Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam's Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned

Alvin Townley

Thomas Dunne Books

During the Vietnam War, hundreds of American prisoners-of-war faced years of brutal conditions and horrific torture at the hands of North Vietnamese guards and interrogators who ruthlessly plied them for military intelligence and propaganda. Determined to maintain their Code of Conduct, the POWs developed a powerful underground resistance. To quash it, their captors singled out its eleven leaders, Vietnam’s own “dirty dozen,” and banished them to an isolated jail that would become known as Alcatraz. None would leave its solitary cells and interrogation rooms unscathed; one would never return.

As these eleven men suffered in Hanoi, their wives at home launched an extraordinary campaign that would ultimately spark the nationwide POW/MIA movement. The members of these military families banded together and showed the courage to not only endure years of doubt about the fate of their husbands and fathers, but to bravely fight for their safe return. When the survivors of Alcatraz finally came home, one would go on to receive the Medal of Honor, another would become a U.S. Senator, and a third still serves in the U.S. Congress.

A powerful story of survival and triumph, Alvin Townley's Defiant will inspire anyone wondering how courage, faith, and brotherhood can endure even in the darkest of situations.


Read an Excerpt

Even at 43,000 tons and nearly three football fields in length, the USS Ticonderoga rolled with the swells of the South China Sea. She had cruised the waters of the Pacific Ocean for more than twenty years now, surviving a 1945 kamikaze attack off Taiwan and steaming victoriously into Tokyo Bay six months later. In the summer of 1964, Ticonderoga had deployed to monitor a new conflict in Asia—one between Communist North Vietnam and the American-allied government in the South. Should the growing unrest finally draw America into war,


Praise for Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam's Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned

Advance Praise:

"That most tragic war in American history, Vietnam, demanded more from many American servicemen than humans should have to endure. That some Americans are asked by fate to give so much while most others give so little is one of the insoluble conundrums of our age. Alvin Townley's story of the courage, valor and honor of eleven indomitable POWs and their wives is a new American classic that will be read as long as the breezes kiss Old Glory. As I read it I wept." —Stephen Coonts

"A unique American epic which must never be forgotten. Thanks to Alvin Townley's ability to convert its heartbreaking reality into vivid prose, its men and women are alive as human beings as well as symbols of their commitment to each other -- and their country." —Thomas Fleming, author of The Officers' Wives

“In Defiant, Alvin Townley reveals a moving, inspiring, untold story of courage and sacrifice that stands as a vivid testimony to what the human spirit can overcome. This is an important and too often overlooked aspect of the Vietnam War’s history. But for those interested in Vietnam's Band of Brothers, it is a must read." —Jay Winik, bestselling author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval

Defiant is an astounding story that will capture your heart and mind proving once and for all that determination trumps circumstance.” —Andy Andrews, New York Times bestselling author of How Do You Kill 11 Million People?, The Noticer, and The Traveler’s Gift

Defiant is all about voices – those that went unused for days by solitary prisoners of war, and those of silently suffering women back home who eventually felt no choice but to speak out. Alvin Townley soberly evokes the terror, sadness, frustration, pain and inspiration they all felt, and along the way, gives us a Vietnam War most of us have never heard about, involving legions of American women and imprisoned men fighting together, thousands of miles apart.” —Alan Huffman, author of Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer

"The story of human courage, individual and family perseverance, survival based on a warrior's code of honor. Alvin Townley weaves the recollections of these remarkable men into a compelling narrative against the backdrop of war, freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation. An inspirational account of POWs who served with honor while in captivity and returned home with a commitment to serve their country." —Larry Berman, author of Zumwalt: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell "Bud" Zumwalt, Jr.

“I carried this book from room to room and kept trying to put it down, but I couldn’t stop reading. Alvin Townley shows the heart of what it means to be American in this tale of some of our greatest heroes. Defiant is superb.” —Gregory A. Freeman, author of The Gathering Wind: Hurricane Sandy, the Sailing Ship Bounty, and a Courageous Rescue at Sea

“If you have ever wondered how real courage and ultimate perseverance should be defined, all you need to do is read these pages. If you have ever pondered whether Americans still have the grit and the ‘guts’ to show the world what it takes to defend freedom, reading about  the ‘Alcatraz Eleven’ will bolster your confidence. What these men endured nearly defies description, but Alvin Townley has managed to pull it off brilliantly. The writing is hard-hitting and powerful, dynamic and breath-taking. So, too, is his retelling of the stoic courage of the loved ones stuck at home with uncertainty and doubt: uncertainty about their own abilities to bear up, then doubt in the fortitude and truthfulness of their own government. What the families did from afar, and how they ultimately put backbone into their own leaders and pushed accountability onto the captors of the POWs, is a story heretofore largely untold. It is a narrative as striking in its own right as the tales of the ‘Alcatraz Eleven’ themselves.” —Phil Keith, award-winning author of Blackhorse Riders and Fire Base Illingworth

