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Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: A Vietnamese Prison and the Triumph of the Human Spirit

Written By | Mar 27, 2014

DALLAS, March 27, 2014 — “Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton” is the poignant, sometimes heartbreaking, and awe-inspiring story of the American POW’s who survived Hoa Lao prison in Vietnam.

Hoa Lao prison, otherwise known as “the Hanoi Hilton,” was the notorious North Vietnamese prison where more than 650 American servicemen were held during the Vietnam War. Captives endured endless cycles of interrogation and torture, and crushing loneliness. The North Vietnamese kept the Prisoners of War in almost complete isolation, rarely seeing or speaking to other POWs.

Almost all of the POWs at Hoa Lao were American pilots shot down over North Vietnam. Senator John McCain, Vice Admiral James Stockdale, Brigadier General Robinson Risner, Colonel Bud Day, Lieutenant Colonel Orson Swindle and Colonel Leon Ellis were all prisoners in Hoa Lao.

On October 26, 1967, John McCain was a thirty-one year old lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. During a mission over Hanoi, his  A-4 Skyhawk was struck by a missile. He ejected from his damaged aircraft, fracturing both arms and one of his legs before landing in Truc Back Lake.

In a 1973 interview with U.S. News and World Report, McCain remembered, “I pulled the ejection handle, and was knocked unconscious by the force of the ejection. The air speed was about 500 knots. I didn’t realize it at the moment, but I had broken my right leg around the knee, my right arm in three places, and my left arm. I regained consciousness just before I landed by parachute in a lake right in the corner of Hanoi, one they called the Western Lake. My helmet and my oxygen mask had been blown off.”

The North Vietnamese dragged him ashore and beat him and stabbed him with a bayonet. McCain was then taken to Hoa Lao prison.

During his incarceration, McCain, like other prisoners, endured isolation and repeated torture. The North Vietnamese refused to treat his injuries, offering him care only in exchange for information. McCain was routinely subjected to “rope torture,” where his arms were tightly bound together and suspended above him until they were pulled out of their sockets.

In 1968, after the North Vietnamese learned McCain’s farther commanded all U.S. forces in Vietnam, they offered to release John McCain. The young lieutenant commander refused, saying he would not return home until those imprisoned before him were released first. John McCain spent five years as a prisoner of war.

After the Paris peace accord in 1973, the United States launched Operation Homecoming. This secured the release and the return of 591 American prisoners of war from Vietnamese prisons.

The homecoming of those imprisoned in Southeast Asia was a memorable experience for Taylor Kiland, author of “Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.”

Taylor remembers watching television coverage of the POWs disembarking from the jumbo jet that brought them home. “ I can still remember seeing them come home and the emotions I felt at that time are as fresh and as raw today as they were in 1973, ” Taylor says, “Even as a young girl I could not help being overwhelmed by that moment.”  

In 2000, Taylor, who holds a B.A. in Journalism and a M.A. in Marketing Communications and proudly served in the U.S. Navy, volunteered with the presidential campaign of then Senator John McCain. During that campaign, she met several former POWs who were imprisoned in Hanoi. Taylor teamed with photographer Jamie Howren to create “Open Doors: Vietnam POWs Thirty Years Later,” which looks at the lives of 30 former POWs.

Taylor then met Peter Fretwell, who was also fascinated by the POWs and the qualities that allowed these men to not only survive but also thrive.  Taylor and Fretwell embarked on an ambitious seven-year project that involved interviewing both survivors and military experts who had studied these men from the moment they returned from their imprisonment in Vietnam and for many years after.

The result of their effort is a wonderfully crafted book that distills the very essence of what allowed these men to survive into easily understood terms. “Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton” is Taylor Kiland’s fourth book and her first with Peter Fretwell. Also contributing to the book are J.P. London and the son of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, James Bond Stockdale II.

The book contains not only the stories of heroism of these men, but also an in depth look at the principles that allowed them to return home with honor. The simple and direct methods used to address the trauma each man endured while undergoing torture and interrogation allowed the prisoners not only to eclipse the shame of reaching their breaking point but fortified their resolve by employing a universal strategy.

“Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton” also reveals the leadership and innovation of Vice Admiral James Stockdale as the senior ranking POW. Stockwell created a system that transcends the “Hanoi Hilton” and displays leadership skills valuable in today’s corporate environments.

Taylor Kiland has fulfilled her lifelong dream to honor the men who survived the unconscionable horrors of the Hanoi Hilton.

Forty years after their homecoming, the young girl from San Diego has provided the hugs and the thanks she so desperately wanted to give as a seven year old to the men who defied fate and touched the hearts of a nation.


Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton is available from Naval Institute Press and on here


Jerome Elam

Jerome Elam is President and CEO of Trafficking in America Task Force. Raised in a broken home by an alcoholic parent, he is a survivor of child abuse/domestic violence, child sex trafficking, and child pornography. Brought up in the South, Jerome enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at the age of seventeen. The decision to serve was made, in part, as an effort to escape the tragic circumstances he was trapped in. Through the experience of serving his country, Jerome found a new beginning and embarked upon a journey that showed him the world. This opened his eyes to the strength of the human spirit. After his completion of eight years in the United States Marine Corps, Mr. Elam attended the University of Florida, earning a Bachelor of Science degree. He went on to spend several years working in the Biotechnology sector. Motivated by the painful memories of his past, Jerome found his inner strength and began to speak out about his abuse. Through this journey, he found the healing force of God's unconditional love and discovered the joy of starting his own family. Today, Mr. Elam is a fierce Advocate for all children deprived of their voice. He is a public speaker, a staff writer, and known columnist for Communities Digital News. Recently featured as one of New York's New Abolitionists, he remains dedicated to the protection and empowerment of trafficked people. Staying true to values he learned in the Marine Corps continues to provide a safe harbor for all, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual identity, or immigration status. When asked to describe his life experiences Mr. Elam stated, "I have struggled against many things in my life and somehow I found a way to survive. Writing is my passion and it keeps me in touch with the wealth everyone holds deep inside their hearts and minds. I share my experiences in the hope that those suffering in silence will find the courage to speak out and share their voices. I have been blessed to have God reveal His purpose to me in saving innocent children from predators." Jerome has received the Award for Courage presented by the National Council of Jewish Women for his work in the advocacy arena and has been appointed a Special Advisor to the Attorney General of Utah.