The Alcatraz POW camp was located one mile from Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo), North Vietnam’s main prison camp. Alcatraz was situated in a courtyard near the Ministry of National Defense in Hanoi and was given the name, “Alcatraz”, due to its isolation from other POW camps. This high security facility would be in operation from October 1967 until December 1969—approximately 25 months.
Its’ sole objective was to hold eleven American POWs who were staunch resistors the North Vietnamese wanted to separate from other POWs in Hanoi. The Alcatraz 11 POWs (aka the “Alcatraz Gang” or ”Alkies”) were James “Jim” Stockdale, USN; Robert “Bob” Shumaker, USN; Sam Johnson, USAF; Jeremiah “Jerry” Denton USN; George McKnight, USAF; Harry Jenkins, USN; James “Jim” Mulligan USN; Howard Rutledge, USN; Ronald “Ron” Storz, USAF; George Coker, USN; and Nels Tanner, USN.
The Vietnamese viewed these POW senior high-ranking members as the most dangerous, subversive and unbreakable prisoners, who set the example as leaders of the resistance for all other prisoners to follow. One of them, Jerry Denton described Alcatraz as a place for isolation, filth, hunger and despair. It was as close to being a dungeon as any prison in North Vietnam.
Denton was known for having been placed before TV cameras in 1966 by the North Vietnamese to denounce the war. While answering the interviewer’s questions without providing any propaganda value, he blinked his eyes in Morse code sending a message, spelling the word “T-O-R-T-U-R-E”—confirming for the first time to U.S. Naval Intelligence that American POWs were being tortured.
The small Alcatraz camp compound had two buildings: one with three cells and one with 10 cells. The solitary confinement cells were 4’ x 9‘ in size with a concrete pad for sleeping. The cells were dug into the ground which meant dirt walls and no windows. Tiny holes above the door and a small space below the door allowed the only light and the only ventilation. Tin roofs on the cells, soaked up the heat in the summer and provided no insulation in the winter. The walls and floors were overrun with roaches and rats. From late afternoon until morning, the POWs were kept in leg irons and were forced to lie in their own excrement.
While the prisoners were kept in their dark cells, twice daily they were individually taken from their cell to empty their latrine bucket, occasionally wash, and get their two meals. The guards tried to keep the 11 POWs isolated from each other. Jim Stockdale and Jim Mulligan were considered so dangerous the Vietnamese left an empty cell between them in an effort to thwart any secret communication. In spite of the guards efforts, the POWs were still able to use the tap code on the walls and hand signals to communicate with the other POWs. The communication often expressed words of solace or encouragement. Sometimes it would signal a group prayer or the Pledge of Allegiance, which they would whisper simultaneously. If caught trying to communicate with the others, their leg irons would remain in place both day and night. The standard punishment was 10 days strapped down with the 15 pound leg irons.
Torture and long interrogation sessions were the norm at Alcatraz. The prisoners were forced to produce confessions or anti-war statements. They faced long periods of time in the “ropes” where the POWs hands and feet tied, then bound with their hands to their ankles—sometimes behind the back, sometimes in front. The ropes were tightened then rotated upward—sometimes onto a hook—until the shoulders popped out of their sockets to the point that you couldn’t breathe or simply passed out. Regular beatings with a hose, fan belt or bamboo pole was normal. An iron pole with a dirty rag was often forced into the POWs mouth to muffle their screams of pain. After Richard Nixon’s U.S. Presidential election win in November 1968, the Vietnamese wanted real propaganda out of the Alcatraz 11. They beat George McKnight for 36 hours straight. They beat and tortured Jeremiah “Jerry” Denton so brutally his arms turned black. Jim Mulligan was strung up and beaten for six days. Nels Tanner was beaten for 17 days. Sam Johnson was so brutalized that when he finally submitted, he literally could not write the apology demanded by the North Vietnamese.
In December 1969 most of the men were sent back to the Hanoi Hilton with the exception of Ron Storz. He had stated his fate was in God’s hands and never relented to the torture demands. The isolation and severe torture in Alcatraz finally led to his death. Ron Storz was described as among the bravest and most aggressive American POW. Stockdale described him as “our spark plug, our hero”. All 11 men would become some of the most well-respected POWs of the Vietnam War.
Not only did all of the Alcatraz survivors go on to live a full and productive life, several continued to serve their country. Tanner, Jenkins, Rutledge, Mulligan, Coker, McKnight and Johnson went back to active duty; Bob Shumaker and Jerry Denton retired as rear admirals from the Navy. Jerry Denton went on to serve in the U.S. Senate and Sam Johnson was elected to represent Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives. Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s extraordinary heroism became widely known, and he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership and resistance during his POW captivity. He was one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the Navy, with 26 personal combat decorations, including four Silver Star medals in addition to the Medal of Honor.
Note: In April 1966, America had a lack of awareness and political attention to the circumstances of prisoners of war in Vietnam. Sybil Stockdale, Jim Stockdale’s wife, started The League of Wives to publically demand the humane treatment of POWs. Two other “Alcatraz wives”, namely Louise Mulligan and Jane Denton, quickly joined with Sybil and the three of them spearheaded a nationwide movement that became the National League of Families of Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Their actions ultimately influenced a reduction in prisoner torture and contributed to the safe return of 591 remaining POWs (566 service members along with 25 captured civilians) during Operation Homecoming.
Thanks to Scott Dillingham for his research and composition of the above introduction to the “Alcatraz POW Camp.”