How a Heroic Band of POWs

Survived Vietnam

By Geoffrey Norman

Houghton Mifflin. 248 pp. $19.95

For many American males sliding into middle age, the late 1960s evoke memories of Woodstock, hippies, Joplin and Hendrix. For Al Stafford, the central figure in this sobering retrospective, the memories are starker. Stafford and his colleagues missed Woodstock; in fact, they missed much of the '60s and a good chunk of the '70s. They were prisoners of war in North Vietnam.

"Bouncing Back" re-creates that grim period from the time in 1967 when Stafford and his A-4 bomber were hit by a surface-to-air missile and disappeared in a black and orange fireball south of Haiphong (other pilots on the mission thought he was dead), through his torture and confinement in a succession of POW camps, his return to the United States nearly six years later, and the years since.

At the time he was shot down, Stafford had received the best survival training the American military could provide. Toughness, the doctrine held, was the best defense; once your captors realized you would not divulge information, they would back off. But in the North Vietnamese camps, Stafford and his colleagues were to learn, their captors were proceeding from a perspective entirely different from the one underpinning Stafford's training: "The point of the torture and brutality and endless interrogations ... was not to break the men so they would reveal information of military importance. Breaking them was the purpose."

So the POWs improvised, and developed a form of resistance reflecting the changed reality. Termed "Bounce Back," it held that the "essential point was not to give up completely once you had been broken but to rally" -- no mean feat for men isolated for much of their captivity in small groups in barren rooms, fed a diet of pumpkin soup (on good days) and fighting "the crushing weight of empty time" -- an emptiness punctuated by beatings and interrogations.

How the POWs organized themselves ("talking" by means of tap codes passed painstakingly through the walls to adjoining cells) and kept their sanity and community of purpose is the core of Geoffrey Norman's narrative. Card games and chess, discussions of Kipling and Kierkegaard were tapped arduously through the walls along with orders and exhortations to maintain an active resistance (notwithstanding the enfeeblement and frustration of so many of their efforts, given the reality of POW life).

In the hands of an ax-grinder, "Bouncing Back" could easily have degenerated into a sermon or a polemic. It is neither. Norman (who served in Vietnam with the Special Forces) is not a moralist. His is an account of men under duress, and their responses. The men range from pure hard-liners to willing collaborators ("slimies" in the POW parlance) who swapped cooperation for preferential treatment and early release, as well as those in the middle -- like Stafford -- who were broken and bounced back.

Norman falters rarely. The chronology is at times murky. One wishes he had not punched up the narrative with the likes of "Air seemed to rush in like water sluicing down a drain." Yet it is hard to improve on his depiction of a POW camp Christmas gathering at which imaginary "presents" are exchanged; the anguish of a six-year POW for whom there is no light at the end of his tunnel ("Look, I'll hang in there for another year, but that's it. If I'm still here then, I'll make any deal I can to get home"); the fears facing the POWs ("Some of these men had missed fully half of the sixties. The seventies were already slipping by. Whenever they got back, they would be out of touch, relics of the past, men that time had left behind."); or Stafford's reunion with his wife of four months whom he had last seen some six years previously: "They looked at each other like people who had been set up for a blind date."

Norman's follow-up on Stafford and some of his colleagues in the years since their return evokes mixed emotions: One POW returned to find his wife was divorcing him to marry another man (her lawyers claimed "desertion"); all had lost irretrievable time on the career ladder; some turned to civilian pursuits -- law, medicine, cabinetmaking; others, like Stafford, stayed in the Navy; there was a suicide; two were elected to the Senate. "Coming home," Norman observes, "was not as hard as some of the experts had predicted it would be, but it was not easy, either." But then nothing in this book is easy.

Trying times. Admirable men. A sobering, unsparing book that does them justice. The reviewer, a Washington attorney, is a frequent contributor to Book World.