Robert Wideman was a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. The current Fort Collins resident attended a Loveland veterans group breakfast a few years ago at Mimi’s Café. Being a member of this group, I attended it regularly. On Wideman’s first visit, he introduced himself. He told the group that he had spent more than six years in Vietnam.
This raised a few eyebrows and made us sit down in our seats. Most servicemen spend one tour (one year), with some doing a second tour. On rare occasions, I think three times was possible. Wideman went on to say that most of his six years in the country were spent at the “Hanoi Hilton”, as the POWs called it. We all understood.
I met Wideman for coffee a few weeks after the veterans meeting. At the time, he said he intended to write a book about his experiences. He indeed collaborated with a writer to produce a book in 2016. The title is “Unexpected Prisoner Memoirs of a Vietnam POW”. He wrote it with Carla Lopez Lee.
On May 6, 1967, Lt. Wideman was in a Navy A-4 Skyhawk when he was shot down during a bombing run. Wideman was 23 at the time. This is where his book begins, as he is ejected from his plane. It was his 134th mission.
Wideman recounts the brutal impact of the ejection, including the breaking of a few fingers. He tells how he was captured and “paraded” in many villages where he was not well received.
It is fascinating to read his account of early interrogation sessions where he and his captors played a mental game to try to avoid specific questions. It gets a bit uncomfortable reading about the torture sessions Wideman endured during this time. He says modestly that many endure much more.
Wideman does a good job of recounting all the places he and his fellow inmates stayed during his captivity. It gives a good insight into how they slept, ate and spent their time. He admits that most of the time, boredom was the theme of the day.
Since all of the captives were military personnel of various ranks, the Americans established a hierarchy and chain of command for the conduct of the prisons. This ruling group also dictated how and when prisoners could communicate with each other and with the enemy.
Throughout the book “Unexpected Prisoner”, Wideman points out bureaucracy and what, in some cases, were unreasonable rules imposed by those above him.
Wideman recounts various contexts in different prisons and buildings within a prison where prisoners who were roommates disagreed even on simple tasks or topics.
Some relatively good times are mentioned, including the end of year celebrations, allowing the prisoners to sing and the sporadic arrival of mail or a package of sweets.
Wideman is candid about how difficult it was for his wife to be alone, and isn’t one hundred percent sure her husband was alive. The couple had been married for nine months when he became prisoners. He even shares his deepest feelings when, towards the end of his captivity, his wife filed for divorce.
The chapter on liberation is moving. Wideman’s name was on a list to be one of the first to go, but that has changed. This goes back to his discussion of bureaucracy and politics.
Wideman now has a wry sense of humor, and I guess still does. It shows when you hear him give a public lecture and often in the book.
As you can see, in some places this book was hard to read, but worth it in my opinion. Whether you meet Wideman, as I had the chance to do, or not, the man should be honored for what he went through.
“Unexpected Prisoner” is available on Barnesandnoble.com and amazon.com.