by Abena Foreman-Trice
Author Alvin Townley kicked off April at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business with a discussion of
his new book, Defiant:The POWs Who Endured Vietnam's Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them and the One Who Never Returned.
Defiant chronicles the
ordeal of the "Alcatraz Gang," a group of 11 American prisoners of
war who had to muster the strength to withstand torture and uphold
their honor while being held captive - some for as many as eight
Townley began his narrative at
Darden by conjuring an image of 1965 Vietnam, during which future
admiral Jeremiah Denton - who died 28 March at the age of 89 - had
to abandon his aircraft after it was hit over North Vietnam. He
parachuted into the rugged terrain outside Hanoi, landing in a
"Both of his legs were broken. He
was wet and was being dragged away by Vietnamese soldiers," said
Townley. "All he has left are his name, his honor and his will to
fight. In that moment, he had to summon the courage to continue to
lead his men and defy his captors."
Townley went on to describe the
filthy and inhumane conditions of the Hỏa Lò Prison, otherwise
known as the "Hanoi Hilton," in which the American soldiers were
imprisoned. In the years after their capture, they were moved to a
special facility, nicknamed "Alcatraz" by future Medal of Honor
recipient Jim Stockdale, one of the 11, for their resistance to
Vietnamese authorities. They were kept separate from each other in
Victory depended on the prisoners'
abilities to connect with each other. The POWs: Denton, George
Thomas Coker, Harry Jenkins, Sam Johnson, George McKnight,
James Mulligan, Howard Rutledge, Robert Shumaker, James
Stockdale, Ronald Storz and Nels Tanner got creative.
They used a tap code passed down to
other soldiers by fellow POW Carlyle "Smitty" Harris.
Through a series of knocking sounds
representing letter placements, the Alcatraz Gang encouraged each
other to remember their code of conduct:
- Accept no special favors from the enemy.
- When questioned, give only your name, rank, service number and
date of birth.
- Make no disloyal or harmful statements.
- Never forget you are an American fighting man.
- Trust in God and the USA.
"Long before millennials made up
their own shorthand in order to send text messages, the Alcatraz
Gang was communicating its own shorthand, such as 'GN,' which meant
'good night' and 'GBU,' which meant 'God bless you,'" Townley
Through the years of physical
torture and the torment of isolation and boredom, the Alcatraz Gang
had a special group of supporters who never forgot about them, even
when it seemed the rest of America had.
The wives of the Alcatraz Gang
rallied U.S. officials, foreign governments and anyone who would
listen, in order to get their husbands out of Vietnam. At the apex
of Townley's narrative, he shared how the wives succeeded in
hastening the return of the 11 brothers in arms.
He recognized the women's founding
of the National League of Families and their creation of the "You
Are Not Forgotten, POW/MIA" flag, a symbol of one of the most
important efforts made in history.
"The wives of these POWs brought
their husbands home by raising awareness around the country through
many outlets, including the signature POW/MIA bracelets," Townley
The movement also reminded America
to respect soldiers, despite opinions about the war.
Townley, who managed global strategy
for an international consulting firm before setting out to pursue
his dreams of finding adventure and inspiring stories to tell,
concluded his talk by sharing leadership lessons he learned from
the Alcatraz Gang:
- Understand the battlefield.
- Envision and articulate a clear destination.
- Empathize with your adversary and your people.
- Cooperate without compromising.
- Communicate and motivate.
- Persevere and believe.
Townley's visit was co-sponsored by
the Darden Military Association (DMA). The student club's
president, Second Year full-time student Scott Poitevent, introduced Townley to the diverse audience
that convened for his talk.
Attendees included Darden MBA
students, faculty, staff and Charlottesville-area community
members, as well as students from Washington and Lee University, Townley's
alma mater. Attendees also hailed from the U.S. armed services,
including the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air
Darden alumnus and member of the Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees John G.
Macfarlane III (MBA `79) introduced Townley to the Darden Military
group. The club's members believed it important to share the
leadership lessons Townley gleaned from writing about the Alcatraz
Gang with the rest of the Darden community.
Townley said to the audience, "There
has not been another group of men and women in all of U.S. military
history who have suffered as much for as long as the men and women
in Defiant, and we should never forget that!"
About the Darden School of
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business is
one of the world's leading business schools, offering MBA, Ph.D.
and Executive Education programs. The unique Darden experience
combines the case study method, top-ranked faculty whose research
advances global managerial practice and business education, and a
tight-knit learning environment to develop responsible and complete
leaders who are ready to make an impact.
For questions or information,
contact Abena Foreman-Trice or a member of the Communication team.
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