Growing up in metro Atlanta, Alvin Townley said his heroes were “George Washington and men in uniform, stuff like that.”
But that mindset changed when the best-selling author wrote “Defiant,” which tells the stories of 11 American POWs in the Vietnam War.
“My heroes became men who wore pajamas. The POW camps in Vietnam were where men wore … pajamas,” the Roswell resident and Marist graduate said.
Townley, who has published five nonfiction books, spoke at the Buckhead Business Association’s Jan. 21 meeting, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Georgia Writers Association named him Author of the Year in history for “Defiant,” which was published in 2014.
Townley also won an Emmy Award for helping create “Jeremiah,” a PBS documentary that chronicles the story of Jeremiah Denton, one of the 11 POWs featured in “Defiant” who went on to be elected a U.S. senator in Alabama.
One of those POWs, Navy fighter pilot Jim Stockdale, was shot down by the North Vietnamese Sept. 8, 1965 and almost immediately captured.
“He was stripped of everything he had except his honor and his will to survive,” Townley said. “All of this happened in about 60 seconds. … He knew that whatever was going to come was going to be difficult and he had to summon any resiliency to get through it. He thought he might be home a little after Christmas. In reality, he was there … (nearly eight years).
Stockdale was taken to Hoa Lo Prison, which the POWs called the Hanoi Hilton.
“If he didn’t get all the POWs into a communication system, they may not all make it,” Townley said. “They came up with the most genius communication system. It included all the letters in the alphabet, except the letter K was eliminated. It included a matrix with five letters on each row and five rows of letters. … It’s hard to believe anybody could communicate that slowly, but these guys had time. … They could tap at extraordinary speeds and lift each other up.
“One of the most important things was to honor the military code of conduct, which said they were not able to give up any information except their name, age, rank, serial number and date of birth, which led to some conflict.”
He said when the North Vietnamese soldiers tried to get Stockdale to sign a confession, he refused.
“Then a POW tapped a signal through the wall that was ‘GBU,’ meaning ‘God bless you,’” Townley said. “It meant, ‘We’re all going to get through this together, and we're all going to go home together.’ That gave him the confidence to lead these men.”
He said Stockdale, who after the war became a vice admiral and was Ross Perot's running mate in the 1992 presidential election, formulated the phrase “return with honor” as a message for his fellow POWs.
“Every man could remember it. Every POW could picture what that meant,” Townley said. “When they were in a cell or interrogation room by themselves, they knew they could walk off an airplane and tell a loved one or a serviceman that they did their best.”
Once the North Vietnamese determined they couldn’t control some of the POWs, they placed the top 11 into a dungeon the POWs nicknamed Alcatraz.
“They had to rely on themselves and had to focus on that day after day after day,” Townley said.
He added if it weren’t for the POWs’ wives, who were told by the government to stay silent about their husbands’ situation but refused to, they may not have been released.
“For years they broke the rules and spoke out against the government and would not rest,” Townley said. “They all returned home with honor. It’s one of the most incredible stories I’ve encountered involving leadership, kindness and perseverance. I think it hits home today, too.”
For his first book, 2007’s “Legacy of Honor,” which was about Eagle Scouts, the former Eagle Scout interviewed Perot, J.W. Marriott Jr., Michael Bloomberg, Louis Zamperini, Jim Lovell and others, all ex-Eagle Scouts.
During a Q&A session following his talk, Dennis Hooper asked Townley about “Jeremiah.”
“I always joke in my speeches that I kind of shot myself in the foot about ‘Jeremiah’ because it’s free (to watch) online,” he said. “It was a very fascinating film to make. The Denton story is very similar to the Jim Stockdale story. They are very similar men.”
At its previous meeting Jan. 15, the association’s 2021 officers were sworn in. They are: Michael Moore, president; Matt Thiry, past president; Kevin Center, treasurer; and Diane Weinberg, secretary. A president-elect will be chosen and announced at a later date.