Title: UNEXPECTED PRISONER: Memoir of a Vietnam Prisoner of War
Author: Robert Wideman
Publisher: Graham Publishing Group
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About the Book:
When Unexpected Prisoner opens, it’s May 6, 1967 and 23-year-old Lieutenant Robert Wideman is flying a Navy A-4 Skyhawk over Vietnam. At 23, Wideman had already served three and a half years in the Navy—and was only 27 combat days away from heading home to America. But on that cloudless day in May, on a routine bombing run, Wideman’s plane crashed and he fell into enemy hands. Captured and held for six years as a Prisoner of War in Vietnam, Wideman endured the kind of pain that makes people question humanity. Physical torture, however, was not the biggest challenge he was forced to withstand. In his candid memoir, Unexpected Prisoner, Wideman details the raw, unvarnished tale of how he came to understand the truth behind Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “Hell is other people.”
A gripping, first-person account that chronicles the six-year period Wideman spent in captivity as a POW, Unexpected Prisoner plunges readers deep into the heart of one of the most protracted, deadliest conflicts in American history: the Vietnam War. Wideman, along with acclaimed memoirist Cara Lopez Lee, has crafted a story that is exquisitely engaging, richly detailed, and wholly captivating. Unexpectedly candid and vibrantly vivid, this moving memoir chronicles a POW’s struggle with enemies and comrades, Vietnamese interrogators and American commanders, lost dreams, and ultimately, himself.
With its eye-opening look at a soldier’s life before, during and after captivity, Unexpected Prisoner presents a uniquely human perspective on war and on conflicts both external and internal. An exceptional story exceptionally well-told, Unexpected Prisoner is a powerful, poignant, often provocative tale about struggle, survival, hope, and redemption.
The POWs who landed in Hanoi’s prison camps can thank God
their treatment was as good as it was. I know some never saw it
that way. Only seven prisoners died in Hanoi: two stopped eating;
one died from a combination of ejection wounds, exposure,
and the Vietnamese rope treatment; one died during an escape
attempt; and one succumbed to typhoid. I’m not sure what happened
to the other two.
In America’s Civil War, thirteen thousand Union prisoners died
at the Confederacy’s infamous Camp Sumter near Andersonville,
Georgia. In World War Two, the Japanese chopped off two
American heads for every mile of the sixty-five-mile Bataan Death
March. Of the more than twenty-seven thousand American POWs
in Japan, between 27 and 40 percent died in captivity. In that
same war, Germany admitted that three million Russians died in
German prison camps. In turn, the Russians captured ninety-five
thousand Germans at Stalingrad and only four thousand returned
With the exception of some of America’s prisoners in World
War Two, it may be that never in the history of warfare have POWs
been treated so well as we were in North Vietnam. Prisoners held
by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam were another story; I won’t
speak to that because I wasn’t there.
Although I suffered painful physical punishment, which some
call torture, I’ve always had a hard time calling what the North
Vietnamese did to me torture. It was a bad experience, but it could
have been much worse.
Although we successfully established communication at each
prison camp, it was not perfect or consistent. Many POWs later
talked about how we were always able to communicate despite the
North Vietnamese Army’s efforts to stop us, presumably because
of the “great leadership” we had. On the contrary. The NVA leadership
proved they could shut down our communications whenever
they wanted, which they did after the escape attempt. Some
key personnel did not communicate for two months.
It was clear to me that many Naval Academy graduates and
senior officers did whatever it took to please their bosses. Such
sycophants taught me one of the most important lessons I learned
from my Vietnam experience: there will always be people who
pursue power by ingratiating themselves to those in power without
pausing to assess the goals of those leaders. I came to understand
this as a POW, but I have witnessed it in all institutions
since: corporations, bureaucracies, schools, churches, you name it.
My sense is that most pilots had huge egos—me included—
which probably drove us to become fighter pilots in the first place.
The most hardline of the POWs had the most problems in prison.
The North Vietnamese forced them to make the most confessions
and visit the most delegations to feed the Vietnamese propaganda
It’s well documented that many American political and military
leaders knew we were fighting an unwinnable war but said nothing
because they feared jeopardizing their careers. Those same
leaders demeaned and discredited the courageous Americans
who publicly opposed the Vietnam War, especially big names like
Jane Fonda. When Fonda came to visit us in 1972, we were being
treated well, just like she said we were. We went outside several
hours a day, ate three meals a day, and received regular letters and
packages from home. The barrage of war protests put pressure on
the government to end the war. But for them, we would still be
When we came home, POWs who supported the war were encouraged
to speak out while those who did not were not encouraged
to speak out. That policy continues today, and is one reason
we have an inflated view of the importance of funding America’s
military might. We primarily receive the viewpoint of those invested
in maintaining power.
