Posted in excerpt, nonfiction, Spotlight on November 13, 2016



“A riveting first-person account of a six-year Prisoner of War in the Hanoi Hilton. “

When Lieutenant Robert Wideman’s plane crashed on a bombing run in the Vietnam War, he feared falling into enemy hands. Although he endured the kind of pain that makes people question humanity, physical torture was not his biggest problem. During six years as a prisoner of war, he saw the truth behind Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “Hell is other people.” Unexpected Prisoner explores a POW’s struggle with enemies and comrades, Vietnamese interrogators and American commanders, his lost dreams and ultimately himself.


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What Readers are Saying about Unexpected Prisoner: Memoir of a Vietnam POW

An eye-opener…Unexpected Prisoner is a must read.” – Billy Thornton, PhD, Vietnam War Veteran

A truly remarkable account of experiences from within the walls of captivity.” – Rick Fischer, Vietnam War Veteran, Army Pathfinder shot down in 1969

A genuine page turner” – George Conger, formal Naval Aviator

As a naval aviator who endured a very real ten-day survival training exercise, I can barely imagine six years as a POW! This book is a must-read for those interested in understanding the risks our men and women in uniform with combat assignments and enemy exposure face every single day.” Sam Solt, Former Naval Aviator


A Different POW Experience

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 home.

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 machine.

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 over there.

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.

About the Authors

robert-widemanRobert Wideman was born in Montreal, grew up in upstate New York, and has dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship. During the Vietnam War, he flew 134 missions for the U.S. Navy and spent six years as a prisoner of war. He earned a master’s degree in finance from the Naval Postgraduate School. After retiring from the Navy, he graduated from the University of Florida College of Law, practiced law in Florida and Mississippi, and became a flight instructor. He holds a commercial pilot’s license with an instrument rating.

He belongs to Veterans Plaza of Northern Colorado and lives in Fort Collins near his two sons and six grandchildren.

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Cara Lopez Lee

Cara is an author, editor, and writing coach. She has edited and/or collaborated on more than twenty books. Her stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Pangyrus, Connotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She was a writer for shows on HGTV, Food Network, and Discovery Health. She teaches for the Young Writers Program at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Her writing has earned 16 awards from The Denver Woman’s Press Club and Alaska Press Club. Lopez lives with her husband in Ventura, California.