“With Defiant, Alvin Townley has done readers a huge favor. By describing the POWs' scenes of torture and deprivation in such detail--to the point we can almost feel our own bones crack under pressure--he reminds us that we should never take our civil liberties for granted. This book is a testament to the human spirit and how, in the worst of conditions with the best of men, it can be bent but never broken.” —David Abrams, author of Fobbit

"Alvin Townley's Defiant is a compelling recounting of the horror, hope, hell, and humanity that was daily life for the American prisoners of war who struggled through existence at Hanoi's most brutal prison camp. Expertly researched and compellingly written, Townley's account of the reality of life both in Hanoi's prisons and for the families of the prisoners at home is inspiring reading and should be part of any Vietnam War library." —Andrew Wiest, author of The Boys of ‘67

Defiant is a riveting tribute to the unyielding men who endured years of brutal captivity as POWs in Vietnam and the families they left behind. The men of the ‘Alcatraz Eleven’ are true American heroes and their extraordinary stories will serve as an inspiration for generations to come.”—Senator John McCain

“These heroic men and women remind us how courage, devotion, and faith can triumph even in the darkest of times. In Defiant, Alvin Townley masterfully tells the inspirational and unforgettable story of our Vietnam POWs and the Alcatraz Eleven.” —President Jimmy Carter

"Defiant is Unbroken meets Band of Brothers – and then some. In it, Alvin Townley’s vivid prose reveals the epic story of the Alcatraz Eleven – Vietnam’s own Dirty Dozen – and how their wives never stopped fighting for their safe return. The devotion and undefeatable will of these courageous American heroes shines on every page and reminds us exactly what our great nation is made of.” —Congressman Pete Sessions

“Where do we get such men like the Alcatraz Eleven? Captured during a controversial war and imprisoned by a cruel enemy, this stirring tale by Alvin Townley of resilience and leadership under unimaginable conditions is a must read.” —Capt. James A. Lovell, Jr. Commander of Apollo 13

Defiant is a must read for those who seek to understand and honor the very best of America and its heroes.  Alvin Townley’s exhaustive research shows us how our prisoners of war in Vietnam served with inspired bravery and unrelenting courage. We can now know in detail how the most abused of them all survived years of brutality and solitary confinement.” —Melvin R. Laird, Secretary of Defense (1968-1972)

“Alvin Townley has done a magnificent job of weaving together the powerful and complex story of eleven men who survived the unbelievable cruelty of their North Vietnamese captors. Defiant honors the bravery and sacrifice of our prisoners of war and their families as no other reporting has done to date.  These men, many of whom I knew, deserve no less.” —Richard G. Capen, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (1968-1971)

“I couldn’t put it down!  Alvin Townley’s work speaks volumes of America and our service men and women, and their spouses….their honor, steadfastness, perseverance, spirit, and love of country…and clearly illuminates the differences in our militaries and governments.  Reading “today” of their time in captivity, brings the same emotions American shed upon their release and return in 1973.” —General J.H. Binford Peay III, U.S. Army (Retired); Superintendent, Virginia Military Institute; former Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Central Command

“A moving, must read of extraordinary courage and mutual support in facing unimaginable hardship and torture.” —Ann Mills-Griffith, Chair, National League of POW/MIA Families

Praise from the POWs and their families:

“In this unexpected way, your book made it all worthwhile. You told it exactly like it was.” —George G. McKnight, POW, 1965-1973

“Alvin Townley has captured the individual accounts of these eleven men and woven them into a captivating story of resilience, courage and love of country.” —Robert H. Shumaker, POW, 1965-1973

“The best account of this type I've ever read.” Jim Stockdale, Jr., son of senior ranking officer and POW Jim Stockdale

“Riveting. Powerful. Authentic. I had tears in my eyes reading Defiant. If I can still cry, I know others will too.” —Mike McGrath, POW, 1967-1973

Defiant will make you proud to be an American, and Alvin Townley's writing makes you feel as if you are there yourself.  It would be a wonderful textbook for a course on how to be a POW, but it is also a book for anyone on how to face and overcome adversity!” —Wesley D. Schierman, POW, 1965-1973

"In Defiant, Alvin Townley makes a colossal contribution to our POW story by capturing the valiant character of these American combat fliers as they endured years of brutal torture at the hands of their captors. Although isolated, starved, beaten, and sick, they missed no opportunity to subvert their enemy or support their fellow prisoners. At home, the unified voices of their wives improved POW treatment enormously, altered world opinion, and finally brought our men home safely. This moving and authentic epic of unrelenting heroism shines like the sun as an example of American men and women at their very best.” —Medal of Honor recipient Colonel George "Bud" Day, POW, 1968-1973

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Alvin Townley

  • ALVIN TOWNLEY is the acclaimed author of Legacy of Honor: The Values and Influence of America's Eagle Scouts, Spirit of Adventure: Eagle Scouts and the Making of America's Future, and Fly Navy: Discovering the Extraordinary People and Enduring Spirit of Naval Aviation. He lives in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.

  • Alvin Townley
    Alvin Townley


Alvin Townley

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    Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam's Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned

    Alvin Townley



    Thomas Dunne Books