After the war, I talked to an Army colonel in Tampa, Florida
who helped plan the Son Tay Raid. He told me that the American
military knew the camp was empty thirty days before the raid, but
our leadership weighed the costs and benefits of going through
with it anyway, and the benefits won. They knew they would recover
no prisoners. Such was the American need to keep its own
propaganda machine running.
A Wartime Nation
Our armed services have not won a conflict since World War
Two, yet we keep waging war as if it were the national pastime.
One reason this happens is because so many of our military leaders
want to perpetuate their power.
Little has changed in the military since we lost in Vietnam.
We continue to pursue costly wars that yield questionable results.
The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, like Vietnam, were monumental
blunders motivated by American hubris. Once again, we
have preyed on countries that we view as weaker than ours and
have tried to impose our will on them, only to discover that the
will of other cultures to chart their own course is stronger than
In Vietnam, we supported a Catholic puppet regime even
though 95 percent of the Vietnamese population was Buddhist.
What made us think they would welcome us as liberators? Once
again, we have installed puppet regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan,
only to see fringe groups like ISIS take advantage of the power
flux to inflame those disenfranchised by our interference. The
local populations of those countries now hate us just as the
When I first returned from Vietnam, plenty in the military
refused to let go of the belief we had won, despite the facts.
They said things like: We stopped them…Our bombing campaign
brought them to the table…It was a victory for America. Many bureaucrats
and politicians do the same today, ignoring facts so they
can cling to claims of success in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What’s more, all of these wars have contributed to national
inflation and debt, as well as international economic instability.
President Johnson tried to initiate The Great Society and fight
the Vietnam War at the same time. He had enough money to
pursue one agenda, not both. President Nixon once admitted that
one reason the Vietnam conflict dragged on was because he didn’t
want to be the first American president to lose a war. The reason
we got out of that war wasn’t because the U.S. was ready to admit
defeat but because we couldn’t afford it anymore.
President Carter inherited the inflation caused by Vietnam.
Every economic crisis since has been aftermath. President Reagan
said he would increase employment and kill inflation, even though
economists said we couldn’t have it both ways. A lot of people
were impressed because he did it. How? He put everything on a
credit card. That’s when our debt started to skyrocket.
President Clinton made a dent in that debt, but President
George W. Bush went to war and ran it back up again, from five
trillion to ten trillion. Like the leaders who ignored the facts on
Vietnam, Bush ignored the facts on Iraq. Iraq did not perpetrate
the 9/11 attacks. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq until after Bush
invaded. There was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction
in Iraq. Bush had an agenda to take on Saddam Hussein, so he
did, despite the facts.
Why would any thinking president take us into Afghanistan?
The British went there and got their butts kicked. The Russians
went there and got their butts kicked. Why did Bush ignore history?
Someone once said, “Afghanistan is a place where great powers
go to get humiliated.”
Some generals warned Bush he couldn’t win in Iraq with his
limited troops, so Bush sought other generals who toed the party
line and put them in charge. How else could General Casey have
become a four-star general with no combat experience?
Meanwhile, the housing bubble burst in 2008 and our debt
went up again. Today it has surpassed eighteen trillion dollars.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to this debt.
The United States spends more on military defense than the
top seven to nine nations combined, depending on which source
you consider. The problem is not Persian warships in Chesapeake
Bay. The problem is American warships in the Persian Gulf. We
just keep sticking our nose into other people’s business.
I’ve learned that almost every modern war is about lining pockets.
I’m all for capitalism, but I know who stands to benefit if we
convert the world to capitalism: big business. We had to kill the
commies because they were going to interfere with America making
money. Now we kill Muslims for the same reason. Nobody
talks about it because it’s not politically correct to ask people to
die for money. Instead, leaders put a spiritual spin on it and make
it a righteous cause.
In the military, the desire for money translates into the desire
for power. That thirst trickles down through the ranks. I saw this
firsthand in the POW camps.
It’s popular to talk about these wars as fights for freedom or
democracy, or as battles against political tyranny or religious fanaticism.
It really isn’t about religion or democracy. It’s about rich
versus poor. Of course, if we’re talking about the soldiers on the
front line, then it’s simply poor versus poor. Those are the people
fighting each other.
