History in Review
|Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War
, By Tom Philpott. (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. Pg. 480.) ISBN: 0-3930-2012-6
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - November 23, 2001
On March 26, 1964, Floyd James "Jim" Thompson was shot down and captured by the Viet Cong, Vietnamese Communists who served in the People's Liberation Armed Forces in South Vietnam. Thompson remained in captivity until his release on March 16, 1973, a mere two weeks before his nine-year anniversary, making him America's longest-held prisoner of war. Even after enduring nine years in hell, Thompson's trials were not over. He not only had to deal with the physical and psychological toll that his ordeal had taken, but rather than coming home as a liberated hero, Thompson returned to a country in which he was vilified by some, misunderstood by others. He also came back to a country in which all his dreams and plans had been shattered by his years in captivity.
In writing Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War, Tom Philpott has elected to present Thompson's story as an oral history project. What this means is that the book is almost totally composed of excerpts from verbatim statements, interviews, letters, and other first person narratives. On occasion he also quotes actual documents and military reports. Philpott only inserts his own voice into the writing when it was needed to move the narrative along, explain an ambiguous point, or point out when and why some of the interviews were edited. Philpott spent over ten years researching this book, research which included interviews with over 160 people. Excerpts from many of these interviews are included in the book.
This book is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of a foreword written by John McCain, who was also imprisoned by the Vietnamese. His foreword is moving, and helps to illustrate the horrors that the POW's had to endure and the hardships they faced upon their release. He also offers some insights on why he feels Thompson was able to survive as long as he did. In part, McCain and Philpott point out that Thompson may have survived because of his remarkable will power, the Special Force's training that he received, and the survival skills he learned growing up in a dysfunctional and violent family.
Glory Denied is not just a biography of Thompson. It also explores the impact that his captivity had on his family, and the role that politics had in his status, as a POW, being withheld from the public. In part this was due to the fact that Thompson, a Captain in the Army's Special Forces, was on a secret mission at the time of his capture, and the secrecy surrounding his mission was to impede the flow of information about his whereabouts. Another reason that the world did not learn of Thompson's capture was that Thompson's wife had asked the Pentagon to keep his name sequestered, in order to protect her own privacy. The government was so secretive about Thompson's status that even the POW/MIA organization did not list Thompson on their roles. Until recently, most Americans' thought that Lieutenant Everett Alvarez was the first American to be captured by the Vietnamese. Consequently, when Alvarez was released, a month before Thompson, he was heralded as the longest held American captive.
Thompson was drafted into the army in 1956. He found that he loved military life and looked forward to a long military career. He was posted to Vietnam in 1963. Three months after arriving in country, his plane was shot down and he was captured. At the time, his wife Alyce was pregnant with their fourth child. While Thompson was in Vietnam, his wife moved in with another man and told her children that their father was dead. However, she did return to Thompson, when he was released, in a vain attempt to rebuild their family. Thompson's home life seems to have been almost as hellish as his captivity. After years of fighting and abuse, Thompson and his wife officially divorced in 1977, an event which acerbated Thompson's already existing depression and his problems with alcohol. To make things worse, his son, who was born after he was taken captive, was convicted of murder. After treatment for his depression and alcoholism, Thompson recovered and remained in the army until his retirement in 1981.
This book begs the question, "What makes a hero?" Is suffering, or merely surviving against enormous odds, enough to make someone a hero? Or does it require something more? If suffering is all that is required, Thompson is a full-fledged hero. During his captivity he endured five years in solitary confinement, as well as years of torture, disease, and starvation. He also made numerous escape attempts. Glory Denied also asks more questions than it answers concerning the actions of the U.S. government in prosecuting the war in Vietnam, and regarding their treatment of former POWs. It also looks at how America changed, socially and politically, during Thompson's captivity.
This is a thought provoking and disturbing book. The psychological scars that Thompson suffered during his ordeal were far worse than anything he suffered physically. How he, his family, and the government for which he suffered so much, dealt with the problems that resulted from his captivity is heart wrenching. Had Thompson and his family received proper support and counseling, his readjustment to life in America may have been much more successful, and his family situation much more pleasant. Unfortunately many returning POW's suffered greatly upon their return because of problems they had readjusting and the emotional damaged caused by their captivity, damage that was all too often underestimated.
This is a book that takes an honest look at a dark period in American history. It presents an in-depth look at the Vietnam war, from the viewpoint of the men who fought in it, and from the viewpoints of their family members, who also suffered as a consequence of the war. Glory Denied will find a ready audience among historians, scholars of military history, and those interested in the psychological affects of war, torture, and long term, solitary confinement. This book may be too tragic and disheartening for younger readers, but it is suitable for upper-level high school students, and it should be required reading in all undergraduate courses covering the Vietnam War.
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