by Fran Withrow
By 1970, the Vietnam War had been raging for 15 years. The United States had been actively involved for six of those years, trying to keep South Vietnam from falling into the hands of Communist North Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson ordered the first air strikes in 1964, and the war dragged on until 1973, when the United States finally threw in the towel and pulled out.
From 1964 on, U.S. pilots who had been shot down were held as prisoners of war in Southeast Asia. Tortured, neglected, and denied access to medical care, their plight was horrendous. But they had unexpected allies: their wives back home, who fought relentlessly for their release. “The League of Wives” is the story of how these women defied governmental protocol to bring their husbands home.
In the 1960s, military wives were expected to be obedient, respectful, and stand behind their men. Books like “The Navy Wife” laid out specific rules for how these women should act. It is no surprise then that when the wives learned their husbands had been taken captive, they initially obeyed government orders to “keep quiet.” Even when POW Jerry Denton brilliantly blinked T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse Code during a television interview, government officials decided that keeping this information private was the best way to help the captured servicemen.
At first the wives followed this protocol. But years passed, with prisoners being refused basic necessities laid out by the Geneva Convention. Fed up, the women decided to take action. Slowly they transformed themselves from demure, quiet helpmates to strong, determined advocates. They met with U.S. leaders, wrote letters, and even traveled to Paris to meet with North Vietnamese delegates. They organized by creating the National League of Families for Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, and their decision to defy the government and publicize their husbands’ treatment made a difference.
In 1973, the surviving men came home.
Author Heath Hardage Lee personalizes this story, sharing the hardships faced by women like Jane Denton, Sybil Stockdale, and Andrea Rand. Lee describes not just the struggles these women faced in trying to help their husbands, but also the crushing reality they dealt with in managing their home lives as single parents. Many worked full-time, and some were in financial straits because they could not complete monetary transactions without their missing husbands’ approval.
While these accounts are fascinating, Lee does not delve into opposing views surrounding this war. One protester asked the wives about all the Vietnamese civilian casualties: the devastation wrought by Agent Orange and the 1972 napalm attack which caused such horrific suffering to civilians. Were the POW-MIAs more important than the war-torn Southeast Asians? This question is not answered, perhaps because Lee felt it beyond the scope of this book. Despite that, this is an intriguing account about a little known aspect of the Vietnam War.
From now until September 2, there is an exhibit at the Virginia Museum of History about the League of Wives if you would like to learn more. See you there.
“The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home”
By Heath Hardage Lee
St. Martin’s Press