For Vietnam, we had a draft, but if a draftee’s family had money
he could get around that. We tried to stop that problem with
the volunteer army. But who volunteers? The poor, who have few
opportunities besides what the military promises. Different path,
same result. The poor are the people we fight, and the poor are
the people who fight for us.
Torture, American Style
We’re all aware of the Bush administration’s approval of the
CIA torturing suspected terrorists at black sites around the globe.
According to the Associated Press, the Congressional Record,
Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. military’s investigative documents,
as of 2006, at least 108 POWs from our wars with Iraq
and Afghanistan died in American custody. At least thirty-four
of those deaths were either suspected or confirmed homicides.
That’s more than four times the number of the American POWs
who died in Hanoi.
Bush’s attorneys lined up experts who said that the CIA’s “enhanced
interrogation techniques” were not torture. Those techniques
continued under President Barrack Obama. In 2015, the
Senate Intelligence Committee commissioned a report on the
CIA’s interrogations and concluded that much of what had been
approved does indeed constitute torture.
Here are just a few instances of torture that the report identified:
One prisoner froze to death after being left to sleep without
pants on a cold concrete floor. Another was forced to stand in a
“stress position” on broken bones. Others were placed in isolation
or were sleep-deprived until they suffered symptoms of psychosis
such as hallucinations, paranoia, and self-mutilation. Some prisoners
were forced to go through rectal hydration or rectal feeding,
in which water or food was forced into the anus, which can leave
the kind of damage associated with sexual assault. And of course,
we’ve all heard the debates over waterboarding.
I agree with Senator John McCain’s assessment of the report
on two counts: 1) those techniques are torture, and 2) those techniques
do not work. I have a problem with our country torturing
war prisoners, both because it is morally wrong and because it
creates more enemies for America. We call what our enemies do
to their prisoners torture while asserting that we’re a kind, just
people who don’t do that sort of thing. I find it offensive that
some POWs have supported the torture of prisoners in the Iraq
and Afghanistan Wars after whining about their own treatment
by the North Vietnamese.
In any case, there’s no need to go so far. The Vietnamese got all
the information they needed by bringing people to a certain point
of pain and holding them there. Beyond that point, people will
say or do anything. That’s when information becomes unreliable.
Our country has inflicted prisoners with torments well beyond
anything I suffered in Vietnam.
In my opinion, the people who order the sort of torture described
in that Senate Intelligence Committee report are war
criminals, Bush and Obama among them. I consider the subordinates
who carried out those orders guilty too. I believe we must
each take responsibility for the morality of our actions. We need
to try all of them for war crimes.
Not two years after the North Vietnam POWs returned, the divorce
rate among our ranks soared to 85 percent. This high number
was likely a result, at least in part, of post-traumatic stress and
the long separation of husbands and wives.
Pat was 19 and I was 22 when we married. We were just too
young. A few weeks after I returned home and we took our vows
again, we visited another couple. The wife pulled me aside to say,
“Don’t be so critical of Pat.” She was right. I was very impatient
with my wife.
Excessive arguing is a classic symptom of Post-Traumatic
Stress Disorder, which I didn’t know much about at the time, but
which soon became a household word surrounding the subject of
Vietnam War veterans. Pat and I argued so much that our seventy-
pound Doberman Pinscher hid behind the sofa. More importantly,
we had two sons: Eric, born in 1974, and Derek, born in
- What did those arguments do to the minds of a two-year-old
and a four-year-old?
In 1976, we left our home in the beachside town of Monterey,
California for Meridian, Mississippi, where I became a Navy
comptroller. The arguments escalated. Neither Pat nor I wanted
to hurt our boys. We soon separated, and in January of 1978 we
On My Knees
From long before Vietnam until long after, I didn’t believe in
God. I considered God an imaginary crutch for people too weak to
handle their problems. I realize now that toughing out imprisonment
without any spiritual support inflated my ego.
After I separated from my wife, I knew I needed to talk to
somebody. I thought I had two choices: a minister or a shrink. I
remembered that Thomas Eagleton underwent psychiatric treatment
before he ran for Vice President as McGovern’s running
mate in 1972. The media got wind of that and crucified him as if it
meant he were crazy. That stigma convinced me to avoid psychiatrists
and psychologists. I didn’t want any chance of this difficult
period coming back to bite me. I talked to the base chaplain.
