hanoi Hilton and Alcatraz prison camps are illustrated in the book Defiant.
In the four years between these two distinguished bookends I have vivid memories of these men, their stories, and most importantly, the quiet interpersonal leadership skills that left an enduring imprint upon my psyche. The naval leadership curriculum was laden with lessons from the POW experience that had ended just 4 years prior to my class reporting in 1977. A few nuggets I recall:
Vice Admiral William Lawrence was the Superintendent of the Naval Academy, father of classmate Wendy Lawrence, and ultimately an honorary member of the Class of 1981. VADM Lawrence and his lovely wife Diane were as kind and gracious human beings as you could ever find. A statue in his honor has been placed near the Bancroft Hall’s Seventh Wing. You cannot have a Class of ’81 reunion without a reference to the Lawrence legacy.
Captain Dick Stratton served as the Naval Academy Operations Officer. I distinctly recall his first address to our class when he announced,with a big smile, “I’m in charge of roads and commodes!” While he touched on his capture and torture experience, what I remember most is his passionate description of a most unlikely POW hero, the story of Seamen Apprentice Doug Hegdahl.
Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, introduced to the public as a Vice Presidential running mate, penned an article entitled “The World of Epictetus” which was required reading our senior year. While I have always struggled to pronounce “Epictetus”, the Greek philosopher’s lessons of meeting outside adversity with internal strength has always stuck with me. VADM Stockdale was a captivating speaker. To read about a man who bashed his own face bloody with a wooden stool to prevent being used as Communist propaganda is one thing; to sit in his presence and hear him share about the importance of character, integrity, and self-examination in real world (albeit extreme) situations, is entirely different.
I don’t for a minute pretend to put my life’s challenges on the same plane as the conditions and treatment POW’s endured at the hands of their captors. That being said, this book has reminded me of just how much the POW experience has left not only an imprint on my psyche, but also provided guideposts that have served me well. Whether it’s cancer, addiction, or parenting teenagers, there are parallels with the internal struggles each of us must eventually negotiate throughout our lives. The greatest truths I’ve learned about myself have not come from my successes, they have come from my failures and mistakes. The ‘truth’ I am reminded of today is that no matter how extreme the external situation, it is the inner response which can give birth to a hero.
Stockdale wrote, “We are never far from the world of Epictetus.”
Surely, in the blink of an eye, everything can change. While we may never be far from the world of Epictetus, this book reminds me of both the heroes that live among us, as well as the hero that exists within us.
It doesn’t matter what your political persuasions or your views on the Vietnam War; the story of these men and their survival under the harshest of conditions is an exceptional and extraordinary set of examples of human courage and inspiration. I know it has been for me. It’s worth the read.