Author of Defiant Shares Leadership Lessons From Vietnam Prisoners of War at UVA Darden School

01 May 2014

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 years.

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 river.

“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 3-by-9-foot cells.

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 said.

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 said.

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 Force.

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 University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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