I told the chaplain that I had long ago given up on the idea of
God. He recommended I try a few different Protestant churches
and advised me to read The Gospel of John, a gentle introduction to
the Lord after being away from Him for some twenty years.
I read John, but he made no sense to me, not then. On the advice
of a friend, I added the writings of Carlos Castaneda to my
reading list. Castaneda made me aware of how much the ego is
in charge of our lives, via the constant refrain: “I want.” I not only
studied the Bible, but also read about Buddhism, Judaism, and
philosophy. I saw that everything came down to ego. I noticed
the word “I” rarely appeared in the Jewish teachings of the Pirkei
Avot, or Ethics of the Fathers, one of the texts in the compilation
of rabbinical wisdom called the Mishnah. This brought to my attention
that the Jewish people I knew did not use the word “I”
very much. I sought to reduce the use of the word “I,” and found
that my boss and others listened. It was a transformation.
I ultimately landed in a Southern Baptist Church. I knew I
could never toe the entire party line of any organization, but the
Southern Baptists and I were on the same page about focusing
less on “self” and more on “we”—on community.
One day in 1991, I had an epiphany about The Gospel of John: I
could forgive other people’s sins but I did not have the power to
forgive my own. I realized only Jesus Christ had that power. The
day I understood that, I dropped to my knees and forgave everyone
I could think of who I felt had ever wronged me. That had a
huge impact on me.
Among the people I had the biggest beef with were a few of my
fellow prisoners from Vietnam, particularly our leadership. In my
prayers, I forgave all of them, even the ones who wrongly accused
me or humiliated me. Forgiving the North Vietnamese was never
an issue because I always thought they could have treated us so
My trials as a POW did not bring me to God. Getting divorced
did. It surprises some people when I tell them getting divorced
was more stressful for me than being a POW.
A Bad Reputation
I first attempted to write a book about my war experience in
the mid-1970s, but I fictionalized it as a novel. I sent a manuscript
to the Naval Investigative Service, because the Navy required me
to get their approval. It turned out that the mere act of seeking
approval was enough to get me in trouble.
Several months later, the Naval Investigative Service sent the
book back, not to me but to the superintendent at the Naval
Postgraduate School. The cover letter called my book inaccurate,
immature, and demeaning to fellow POWs who deserved to be
lifted up. I had done nothing worse than paint all of us POWs as
people instead of saints. What upset me more was that my pages
came back in complete disarray. I had accorded the Navy the respect
of requesting approval, and in return I had received a slap
in the face.
I called the Naval Investigative Service to ask what the letter
meant. The person I spoke to informed me that if I published the
manuscript it would only serve to publicly discredit me.
“According to whom?” I asked.
He said, “We didn’t know what to do with your manuscript, so
we sent it to your roommates and to Stockdale.”
“You did what?!” I had sent my manuscript to the Navy in confidence,
and someone had published it to other people without
A few years later, I was passed over for promotion to commander.
When I inquired to learn why, my detailer in Washington
said, “You need to call Stockdale. He told the board you had a bad
reputation.” Stockdale was the head of the promotion board.
“A bad reputation for what?” I asked.
He said Stockdale gave no specifics. I was stunned at the abuse
of power this implied: that the board listened to him despite not
having evidence against me. This was all the more suspicious because
shortly after I had returned from Vietnam, Stockdale had
submitted a fitness report in which he recommended me for promotion.
His change of heart came after I submitted my manuscript
to the Navy.
Years later, in 1996, I called Stockdale and asked if there was
something I should know. He told me that the promotion board
was just a “paper push” and that he said nothing detrimental
about me. He claimed he had never seen my manuscript.
Stockdale and other POWs wrote books about their prison experiences,
but their books painted the military in a more glowing
light. The Navy never sent their manuscripts to me for my
response even though someone sent my manuscript to Stockdale
and my roommates for their comments and approval. The double
standards of my POW days continued.
About three or four years ago, when I was in Pensacola, Florida,
I told the head of the Robert E. Mitchell Center for Prisoner of
War Studies, “I got passed over for commander because Stockdale
told the board I had a bad reputation.”
He looked me in the eye and said, “I can promise you, you don’t
have a bad reputation among the five or six hundred prisoners
from North Vietnam.”
Years later, I talked to a doctor from the Mitchell Center who
was a friend of Stockdale’s and who made it clear he truly liked
the man, and he told me, “Stockdale would do something like
that.” To this day, many senior leaders are big on protecting their
turf and their reputations and not averse to tearing other people’s
reputations apart to achieve that.
