REVIEW: The League of Wives by Heath Hardage Lee
The true story of the fierce band of women who battled Washington—and Hanoi—to bring their husbands home from the jungles of Vietnam.
On February 12, 1973, one hundred and sixteen men who, just six years earlier, had been high flying Navy and Air Force pilots, shuffled, limped, or were carried off a huge military transport plane at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. These American servicemen had endured years of brutal torture, kept shackled and starving in solitary confinement, in rat-infested, mosquito-laden prisons, the worst of which was The Hanoi Hilton.
Months later, the first Vietnam POWs to return home would learn that their rescuers were their wives, a group of women that included Jane Denton, Sybil Stockdale, Louise Mulligan, Andrea Rander, Phyllis Galanti, and Helene Knapp. These women, who formed The National League of Families, would never have called themselves “feminists,” but they had become the POW and MIAs most fervent advocates, going to extraordinary lengths to facilitate their husbands’ freedom—and to account for missing military men—by relentlessly lobbying government leaders, conducting a savvy media campaign, conducting covert meetings with antiwar activists, and most astonishingly, helping to code secret letters to their imprisoned husbands.
In a page-turning work of narrative non-fiction, Heath Hardage Lee tells the story of these remarkable women for the first time.
Dear Mr. Lee,
Years ago I watched “Return with Honor” the documentary of the POW experience in North Vietnam. I realized that up until then, I didn’t know the full horror about their time as POWs. This book looked like the way to see the experience from the wives’ point of view.
I knew the wives of the POWs-MIAs had worked hard to keep their husbands in the forefront of the government’s mind and in the eye of the US public and striven to try to get their men released. This is a remarkable book about their efforts and how it changed them over the long years before 1973 when the POWs finally came home.
In the early to mid 1960s, these women were mainly typical military wives. They were used to separations during their husbands’ deployments, used to the military way of life, used to living up to the handbooks that told them how to navigate being a military spouse. It was still very much a “calling cards, white gloves, and pearls” environment. As well as the men, a wife was also expected to have “the right stuff” and to support her husband’s career. All that would change for them after word reached them that their husbands had been shot down. But it would take a while.
At first, the women maintained their “don’t rock the boat” and “keep the faith in the government” mentality. Used to the military structure of obeying orders, they kept quiet when told to. They also feared that anything they said or did might somehow hurt their husbands in prison or his military career once he got out. Privately many immediately sensed that government officials would have preferred that they just keep quiet and fade into the background. But these women weren’t going to do that. As the number of POWs grew, the wives began to make contact with each other. They became their own support network and source of information. Frustrated at how their individual efforts were ignored, they discovered strength and power in numbers.
While many government and some military members gave them the runaround, a few including Bob Boroughs sensed that these women could be a valuable means to help discover the truth about the conditions under which the men were being held and get more complete lists of the POWs. Sybil Stockdale was one of the wives who worked with Boroughs to send coded letters to her husband knowing that if the code was discovered by the North Vietnamese, it was possible her husband could be immediately executed.
As they accustomed themselves to the fact that they were now the long-term fathers as well as mothers of their families, they struggled with financial issues trying to gain access to bank accounts and their husbands’ pay. They would be elated to receive letters from their men but horrified at newsreel footage showing the men looking thin and haggard. In worse shape were those women who were not sure if they were wives or widows as there was no official word if their husbands had survived being shot down.
As the years dragged on, the women lost faith in the Johnson administration and turned their hopes toward Richard Nixon and Bob Dole. Once Ross Perot, and his money, was on board, the publicity the women had been struggling to get increased. But it was the decision of the women to organize into a national league that finally gained them the respect and ear of the government. As the times changed, so did the women. The formerly demure wives were now viewed as having political clout – strength that they were no longer afraid to wield in the effort to keep the continuing status and possible fate of the POWs in the public mind. To use a line from Helen Reddy’s popular song of the day they were invincible.
The oomph of the book slows a little in the intricacies of the international trips the women made to the Paris peace talks and the various schisms of the league but it does convey how tireless were their efforts even as the years dragged on and mental stress and strain battered their strength. One thing is for sure – they gave people hell for any paternalistic patronizing and sent more than one government flunky scurrying back to Washington with his tail between his legs. After long years of effort, the peace accord was finally signed and arrangements were made to return the POWs. Despite facing a drastically changed America, most of the families managed to settle into post-war lives. Along the way there though, these women became fearless, feisty, and determined. B