VIETNAM VETERAN SHARES FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE OF SIX YEARS AS PRISONER OF WAR
Former Lieutenant Robert Wideman praised by veterans for his memoir Unexpected Prisoner; a unique glimpse into the courage and endurance of POWs
Fort Collins, CO — When Lieutenant Robert Wideman’s plane crashed on a bombing run in the Vietnam War, his worst fears became reality when he was captured in North Vietnam and held captive as a Prisoner of War for six long years. Unexpected Prisoner: Memoir of a Vietnam POW tells his harrowing story and explores Wideman’s struggle with enemies and comrades, Vietnamese interrogators and American commanders, his lost dreams and ultimately — himself.
“His story of captivity is the most accurate version of the events that occurred in the North I have ever heard,” says Captain William Roberts, a retired U.S. Marine. “It’s truly refreshing.”
A sentiment many veterans have shared upon completing Wideman’s memoir. “Especially those who were in the infantry,” says Wideman. “I think it supports what they went through and what they feel.”
Born in Montreal, Canada, Wideman grew up in East Aurora, New York. His father flew over the Himalayan Mountains in Burma during World War II. One uncle served as a pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force and flew for Britain during WWII. Another uncle was captured at the battle of Dieppe at the beginning of WWII and was held as a German prisoner until the end of the war.
It seemed natural that after attending the University of Toledo, Wideman joined the navy as a naval aviation cadet in 1963. Upon receiving his wings and commission in 1965, Wideman served on the USS Enterprise in 1966 and on the USS Hancock in 1967. In 1967, Wideman’s plane went down over North Vietnam where the story of Unexpected Prisoner begins.
For more news, events and to explore Robert Wideman’s story further, please visit RobertWideman.com
About the Authors
Robert 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.
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.
Memoir of a Vietnam POW
“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.
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
“As a Marine corporal (m-60 machine guns), I would have been proud to share any fighting position with [Robert]. If you are a Vietnam vet and most especially if you are not, you should read this captivating story!”
“The strength to endure six years as a POW and then share that experience with the rest of the world takes courage we seldom see these days. This book is straight-forward; you feel [Robert] is sitting in your living room talking just to you.”
“Unexpected Prisoner is fascinating! Robert Wideman’s memoirs of the reality, survival and humor as a prisoner of war is unique to say the least. Everyone with military ties should share this experience.”
Watch video excerpts from Wideman’s public speaking event at the Kiwanis Club in Northern Colorado to see how the author is connecting with other POWs and Veterans.
Q&A with Robert Wideman
You have a very unique story – and one someone couldn’t really tell unless they experienced it first-hand. What inspired you to tell this story?
My two sons and six grandchildren – they’re the most important thing to me. I wanted to leave them something that had meaning. After four years of writing, I had my story down on paper about my time in a North Vietnamese prison camp, but nothing else. One of my daughters-in-law said I needed to put some of my life before and after prison into the book. A Colorado Publisher connected me with author and editor Cara Lopez Lee in 2014, and she helped me piece things together. We published Unexpected Prisoner two years later.
What do you think will surprise readers most about Unexpected Prisoner?
Even given my experience, I think readers will be surprised at my attitude toward the North Vietnamese. I don’t really have bad feelings toward them, because the treatment could have been so much worse.
When I came home from the war, I read everything I could on POWs and the Vietnam War. I learned that since the beginning of time, POWs have been treated very, very badly.
For example – In World War II, the Japanese chopped off two American heads for every mile of the Bataan death march. Twenty-seven to forty percent of American prisoners held by the Japanese died in captivity. In our revolutionary war, 20,000 colonial prisoners died in the holds of British ships in Brooklyn and Boston harbors. Five times as many colonists died on those ships as died on the battlefield. Of the 5 million Russian prisoners held by the Germans in World War II, 3 million died in captivity. The Russians captured 95,000 German troops at the battle of Stalingrad, and only 5,000 of those prisoners ever came home. Thirteen thousand union soldiers died at Andersonville within 14 months during our own civil war – that’s one soldier every 45 minutes! Our tour guide at Andersonville took 45 minutes to do the tour.
Only 7 American prisoners died in Hanoi the whole time I was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Only 28 prisoners died in North Vietnam. If you compare the treatment we received from the North Vietnamese with the treatment POWs received from their captors in other wars, ours looks pretty good.
You enjoy sharing your experience with audiences through speaker presentations. What is your favorite part of that process?
I get a rush from telling my story – it can be addictive. The audiences are always good, and I enjoy the connection with them.
How has sharing your story benefited others (and have there been any unique stories prompted by audience members)?
Many veterans – especially those who were in the infantry – seem to relate to my story.
I think my story supports what many veterans went through and what they feel.
It surprised me – but I’ve also seen that teenagers have benefited from my story, as they have their own challenges and can relate to the adversity in my memoir. So really – it can appeal to anyone going through a difficult time in their life.
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 re- cover no prisoners. Such was the American need to keep its own propaganda machine running.
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