When I talked to the base chaplain about my divorce, we also
talked about the war, and he called me a conscientious objector. I
had never thought of myself that way, but he had a point: I didn’t
believe in the war anymore. I had heard our leaders distort facts to
make themselves look good. I never publicly protested—it was too
late for that—but I got demerits for not agreeing that we achieved
“a fabulous victory against communism.”
In the end, Stockdale’s pursuit of power took him all the way
to vice admiral. Meanwhile, he claimed I had a bad reputation. All
he had to do was say the words, and because he was one of the
highest-ranking officers in the military, people on the promotion
board believed him.
A Changed American Dream
The Navy sent me to the Naval Postgraduate School to get an
undergraduate degree in International Relations. After that, my
superiors urged me to get back in a cockpit, saying that was the
route to make command. The military had not been my dream, so
I pursued a master’s degree in finance. With that, the Navy wanted
to send me to Washington as an auditor. I didn’t want that.
Instead, I went to the Naval Air Station in Meridian, Mississippi
to become a comptroller for seven years.
I retired from the U.S. Navy in 1983 and went to Florida to
work as a stockbroker. I never got over the feeling that prison had
cost me years of time and opportunity, so I went on to earn a law
degree at the University of Florida. I became a prosecutor in 1991,
and a few years later went into private practice. However, the sedentary
nature of that career sent my blood pressure up. Then, in
1996, the Navy made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: I moved back
to Mississippi to become a flight simulator instructor. Flying for
the Navy had landed me in prison and stolen years of my life, but
training other pilots turned out to be one of the best jobs I ever
had. I worked as an instructor until I retired in 2012. I was 68.
Perhaps one attraction of training pilots was that I never completely
got over my frustration at not becoming an airline pilot,
the dream I had held onto during my six years as a prisoner of
war. Being rejected by Eastern Airlines was more devastating than
anything the North Vietnamese could have done to me.
The Test of a Man
When I consider how capable we all are of perverting the truth,
and when I remind myself that I was a voluntary participant in the
Vietnam debacle, I can only ask: what does it take to be a man?
I submit that a real man is not a sycophant, but is someone who
pursues the truth in service to his values. It’s easy to support the
status quo when self-interest is at stake. It takes character to stand
up for the truth when it’s not in your self-interest—such as opposing
war in the face of threats to destroy your reputation.
It also takes character to apologize when we’re wrong, which is
something the U.S. has yet to do for Vietnam. We invaded their
country and killed more than two million Vietnamese because a
majority of them did not want us to tell them what kind of government
Best I can figure, humans point their fingers at others when
they need a scapegoat. Usually they point at someone with less
power because that’s easiest, to draw attention away from their
own shortcomings. Once the finger pointing starts, honesty is the
first casualty. When honesty goes, everything goes. To me, this
was not only the dynamic between the leadership and the subordinates
among the POWs, but also the dynamic between the U.S.
and Vietnam. We saw them as less powerful, so we thought they
were an easy target. We were wrong.
Despite the pitfalls of ego I saw many military leaders display
in Vietnam, I find it important to remember the exceptions, men
who provided a standard for honest reflection on right and wrong
action, and who were not afraid to engage in criticism—of authority
or of themselves—when honesty called for it. I have tried
to introduce some of those men to you in these pages. Perhaps
some in our POW leadership felt justified in attacking men who
believed in following conscience first and orders second, but what
really made such men targets was that they had no rank and no
power and seemed easy to suppress.
Studying the teachings of Jesus has taught me the importance
of placing truth above pride. Wars go on, but I have found peace
in this: “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love
your neighbor as yourself.” This has been and continues to be
my journey, and it is one reason I’ve chosen to share with you
the sometimes-painful story of my experience as a prisoner in
Vietnam. I hope my story helps open your heart to the challenge
of getting to know yourself, your fellow humans, and the people
who share your world.
I still think about war and imprisonment, their causes and consequences.
It’s part of being an informed person, and my experiences
have helped to make me an informed person. But my life
has also been filled with blessings: two children, six grandchildren,
true friends, education and the opportunity to pass it on,
fruitful labors, the freedom and means to travel, good health, and
a relationship with the Lord.
Sometimes it’s painful to remember my six years of lost freedom,
being isolated from loved ones while at the same time discovering
the truth behind Jean Paul Sartre’s words: “Hell is other
people.” Most of the time, those memories remind me to be grateful
for my life now.