Fifty years after U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam were released comes a riveting book about the men’s suffering and the women with whom they forged happily-ever-after marriages.
The POWs’ paths were not without turbulence. Some marriages crashed and burned while the men suffered hardships and their wives at home confronted anxiety, fear and loneliness. In some cases spouses at home just moved on; others headed to Mexico for quickie divorces.
Twenty couples whose marriages endured are featured in Captured by Love: Inspiring True Romance Stories from Vietnam POWs. Stories include those of single men who found love after regaining their freedom and returning to the U.S. as well as married men who reunited with their wives or met other women after coming home. Some of the new spouses were widows of fellow POWs.
Author a former POW
The lead author, Lee Ellis, includes his own love story and long marriage in the book. The F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber he was flying erupted in the skies over North Vietnam, leading to five-plus years of captivity in camps including the so-called Hanoi Hilton. Captured at age 24 and single, he remained with the Air Force after gaining his freedom and in 1973 retired as a colonel.
In North Vietnam, approximately 400 American POWs endured long-term captivity, lasting at least five years. Remarkably, around 60 percent of them are still alive, with an average age of 87. The couples featured in the book share stories of love that have spanned 40 to 65 years, says Ellis, who is 79 years old himself.
Means of survival
What was key to the men’s resilience amid torture, hunger, squalor, solitary confinement and scant medical care? Many were college-educated and rigorously vetted fliers, Ellis says, and crucial to their survival was the tap code they used to secretly communicate with each other by tapping out words based on a matrix of the alphabet.
Conditions in the camps eased late in 1969, and the men strove to “get healthier and get rid of our shame, guilt, anger and bitterness,” Ellis says.
Diversions included teaching one another calculus, foreign languages and other subjects, and reciting movies from memory. Humor helped, he says, recalling the profane nickname given North Vietnam leader Ho Chi Minh.
Ellis and coauthor Greg Godek wrote the book to memorialize the love stories that Ellis says are so “amazing” they would defy Hollywood’s imagination.