–by Michael Pierce
THE LEAGUE OF WIVES: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE WOMEN WHO TOOK ON THE U.S. GOVERNMENT TO BRING THEIR HUSBANDS HOME by Heath Hardage Lee. Available April 2, 2019 from St. Martin’s Press. Photos courtesy of St. Martin’s Press.
On March 26, 1964 the first U.S. serviceman to be captured in Vietnam was shot down near Quang Tri, South Vietnam. By the end of the war in 1973 America listed around 2,500 personnel as either a prisoner of war or missing in action.
Now, imagine you’re the wife of one of those prisoners of war. Early on, you’re having to deal with the administration of President Lyndon Johnson and its “keep quiet” policy. The government of North Vietnam paints a rosy picture of how your spouse is being treated, even providing photographs and film footage of him and other seemingly healthy prisoners, some of them even smiling for the camera.
One day you’re watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and see film footage of your husband being marched through the streets of Hanoi, being abused by soldiers and civilians along the way. Suddenly, you see your husband speaking to the camera about how well he’s being treated by his captors. He’s blinking in an odd manner. He’s actually blinking Morse Code. – — .-. – ..- .-. . That’s code for TORTURE.
You, and the other wives, become fed up with the government and Armed Forces protocol for spouses of service members. You begin going public with your concerns. You become strange political bedfellows with anti-war activists, because that’s the primary way that letters can flow between you and your husband. You learn how to code these letters, and your husband answers in code.
You help create an organization that still exists today as The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. There is strength in numbers, so the organization becomes politically powerful. When Richard Nixon becomes president, he realizes that these women are a force to be reckoned with. When your men finally come home, the president gives you all the credit.
Five hundred ninety-one POWs came home in 1973. Had it not been for the work of their wives and other family members, that number may have been far less.
Heath Hardage Lee has written a book where readers will find themselves caught up in a gripping drama. It’s worthwhile reading about a story that needs to be told. You’ll feel the frustration of these wives as they deal with a political and military bureaucracy that views them simply as ‘the girls,’ continually underestimating the power that these wives, eventually, will wield as they begin to go public with their stories. You’ll also feel their joy as they welcome their husbands home, along with the frustration and sadness of the families whose men are still listed as missing.
Much is still being done on behalf of missing American personnel going back to The Great War. This work is being done by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, an organization based in Hawaii that is leading the effort to identify the missing and the unknown using DNA technology. For more information on their work please visit https://www.dpaa.mil/.
For more information on The National League of POW/MIA Families please visit https://www.pow-miafamilies.org/.