Six Years in the Hanoi Hilton
An Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in Vietnam
Amy Shively Hawk
Regnery History, Washington DC, 2017, 256 pages
Book Review published on: August 18, 2017
Operation Homecoming was the repatriation of nearly six hundred American service members and civilian employees of American government agencies held as prisoners of war (POWs) during the Vietnam War. These POWs have largely been forgotten by the American public; the service and sacrifices of these individuals deserves to be honored and remembered.
Six Years in the Hanoi Hilton: An Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in Vietnam is a moving story of one of these POWs, U.S. Air Force Capt. James Shively. Unlike other literary works about the experiences of POWs from the Vietnam War that focus on the war and captivity, his stepdaughter Amy Shively Hawk tells his story. Despite six years of deprivation, mental anguish, torture, and near starvation in Vietnam, Shively returned home and continued to demonstrate exceptional leadership, courage, and honor for the rest of his life.
In this memoir, Hawk skillfully balances the use of personal journals, interviews with other former Vietnam POWs, and audio interviews to provide insight into the character and extraordinary life of Shively. The book is organized into three major sections. “The Making of a Fighter Pilot” provides some background into Shively’s childhood, experiences at the U.S. Air Force Academy, pilot training, and combat missions over Vietnam; all served to shape his character and leadership style. The second section, “Captivity,” chronicles how he was shot down and captured, and it describes the horrific conditions and experiences of survival in the infamous Hanoi prison camps. The third section, “Home Again,” describes Shively’s successful assimilation back into civilian life.
The last part of the book, perhaps the most valuable, provides insight into the resilience, spirit, and integrity of a man who endured unspeakable brutality during war but refused to let this ordeal determine the rest of his life. He successfully transitioned into civilian life, completing law school and eventually becoming an assistant U.S attorney and senior supervisor for the Eastern District of Washington. He raised a family, and he remained a lifelong mentor and advocate for veterans. Hawk captures the indomitable spirt of her father with this quote from a newspaper interview given shortly after his repatriation:
There is no room in the vocabulary for failure—unless we let it in. Life is not fair, it is only what you make of it. There is no failure—because each step you take, even if you fall down flat on your face—you learn something. I had the opportunity to be captured, the opportunity to be interrogated, the opportunity to be tortured, and the experience of answering questions under torture. It was an extremely humiliating experience, I felt sorry for myself. I believed the world was supposed to be fair. The biggest lesson [I learned] is the world is not fair. Once I learned that very hard, very slow lesson … I realized I could give up and die—or survive.
Six Years in the Hanoi Hilton offers a unique opportunity for both the general reader and military professional to examine the extremes of human endurance. It also provides an example of the indomitable spirt and resilience of a man who rose above adversity to lead a productive and meaningful life. Regardless of your feelings regarding war, politics, or policies, the greatest service of this book is connecting this generation and future generations of Americans to their freedom. I highly recommend this book; we must never forget the sacrifices and costs of war.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Edward D. Jennings, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas