BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Tom Philpott, author of "Glory Denied," there's a moment in 1991 where you and Alyce and Jim were all together at a trial. What was the
Mr. TOM PHILPOTT (Author, "Glory Denied"): It was a trial for Jim's
son. He had four children. Jim Jr. was born the day after he was
shot down. In 1991, they were both there for a trial--second-degree
murder trial and he was convicted.
LAMB: OK, who was Jim?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Jim Thompson is the longest-held prisoner of war in
American history. His story has been largely buried under an
avalanche of tragedy for the last 28 years. He's a stroke victim
today. He couldn't tell his own story, and I met him in 1984. I got
his permission to tell his own story. And so "Glory Denied" is about
what he went through in Vietnam. It's also about what his family went
through in Vietnam and the family together went through after the war.
LAMB: Who is Alyce?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Alyce was Jim's wife. They had been married 10 years
at the time that Jim was lost in Vietnam and his captivity began. And
she--they--they met in New Jersey. Jim found in the Army a place
where he could realize his dreams and ambitions. But he was swept up
in a war that he had no understanding of, Alyce had no understanding
of. She knew--didn't know where Vietnam was, even at the time he was
assigned there. It's very early in the war when he was lost. And the
war would affect all their lives profoundly.
LAMB: Jim Thompson was in what service?
Mr. PHILPOTT: He was an Army captain in Special Forces. He was
reluctantly in the Special Forces. Most Americans believe that the
Special Forces are all volunteers. Well, at the time John Kennedy
said `Let's build them up. We've gotta fight con--communism around
the world more aggressively,' Jim Thompson was on recruiting duty,
perfectly happy, a young Army captain and he was volunteered for
Special Forces. He protested. H--that isn't what he wanted to be in.
He soon w--he--the protest went nowhere. He was assigned to it
because that Army needed officers for Special Forces. He was soon
swept up in it. He's being trained at the time of--a--in 1962, to be
assigned to the Congo. He was learning Lingala. And suddenly,
Vietnam got hot and his team was told to train for Vietnam.
LAMB: Where was he from originally?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Bergenfield, New Jersey.
LAMB: Where was Alyce from?
Mr. PHILPOTT: She was--a neighboring town of Dumont. They met on
a--a--a blind date and they actually switched partners by the end of
the evening, having been attracted to one another. Jim--Jim was
raised in quite a bit of poverty and kind of a gray existence that he
had. His--his parents were older than other parents of--of his--of
the youth. His father was a bus driver. His mother was a homemaker,
quite dominated by the father. His father was not a very loving man
and didn't give Jim a lot of whol--a lot of aspirations for bettering
himself and--but Jim got that from his mother and from various
teachers that he had in high school.
LAMB: How much education did Jim Thompson and his wife Alyce have?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Just high school. They both graduated from high
school. Jim was two years ahead of Alyce.
LAMB: Again, you say the longest-serving POW in American military
Mr. PHILPOTT: Right. The longest-held POW in American military
history. There may be someone else that we don't know about, but it's
LAMB: When was he sh--shot down?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Shot down in--March 26th, 1964. He had been in
Vietnam for three months. His assignment at that time was--he was in
charge of a Special Forces A Team. The A Teams were dispersed
throughout Vietnam and their mission was to--to win over the local
populous, to train them to fight infiltration by the Vietcong. Coming
down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and supplying the various corps in various
parts of South Vietnam. H--Khe Sanh was--at that time it became much
more famous in 1968 when there was a Marine Corps there. But at
the--in--in 1963, when Jim first arrived there, it was a very remote
outpost, quite a dangerous assignment and hi--he--his 12-man team was
there to train--work with the Nungs, who were sort of Special Forces
from--from China, to work with the Mountain Yards, who were the native
population there and to--to work with South Vietnamese regular forces
that--who--none of them were as gung ho as the Americans.
LAMB: He was captured in 1964 and released after nine years when?
Mr. PHILPOTT: In--March 16th, 1973. So 10 days short of nine years.
LAMB: OK, just for a--for purposes after the introduction, we
entered--in '73, he comes back to the United States. We're talking
about '91, his son's standing trial for murder. Why?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Jim Jr. was born the day after Jim was shot down.
Alyce had made a decision about 15 months later to move the family in
with another man to pose as the husband of this other man to sort of
put her life with Jim Thompson behind her. The reasons she did that
were numerous, but her support system was breaking down. Alyce was
the kind of woman who was very dependent upon her husband. There were
some problems in the marriage, but nothing that Jim thought about much
while he was in captivity because he idolized the marriage and the
family. That was his dream, to get home.
But from Alyce's perspective, she had suddenly had--when her husband
was lost, Jim was born, th--she had three young daughters under the
age of six, she found herself unable to cope. For a time,
the--the--the commanding officer at the base at Ft. Bragg, where Jim
was assigned to Vietnam, was always there, a shoulder for Alyce to
lean on, somebody providing the support that she'd need. `Alyce, if
you want anything, if you want to go to any social events, just let me
know.' But if you're in the military, it's a transient life and soon,
after several months, the commanding officer's reassigned; a new
commanding officer came in, didn't quite know her story. Neighbors
would come home from work, have warm reunions and Alyce could spy from
her close quarters, she lived on base. And she found herself
increasingly helpless to--to handle this situation. A woman who
helped her out, Jean Ledbetter, had lost her husband in Vietnam about
six months later. The two of them met and were again support for each
other. But Jean soon learned that her husband had been lost and that
she'd be moving off post. So another support for Alyce was gone.
Jim Thompson, soon after his capture, was tortured for a statement.
He didn't write the statement; he signed the statement. He then read
the statement. A lot of prisoners of war had been tortured and had to
sign statements eventually. But unlike them, Jim Thompson didn't have
somebody to rely on that he could bounce off what he had just been
through. He was kept in isolation, which I'll get into, I hope, a
little bit later. But from the--that statement that Jim had made was
broadcast on Hanoi radio several months later. By the time that--that
was in November of 1964, so it was six months after Jim was lost.
Alyce heard news reports of this, but the--she said that the Army
couldn't provide the tape for her. She could never verify whether it
was actually her husband. The Army had a problem finding the tape.
Several months later, she moved--she made the decision--she met an
Army sergeant at a bowling alley who had two children of his own that
he wanted to raise. Looked for--asked Alyce if she'd like to move off
with him and they could be one family in Massachusetts. She made that
decision. It would forever affect her life.
LAMB: So let me go--quickly, though, that Jim Thompson's in--in
solitary confinement where in Vietnam?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Jim was--perhaps I should tell you first how he was
captured, which is at the A Team, they would be resupplied and receive
their payroll from an Air Force plane that would fly in periodically.
And if it had extra gas a--aboard, one of the team members would hop
aboard to see if they could see what Vietnam activity was like in the
area. Jim Thompson didn't go on those flights. Usually it was his
operations sergeant who did. But he was on R&R at--in Nha Trang on
So, Jim hopped aboard and he thought he saw a bridge that had been
newly built and he asked the pilot, an Air Force captain by the name
of Richard Whitesides, to fly down below flight minimums, which was
1,000 feet and they were shot out of the sky. Whitesides likely was
killed from the weapon--small arms fire, but he was certainly lost in
the crash. Jim was thrown from the crash. He had a broken back. He
had a wound across his cheek. He had burns on his legs. And he was
in and out of consciousness when the Vietcong picked him up. He--he
was kept for the next four years in jungle camps throughout South
Vietnam. It was really quite a different existence than the pilots
who eventually were shot down in the North and captured and all
together they were a support group. But because Jim was isolated, he
never had any of that kind of support structure. Additionally, he was
exposed to so much more physically than they were up there just from
trying to survive in a jungle environment.
LAMB: How many times did he try to escape?
Mr. PHILPOTT: He tried to escape five times. Three--the first three
escapes came in the early--after he was able to--to build himself back
up a little bit to wal--be able to walk. For a time, he was moved
from camp to camp on a stretcher. But eventually, he was able to--to
walk, to shuffle. And he would shuffle away from camp, hoping to get
all the way away and for three of these attempts, he would just run
into a guard. He would tell the guard that he was looking to relieve
himself and then head back to camp.
LAMB: OK, '64, he's in the South being held by the VC, the Vietcong.
She is in--where in her life? Where is she living?
Mr. PHILPOTT: She's living in Hudson, Massachusetts, with this Army
LAMB: But before that, what base was she on?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Ft. Bragg. Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where the
Special Forces teams would train.
LAMB: So she moves with--you call him Harold, but that's not his real
Mr. PHILPOTT: Yes, that's correct.
LAMB: Any why don't you give his real name?
Mr. PHILPOTT: He didn't give his permission and the publisher
suggested that I use a pseudonym.
LAMB: So they moved to where again?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Hudson, Massachusetts.
LAMB: How long do they stay there?
Mr. PHILPOTT: For the next seven and a half years they--they lived
LAMB: Living as husband and wife?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Living as husband and wife. Alyce wore a
redding--wedding ring, posed as her husband, o--as his--as his wife.
If someone asked about her past, she would just say her husband was
lost and she'd try and avoid the conversation.
LAMB: He comes home in '73.
Mr. PHILPOTT: Right.
LAMB: We jump again to '91. How did Jim Jr. commit murder? And
where is he today, by the way?
Mr. PHILPOTT: He has been paroled. He was convicted of
second-degree murder. Been paroled and moved on promising
with--promisingly with his life. What happened to Jim was this--Jim
Jr: When his father came home, he was called in--Jim was a playful
youngster and he--when he came home from school, he would play
outside. He barely checked in. This one particular afternoon, his
mother calls him in. The family is sitting around the table. He says
to young J--she says to young Jim, `Harold is not your father. This
man is your father.' She pulls out a photograph and says `And he's
coming home.' Jim was stunned. He didn't know what to say at that
point. He goes back outside to play. What affected Jim Jr.'s life so
much was there--the reunion of his parents was a very rocky affair for
the next year and a half that they lived together. Because
incredibly, when Jim Thompson came back, Alyce was there waiting for
him at Valley Forge, told him how she had lived her life. Invited him
to divorce if she'd like, or w--they could try to make a family of it.
Jim Thompson had dreamed of being reunited with is family, so he
figured, `Let's give it a go.' They went up to the house in Hudson,
Massachusetts, unloaded the f--took the furniture out and moved on
with their lives in the Army. But for the next 15 months, it was a
terrible existence for the entire family.
LAMB: Now, Harold was there when they all got together up there?
Mr. PHILPOTT: He was. One of the escort officers was also with him
and he said it was the most incredible tension-filled scene he'd ever
been a part of. It was almost like Harold suddenly was this uncle
who--who was just an observer as they went about picking up their
possessions and putting them in the...
LAMB: Now what age would Alyce have been in '73?
Mr. PHILPOTT: She was born in '35, so--What's that? Forty--do a
little math here. She was 38 at that time.
LAMB: Harold was how old?
Mr. PHILPOTT: He was a few years her senior, I believe.
LAMB: And Jim Thompson was how old?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Few years her senior. About the same age.
LAMB: When he came back he was 39, Jim Thompson?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Right.
LAMB: So how did they get to that--Was it Nashville courtroom?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Jim Jr. was thrown into this family and his father,
this stranger in charge, was suffering not only from the depression,
he was trying to repair his family. He was trying--he was the Rip Van
Winkle of the Army at that point. He was trying to repair his career
and he was trying to reconcile how the country felt about the--the
war. Because what kept him going all those years was believing, too,
that the country was supporting his effort. And it was a great shock
to him when he first ran into other Americans as a POW to learn that
there was dissension, and when he got home, to have that all confirmed
for him. That was very tough. And in that environment he became an
alcoholic, or perhaps he always was one and if he--and--and the
disease blossomed for him. He was suffering some--from severe
depression, in need of some psychiatric counseling at that time and
wasn't--wasn't getting a significant amount. And in that environment,
Jim Jr. was idolized by his father at first. I mean, among the four
children, only the older daughter had remembered her father and she...
Mr. PHILPOTT: Pam. And she kept that copy of his photograph hidden
in her drawer, her bureau drawer. The mother allowed her to keep it,
but Jim Thompson's name was not to be mentioned in that household. So
the second daughter, Laura, grew up believing that h--she had asked
her mother at one point what happened to their father and she said he
died of a snake bite. The two younger children, Ruth and Jim Jr.,
didn't know they had another father. They believed Harold was their
father. And so in this environment, when Jim returned, Ali--Pam, his
princess, suddenly wasn't his princess any longer. She had changed.
She had grown from a towhead youngster that he called Princess into
this cour--sort of gangly teen-ager trying to--studious teen-ager,
bookish and not someone who found her father to be the Prince Charming
that he--she expected to be.
LAMB: Get a close-up as we can of this photograph and tell us, as you
look at that top photograph there, who's--who's who?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Jim is in the middle. Alyce is on his right side.
Pam is on the--next to Alyce. Jimmy is beside his father. Laura is
beside Jimmy. And on the outside is Ruth.
LAMB: So murder, where?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Well, what I'm trying to explain I guess, Brian, is
the kind of environment that Jim Jr. was raised in. So after 15
months, the family fell apart. Jim Jr. went from being this coddled
s--spoiled, you might say, nine-year-old who was idol--idolized by his
father, to one day his mother comes up while he's visiting with
relatives up in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and says, `Your father and I
are getting a divorce. It's over.' He wouldn't see his father again
for years and years. At that point, his sisters say that he shut
himself off. It was like he closed down. This boy didn't want to be
hurt anymore. And it was--Jim Jr. i--is a very good-natured, warm
fellow. But--but he--i--if you can draw him out. But he's a very
And he turned to alcohol himself in his early teen years. He dropped
out of high school. He was a wayward son. Alyce didn't know quite
what to do with him. And he became a truck driver and he had married
and while he was on the road one--one day, his--well, they had
divorced then. It was a tumultuous marriage that Jim Jr. had. When
he returned from the road, he had--he had found out that his wife had
sold some $200 car that he treasured. He went to the Silver Dollar
Saloon in Nashville looking for the person that she had sold it to.
He was kind of a rough individual. He had been known to knife folks.
Jim Jr. happened to be that night with a young lady who was a minor
who had a handgun. When this person threatened him, according to the
trial testimony, Jim shot him and was found guilty of second-degree
LAMB: What year would that have been?
Mr. PHILPOTT: 1991.
LAMB: So they had the trial right away?
Mr. PHILPOTT: No. I'm sorry, the murder occurred--the shooting
occurred in 1990 and it was a year later that he went to trial.
LAMB: Where was Jim Thompson in 1990?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Jim Thompson Jr.?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Oh. He was in Nashville. He was in Nashville. He...
LAMB: Did he live there?
Mr. PHILPOTT: He lived there. That's--he came back, but he was on
the road quite frequently at that time.
LAMB: What was he doing then?
Mr. PHILPOTT: A--as a truck driver, he was...
LAMB: No, no, no, no, senior.
Mr. PHILPOTT: Oh, I'm sorry. Jim Thompson Sr., by that time, was a
stroke victim living by himself down in Key West, Florida.
LAMB: Didn't have a job.
Mr. PHILPOTT: Didn't--he had retired on full disability from
the--from the Army because of his stroke.
LAMB: When did he have the stroke?
Mr. PHILPOTT: He had the stroke in 1981.
LAMB: Was he married in 1990?
Mr. PHILPOTT: He was not.
LAMB: What was his relationship with his son in 1990?
Mr. PHILPOTT: They had been relatively strained. Jimmy was a
disappointment for Jim Sr., because he hadn't been raised the way he
would have preferred--table manners, well educated, well read. That
wasn't the way Jim was--was raised. He's a bright guy, but h--he was
raised in more of a blue-collar environment.
LAMB: Where was Alyce in 1990?
Mr. PHILPOTT: She was living in Tennessee. Alyce had remarried
after Jim and her divorced. And in fact, this summer they've
cel--they will celebrate their 26th wedding anniversary. She found a
solid relationship then.
LAMB: And he was--What?--10 years younger than she is?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Yes, that's right.
LAMB: Where does she live today?
Mr. PHILPOTT: She lives in Tennessee. I don't say the exact
location to protect her privacy.
LAMB: How did you get into all this and how many years did you spend
on this book?
Mr. PHILPOTT: I spent weekends and week--weeknights working on--on
it for approximately 15 years.
Mr. PHILPOTT: Well, I--at the time I was a writer for Army Times and
someone said--I did a story about Fred Cherry, who was a Air Force
prisoner of war who had won an award from the Air Force because they
didn't look after his finances properly. Cherry's wife had had a
child out of wedlock by another man, actually had it in an Air Force
hospital. There was evidence that they could have checked up and--and
found out that she was unfaithful to him. So Cherry won an award back
and after the article appeared, someone called me and said, `If you
want to know a more difficult story, a more moving story than that
and--you--you might check into this particular case.'
I found--I was told that Jim Thompson was the longest-held prisoner of
war in American history. That surprised me because I had always heard
that Everett Alvarez was the longest-held POW. So I looked into the
Thompson story and then went down to interview him and I found someone
who had had a stroke in 1981. He lived down--for the past three
years, at the time I met him, as a stroke victim down there. He--he
was ambulatory. He can speak i--in broken phrases. He can understand
everything that I said to him. But during our first interview
together, Jim was very frustrated. I wanted him to tell his story and
he could not. At some points, it looked like his--he was g--becoming
tearful and fr--with his frustration. He gets up, he goes over to a
small reel-to-reel tape recorder that he kept in his living room and
he turned it on and--and I heard this vibrant, articulate,
well-educated, it seemed, well-read at least, person talking about his
experience while held captive. And he said `Listen.' And I listened
and I--he provided me access to all his records, psychiatric, health
records, his intelligence reports. And I interviewed over the course
of the next 15 years, 160 people who could tell a slice of Jim
LAMB: I want to show the audience how you've done this. We'll get a
close-up of this page and ask you why? I mean, for instance, what
they're going to see in just a moment is--it's start up there with a
letter, `My darling,' from--I assume this is one from Alyce to her
husband in--when he was in Vietnam.
Then Lindsay Carr and Frank Rose and Eddie Trent and Lindsay Carr and
George Maloney, it's just one paragraph after another with people
Mr. PHILPOTT: Right.
LAMB: What are we looking at?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Right. What we're looking at is the story be--being
woven by the people who lived the experience. Each one of them is
telling a little slice of the Thompson story. And what I've done is
edited it in a way that their thoughts are, I hope, one flowing
narrative. The reason I did this, and I tried to--a few times to
write it in narrative, is I found this to be much more honest way to
present the facts of this story. If it had been a single narrator
telling the story, everything that occurred would be filtered through
me without the benefit of the primary person involved being able to
tell that part of his story. So what I found--I didn't come to the
idea of using oral history to start. But what I discovered was that I
was captivated by these voices. They were more poignant, profound,
powerful, jarring than anything that I could have written and much
more honest at the same time. So I wanted to tell this story, so I
chose 90 voices to tell this story and I've woven them together.
If I could add one point here, too. So you say to yourself, `Well,
how did he tell the story of Jim's captivity?' Well, I had the great
benefit of being helped by a senior writer, he retired as the editor
of Reader's Digest, Ken Tomlinson. Ken Tomlinson had worked on a book
called "P.O.W.," which was really the first take and--at the time of
th--they--Reader's Digest project. They had interviewed a slew of
prisoners of war when they first came home, the most prominent of
them, but scores. And Ken Tomlinson had sat down a couple of
afternoons with Jim Thompson and some of that was used in the book
"P.O.W." But there was this invaluable volume of manuscripts that Ken
Tomlinson gave me that I was able to use in the same way that I used
all the voices throughout the book, to weave Thompson's story in
there, which included, as we mentioned, the five escape attempts,
including a extraordinary--ily, I think, dramatic escape attempt that
he pulled off in October of 1971, in which he and Lou Meyer stayed on
the lam for--a civilian POW--stayed on the lam for two days. But
finally found the jungle impassable, had to come back through the camp
and was captured.
The other interesting thing about the story is that it hasn't really
been told before because Thompson has been a stroke victim. When he
returned and after he wasn't able to repair his family, he finally
understood that he wasn't generally regarded as the longest-held POW,
although the Army had made gestures that that effect. He was in his
hometown parade and celebrated in that regard. But the reputation
that Alvarez had established was a very solid one and it was based on
his own heroics, his own profile among the many POWs that were held up
North. And so I don't believe he can be faulted for--he was the
longest-held prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
LAMB: Explain then the ceremony at the Reagan White House where
you've got six POWs there getting special medals. Tell us what
that--those were. And why the attorney for Jim Thompson was arguing
about what role Everett Alvarez would play in that ceremony.
Mr. PHILPOTT: Right. Michael Shamwitz is a real proponent, advocate
for Jim Thompson. He's a lawyer who came to know Jim Thompson after
his stroke. So he's always wondered himself why Jim Thompson wasn't
generally recognized as the longest-held prisoner of war. In 1988,
they decided to cut a medal that would be--cast a medal that would
recognize POWs from our various wars. Everett Alvarez had worked in
the--was an executive in the Reagan administration--deputy
administrator for Department of Veterans Affairs. And he was invited
to represent the Vietnam War POWs at that ceremony.
LAMB: This is Jim Thompson with his back to us in this photo?
Mr. PHILPOTT: And at the time, sh--Alvarez knew of this controversy
about--he would get--he would feel heat from Army veterans saying,
`You're claiming to be the longest-held prisoner of war in American
history,' and Alvarez would try to correct the record whenever he
could . But it was very difficult. For example, when the Vietnam
Memorial was dedicated, Alvarez, who was prominent in the Reagan
administration, was in--part of the parade, Shamwitz on--on Thompson's
behalf had gone to the directors of that ceremony and said `Give Jim
Thompson a prominent role in this.' And they said, `We've already
picked who we--we're going to have.'
So h--he and Thompson were in the--a section that they watched the
parade and they heard Everett Alvarez announced as longest-held
prisoner of war in American history. So Alvarez was aware of this
situation and the confusion, and he wanted to make sure that Jim was
properly recognized. So he said to the Reagan White House, `Look, let
two people be represented.' And indeed, they selected two POWs from
World War II, Korea, Viet--and Vietnam. And i--Michael Shamwitz said
he was a bit embarrassed because he was saying, in effect, to the
White House, `Don't let Alvarez--it should be Thompson in this
ceremony.' And it was only later that he discovered that it was
Alvarez who made sure that Thompson was part of the ceremony. But he
was trying to be the advocate for Jim.
LAMB: Here's another picture of Jim Thompson with which daughter?
Mr. PHILPOTT: That's--that is with Ruth. She attended the White
LAMB: And had he had his stroke at this point?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Yes. Yes. As I say, he's ambulatory, still looks
pretty good in a--in a uniform, and--but he's had some very, very
difficult years since his…..CHECK LANGUAGE
LAMB: What's the history of Jim Thompson and his daughter, Ruth?
Mr. PHILPOTT: It's been quite rocky in that Ruth--Ruth loves her
dad, but she doesn't like the way she's been treated by him over the
years in that Jim is very--particularly since his stroke--is very
intolerant of people that don't quite have his own views about things,
and he--little slights will upset him a great deal, and so they've had
a very tough time with it.
And--give you an example--again, this is to some degree because Jim is
a stroke victim. But a couple of years ago, Ruth had sent down a
flower arrangement for her dad at Christmas time, and sh--as she had
done for a number of years because she knew he liked to entertain.
Well, the--the arrangement came with just her husband, Ken, and their
two s--children mentioned on the card. He called up, frustrated,
wanting to know what happened to Ruth? Was she injured? Was she
sick? Had they had a divorce and he not be aware of it? Ken, her
husband said, `Jim, don't--don't worry about it. Everything's fine.
Ruth will call you back.' Well, she didn't call back for a couple of
days, and Jim hasn't talked to her for--didn't talk to her for about a
year and half after that.
LAMB: Where does Jim Thompson live today?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Key West, Florida.
LAMB: When was the last time you saw him?
Mr. PHILPOTT: I think I saw him probably four or five years ago.
LAMB: You ever talk to him, any--in any way?
Mr. PHILPOTT: I've talked to him a couple of times as the book was
in publication, and Jim--Jim Thompson, I believe, is quite pleased
that his story has gotten out, but I don't think he--it's the story he
wanted, precisely. As I was researching the book, Jim had hoped that
it would be about him alone, his story and his heroics, and what I
found was this compelling story, not only of Jim Thompson, a
hero--five years in solitary confinement, five escape attempts. His
first five years he never s--talked to another American.
Extraordinary what he went through and--nine years, long as hell. But
what I found was the war had impacted his family tremendously, and
that had to be part of the story. And I didn't think I would have
that part of the story until Alyce agreed to tell what she went
through, why she went through. She's not asking people to condone
what she did. She's just asking people to understand.
LAMB: When did she agree to talk?
Mr. PHILPOTT: In 1985, and I didn't call her up cold. I had
interviewed her daughter, Laura, and she told me that aspect of the
story. I said, `I need to talk to your mom.' She said the only
way--she said she'll never talk about her POW year experiences--her
experiences while her husband was a POW. But then she said, `Well,
there's one way you might be able to approach her, and that's through
Ruthie,' her younger daughter who lived near Alyce in Tennessee. So I
interviewed Ruthie over the phone, and she--she said that she would
bring the issue up with her mom, and it was quite a dramatic scene one
Sunday afternoon at--at Alyce's house, where--when they were alone,
Ruth raised the issue that someone was writing about her ex-husband
and wanted her side of the story, too.
Alyce was quite upset that anyone was looking into her life, but it
was her current husband who said, `You know, if you don't tell your
story, someone else will, and it's best that you tell it.'
LAMB: Have you talked to any of the family about the book?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Yes.
LAMB: Since it's come out?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Yes. I've talked to Alyce and r--and Ruth, and I've
heard through Shamwitz, what Jim's reaction generally was.
LAMB: And what's the reaction of Alyce to the book?
Mr. PHILPOTT: It's interesting. She said it was marvelous, even
though you'll see that it--it--it's a very difficult read for her,
because the decision she made. While Jim was in--a--a captive, she
had tried to get him declared dead. She had denied permission for the
VIVA organization, which produced the medals during the war--or the
wrist bracelets during the war with the names of the POWs--she had
denied them permission to put Jim's name on there. She had asked the
ar--she told the Army that there would be hell to pay if they released
his name. But she says it's marvelous, I think because it's a very
truthful portrayal of what she went through and her support system
LAMB: Who gave you her letters to him?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Jim did, but during my interviews with Alyce, I had
the letters with me, and I went over the letters with her and she
agreed that they could be used.
LAMB: In the early part of the book, you have these letters
interspersed. While he's in Vietnam, you keep talking about his
experience and you then--you throw a letter in the middle of it. For
instance, one I'm looking at from January the 3rd, 1964: `Hi, honey,
it was a beautiful day. The girls, all three, are in the kitchen,
eating popcorn. They wanted that as their treat tonight. I called
the wives today--Mrs. Hoff, Rose, Auler, Smith--we are having our
first coffee here next Tuesday.'
And every page that you go on there's a--a letter like that--`Hi,
darling, your first letter arrived today and I was so happy I was
almost in tears.' `Hi, darling, another day gone by, about 167 more to
go.' By the end of the book, she's charging him with being a
homosexual. How did we go from this `Hi, darling' stuff in these
letters all the way to `he's a homosexual?' And--and she says a lot
stronger things about him.
Mr. PHILPOTT: Well, it's the--both of them are very complex
characters. Alyce was raised in poverty herself. She had a very
challenging environment. Her mother was unfaithful to her father
during World War II, and they lived in a boarding house. Her father
didn't--didn't need to go to the war. He was--he was old enough--he
was a contractor, a plumber--that he could have avoided service. But
when Pearl Harbor was bombed, he decided that he would go, and he
volunteered for the Seabees, and Alice's mother was very frustrated of
that. She was seven or eight years old, I guess, at that point, and
he was leaving her alone. She had affairs while her fa--while her
husband was in--in World War II. Alice grew up in that sort of
environment, with not a whole--a great role model. Her mother was
quite vivacious and dated quite a bit and had different men in her
Jim Thompson wasn't--his parents were a more solid marriage, but they
were a strange couple themselves, and like I say, it wasn't a very
loving environment. What Alyce and Jim had together, they always felt
was pretty good, and it was the--it was the war and the separation
that began to unravel the marriage.
Alyce looked at the flaws in the marriage while he was gone and said,
I--in effect that `I need more suppor--I can't be alone and--and wait,
because he might be lost, and I'm getting older' and so forth, `and
I've got these four children to raise.' So she made her decision and
she rationalized as best she could. She admits that she lived with a
lot of guilt during those years.
From Jim's point of view, he was--he was not a rigorous kind of
soldier. He--he wasn't an athlete in high school, and--but what
he--what he had during the Vietnam War, as fellow POWs said, was he
was tough as nails. He--he had hearts and guts, that was it. And he
lived on that. He's the ultimate survivor, if--I hope the book
details some of the tremendous challenges that--physical and mental,
that he went through as a POW.
When he got back and his marriage dissolved and his trust in women was
affected, I think he was exposed to some homosexuality. In fact,
I--I'm--I'm sure it was, and he was confused, and I've asked him about
that, and he said `Yes, experimentation.' So her charges were not, I
believe, inaccurate, but by that time, all the love was out of their
relationship, so you have to put it in perspective from that point of
LAMB: Where are you from, originally?
Mr. PHILPOTT: I was raised in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.
LAMB: Ever served in the military?
Mr. PHILPOTT: I was a Coast Guard--I enlisted in the Coast Guard,
waiting for Officer Candidate School right after college, and I
spent--I--I had hoped to get a ship. I was assigned instead to
headquarters in public affairs, and started writing press releases.
After three years working at Coast Guard headquarters, I went to work
for Army, Navy and Air Force Times for the next 17 years.
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
Mr. PHILPOTT: St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
LAMB: What'd you major in?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Political science.
LAMB: And today you do what, full-time?
Mr. PHILPOTT: I write a weekly syndicated news column called
Military Update. It covers pay and benefic--issues, lifestyle issues,
changes in policy that affect the life of service people, and I
syndicate that to daily newspapers near military bases, so that they
can get breaking news that affects soldiers, I hope fast every week.
LAMB: Can you make living doing that?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Yes. I have about 50 client newspapers.
LAMB: Let me jump again to a whole different scene. `He had the
guard tie my elbows behind my back until they touched it. Can't be
done unless extreme force is applied.' No, let me read that again. I
mixed it--missed a period. `He had the guard tie my elbows behind my
back until they touched. It can't be done unless extreme force is
applied. They attached a rope to my elbows and threw it over a
ceiling beam and hoisted me up. This for--forced my arms back even
farther, causing excruciating pain on my breastbone. I felt my chest
would split open. Thankfully, I contracted dysentery and was
extremely weak. Every time they tortured me, I'd pass out.' What's
that scene from?
Mr. PHILPOTT: That's early on in his captivity. In the la--in
the--in the first couple of years, Jim went through some extreme
torture. That was a typical kind of torture that the Vietcong and the
North Vietnamese had done on prisoners of war. But Jim was suffering
through it by himself.
The worst--probably the worst time for him during his first four years
of isolation in the jungles was he didn't pay sufficient respect to
the guards, so they threw him in a cage that he describes as about two
feet wide, two feet high and five feet long, and he laid on his side
for the next four months. They would bring him out of the cage every
once in a while. That cage there is more roomier than what he had
experienced, but that's the typical kind of environment that he was
kept in, just bamboo--bamboo cage under guard.
But this particular stint, a four-month stint, was unbelievably
desolate and--and torturous, and so he survived--they finally brought
him out and--and put him in--when he would go from the cage, laying on
his side for four months, to a room three feet wide by six feet long
it--it felt like the Hilton to him.
LAMB: What was his first attempted escape?
Mr. PHILPOTT: He had those three relatively undramatic escape
attempts that I described earlier, where he would walk away from his
guards until other guards would find him and shoo him back to his--to
his camp. Within his first six months or so, though, he had--he kept
walking one day, and there was no guard to stop him, and he took off,
and he was--he hid--he--he ran all day as best he could. He was still
injured from his--from his crash in the aircraft, but he got to a
riverbank one evening--this evening, and he hid in the brush until he
thought it was dark enough to cross undetected.
Well, the Vietcong had engaged the local montagnard to look for him,
and when Jim's feet went into the--to cross the river, the bank on the
other side exploded with montagnards whooping and hollering and so
forth, and soon Vietcong cadre were there and fired at his feet, and
he was recaptured. The brutal--the brutal treatment that he received
really began in earnest after that. He was--he was--his head was
slammed on the ground until he passed out numerous times. He was
be--beaten with clubs and sticks, and it was quite grueling.
LAMB: Here's an odd moment in the book where--maybe at Valley Forge a
psychiatrist broke down and cried when he's supposed to be helping
him, because he looked at his fingernails?
Mr. PHILPOTT: That wasn't--that was a companion of his.
LAMB: Yeah. I can remember.
Mr. PHILPOTT: Jim came back with Don MacPhail, another Special
Forces soldier who was also held for a time in the South, and it does
sort of indicate to you, I hope, what extreme conditions they went
through. But Don was captured with other Special Forces--I think now
all of them had died--but he was--he was held in brutal captivity. He
was, I think, five years. But at one point the--the Vietcong had
pulled out all of his toenails and fingernails, and he was trying to
illustrate for me the kind of lack of support that they got from some
of the--the--the situation when they got back, the psychiatrist
interviewed him to try to get him to talk about the experience, and he
found that psychiatrist crying at the clubbing experience for his
fingers and toenails that he'd gone through.
LAMB: Is all this on audiotape?
Mr. PHILPOTT: No. Oh, you mean my...
Mr. PHILPOTT: I have a bagful of--of transcriptions. There are some
characters in the book that I interviewed over the phone, and I have
phone notes from, but for all the principals, all my interviews with
Jim Thompson, with Alyce, with the--the--the daughters, are on tape.
LAMB: What are you going to do with them?
Mr. PHILPOTT: I'm just going to hold on to them.
LAMB: I mean, is it ever going to--can we ever hear their voices?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Oh, I think that's always a possibility. I--I--I
haven't had any kind of an--someone approach me about that, but--but
they tell a powerful story.
Jim Jr. at one point said, `I've never talked to anybody like I have
with you,' and I--I took that as a compliment that I listened closely
to what they had to say, and I hope I portrel--portrayed accurately
and well what they went through.
LAMB: How many different characters do you think you've got in the
Mr. PHILPOTT: I think there's about 90.
LAMB: Of all those characters, who was the angriest, and why?
Mr. PHILPOTT: I think it would have to be Jim Thompson. Jim came
back--three things, he said, kept him alive in captivity: faith in
God, faith in country, faith in the love of a good woman. When he got
back, he found, eventually, none of that. I'll explain. The marriage
was nothing as he had expected. He expected that while he was gone,
they talked about him all the time. They knew their father, they
couldn't wait to see him, a--and the--the--they wouldn't--he wouldn't
be unknown to his children. He--they would have shared stories over
the years, pleasant things, their experiences at Christmas together.
None of that was there.
When the other POWs--and Jim was released about a month after Everett
Alvarez, and as I said, in March '73--when they arrived back in the
Philippines, each was--each of the POWs was given a file folder in
which it contained love letters, report cards, drawings that the
children had done. Jim Thompson's had a pay stub, and he called Alyce
from the Philippines, and she said, `We need to talk when you get
back.' That's what he confronted when he got back, so he has to be the
most angry in the story.
But--so he lost his faith in the love of a good woman. The country
didn't embrace the--the warriors from Vietnam the way Jim had expected
at all. He--he believed it was all propaganda while he was five years
in isolation. What he was being fed by the--his captors was that
the--your nation is divided over this war. There's great dissension,
there is politicians who are saying `Stop the war.' Jim couldn't
believe it until his fir--he met his first Americans and they said, in
effect, `Yes, that's true.'
LAMB: There were characters, though, in your book that didn't like
Mr. PHILPOTT: Jim is a very strong-willed individual. He spent five
years in captivity by himself. He probably had numerous arguments and
he won all of them. So by the time he met up with others who had been
captured six months, a year, he thought he should lead them. He was
put into a situation where he wasn't with other military people. He
was with civilians who were captured during the Tet offensive in '68,
and these civilians had been exposed already to the anti-war protests
back home. They were in Vietnam to do a civilian type of job. They
weren't the gung ho militants that they saw Jim Thompson to be,
and--whereas if they were employees of the Defense Department, he did
command them--some of them realized that afterwards--but m--many of
them were contractors working for the Defense Department, and they
didn't want to pay attention to Jim Thompson. They didn't want to be
organized by Jim Thompson. They didn't want to escape with him.
Jim was blessed that he had--one of his cellmates was Lou Meyer, who
was this tough-as-nails Navy fireman, a veteran himself, who believed
Jim Thompson was in charge. Lou Meyer was an exercise fanatic. He
wanted to stay in shape. He wanted to escape. When Jim Thompson and
Lou were together for the first time, Jim jumped--saw Lou
exercising--Jim jumps out of his bunk, tries to do a single push-up
and crashes on his face. He couldn't do it. He begins to cry. Lou
Meyer stops his exercise program. He decides, `I'm going to build
this guy back up. To keep myself in shape, I'll exercise while Jim is
sleeping, but otherwise, I'll go along with his pace.' So the two of
them go through this extraordinary exercise regimen while he's
Jim probably weighed--at his worst part, probably weighed less than
100 pounds. He was a soldier, when captured, of about 180 pounds. He
was a skeleton. When the first POWs got a glimpse of him--not before
any of them lived with him--but Mike O'Connor, who was an Air Force
pilot--or--or a warrant officer, Army pilot, who was shot down during
the Tet offensive, looked through a crack in the door of his cell, and
he sees this body up against the cell doors, and he thought for sure
the Vietcong were playing a joke on them, that that was a corpse, and
then he sees the--the person wink and move, and he realized that it's
a human being.
And when other POWs saw him at that time--this is in
'68--they--it--some of them began to cry, because they said, `That's a
look at Christmas future, that's what we will be.' So that's kind of
the thing that Jim--that was his nadir. When Lou Meyer met him, they
were getting better food, they were able to live together, support
each other, and then they began this regimen that would build up so
that they could escape together in 1971.
LAMB: We started off talking about Alyce and Harold--Harold and Alyce
lived together for seven and a half years, whatever. Where's Harold
Mr. PHILPOTT: I'm not sure where he is. I was able to contact him
in the mid-'80s to see if he would agree to be interviewed, and he
declined. One of the interesting aspects of the story is that he
helped raise these children. None of them ever had any further
contact with him, once their real father came home. Alyce never had
any further contact with him. So he became a great unknown, then, for
the rest of his life and their life.
LAMB: What would you say the relationship of all the children are
with Jim Thompson today?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Very strained. I--I'd say the children would like to
have a relationship with their father. Jim doesn't--wants them to
choose, I believe, between the mother and him, and they're not about
to make that choice.
LAMB: He remarried.
Mr. PHILPOTT: Yes.
LAMB: How did that happen, and are they still married?
Mr. PHILPOTT: Na--Jim and Alyce divorced, as I said, 15 months after
he got home. They each soon remarried, probably within six months.
Jim remarried a Air Force officer, who actually outranked him, and
each had their own way of living. I--it was a very difficult time.
Jim was fighting alcoholism and depression at the time.
I was originally going to title the book "Dream House," and the reason
was, the way Jim kept his sanity in captivity was building a dream
house over and over again in his mind. When he got home, he built
that dream house, not physically, but he found the house of his
dreams. He--he put in it what he expected to always put in it,
furnished it the way he wanted, had the rooms for his children that he
wanted, and the final straw for him, when he got back, the final
anchor that was uprooted for him, was the--his second wife had changed
that house around on him, and believing that Jim may have had a--may
have had some homosexual relationships, at one point she left and, in
Jim's mind, destroyed that home.
LAMB: You've got some other photos in the book. What's this photo
from, up here on top?
Mr. PHILPOTT: On the flight out of Vietnam, another Special Forces
soldier, Lonnie Smith, presents Jim with his green beret.
LAMB: What about below that?
Mr. PHILPOTT: That is Jim being greeted at the Philippine air base
by the ranking officer.
LAMB: Admiral Zumwalt, it looks like.
Mr. PHILPOTT: No, it's not.
Mr. PHILPOTT: It's another admiral. I'm sorry I can't...
LAMB: Looks like him from the side. And over here, what's this
Mr. PHILPOTT: That is--Jim Thompson went to Valley Forge hospital to
recuperate. That's where Alyce met him. He said, `Where are the
children?' and she said, `They're coming down the next day.' He had
never seen his son. The scene that that portrays is, on either side
of him are parts of the hospital, and they were filled with workers
from the hospital, watching the reunion of a nine-year-old boy, and
the father he has never seen. And Jimmy ran up the ramp and--and
knocked his father down. He was--Jim was very weak. The daughters
commented on how skinny his neck was when they put their arms around
it. They were stunned by that.
But at that moment, Alyce said, `I've dec--I decided to give the
family a chance by living with Jim and seeing if we could repair our
LAMB: How many other stories not me--necessarily just like this do
you think there are of the POWs?
Mr. PHILPOTT: I think this story is unique in that it goes behind
the scenes. It's almost like the underbelly of the Stockdale story
where you had a wife who built an organization while he was in
captivity and--and kept the fires burning and--and they had a strong
marriage which continues to this day. I think perhaps a more common
story was a prisoner of war coming back, expecting things to be
exactly the way he had left it, finding a woman who had learned to
live on her own, to raise the family in a certain way, who wasn't
ready to give up her independence. And the--I'm talking there if
you--if they were--nevertheless had waited, they still had difficulty
adjusting because they were--they had gone on different paths during
the captivity. An awful lot of the POWs ended their marriages--their
marriages ended s--a few years after they returned.
LAMB: How did you get John McCain to do the introduction on this
Mr. PHILPOTT: I had interviewed Senator McCain for the book, because
a year after they were--the POWs were released, some of the more
prominent were invited back. South Vietnam was struggling to remain a
free country. They wanted some publicity. They also wanted to honor
the POWs who had sacrificed so much, so McCain and Jim Thompson were
among those honored. They met at that point. Senator McCain knew
about the book, I think, although he may have forgotten it by the time
I finally got around to finding a publisher, and I sent the
ma--manuscript to him. I heard back from his aide, saying that the
senator gets a lot of requests to do forewords, but he certainly
wanted to do this one for Jim Thompson.
LAMB: Toughest part of this book, for you.
Mr. PHILPOTT: The toughest part was confronting Jim and Alyce with
what each of their stories were. And the interesting thing is that
they al--they agreed with each other's facts to a large extent, except
that their perception of the marriage was different.
LAMB: A lasting moment that you'll remember along the way over the 15
years that you put this together.
Mr. PHILPOTT: I had many of them, actually. I was quite moved by
the whole thing, but there are two pe--there are to scenes in the book
that grip me. One is that this description of a minor character in
the book of a woman who's going to see Jim Thompson while he's in the
Philippines--a--or Hawaii, rather, before he goes home, and she's
walking down this corridor that is filled with letters from
schoolchildren that have been attached to the wall, and--and the
moment that she describes that moves her enormously there, I think,
says a lot of what the POWs in general sacrificed.
The other scene that's quite memorable for me is when Jim and--and Don
MacPhail first get home and freedom, and they hear "God Bless America"
playing. They broke down.
LAMB: This is the book. It's called "Glory Denied." It's all about
Jim Thompson, the longest-held American prisoner of war in US history,
by author Tom Philpott. Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. PHILPOTT: Thank you, Brian.
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