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Lessons Learned From Infamous Vietnam POW Camp is Topic of Book by Mercer Staff Member


WEST WINDSOR – Consider a group of more than 500 individuals, all leaving the same institution at the same time, with 18 of them going on to be top-ranked military officers, and seven to the U.S. Congress. Others go on to serve as a U.S. ambassador, a federal trade commissioner, a U.S. presidential candidate, and a U.S. vice presidential candidate.

Which of our esteemed institutions would that be? Harvard? Princeton? Yale?

Try the Hanoi Hilton, the most infamous prisoner camp during the Vietnam War.

Peter Fretwell of Robbinsville, manager of WWFM The Classical Network on Mercer County Community College’s West Windsor campus, has published a book examining the experiences of POWs imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton and how they contributed to personal and professional success. Co-written with former Naval officer Taylor Baldwin Kiland, “Lessons From the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams” is published by the Naval Institute Press, and was launched at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., in May.

Peter Fretwell

Peter Fretwell, co-author of "Lessons From the Hanoi Hilton" and manager of WWFM at Mercer County Community College.

"The lessons these men learned in the Hanoi Hilton changed their lives – most of them say it changed them for the better," Fretwell said. "They would not want to go through it again, but they would not trade what they learned for anything in the world."

Fretwell said the idea for the book emerged when he was doing his graduate school work and read “Good to Great,” a 2001 business management book by James Collins that references the experiences of Admiral James Stockdale during his imprisonment at the Hanoi Hilton. Then in 2005, Fretwell saw a Veteran’s Day panel discussion on C-SPAN that included several POWs and Kiland, already an author of three books on military history. He contacted her via e-mail, and correspondence soon became collaboration.

This launched a seven-year journey for Fretwell and Kiland, crisscrossing the country interviewing former Hanoi Hilton POWs, psychologists, Navy SEALs, and even a Vietnam-era military intelligence analyst, all to answer the question: Why are so many of those that were imprisoned, abused, and tortured in the North Vietnamese prison camp so resilient and successful in subsequent years? All evidence seemed to point to Stockdale, a Navy pilot who was shot down and imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton in 1965 – and would later rise to the rank of Vice Admiral as one of the most highly decorated officers in Naval history, and would be chosen as a vice presidential candidate by Ross Perot in 1992.

As the ranking officer at the Hanoi Hilton, Stockdale assumed a leadership role among the prisoners. Unlike the military tradition where "name, rank, and service number" was drilled into the minds of members of the armed forces as the only information they could give if captured, Stockdale promoted a culture, rooted in the teachings of Stoic philosophers, where every POW took personal responsibility for their own behavior and choices and that even in failure, there was a path back if one is willing to learn from the experience and make it useful to the group as a whole.

The result? Unlike past wars, where prisoners would turn on each other and develop an “every man for himself” mentality that could lead to remorse, guilt, and shame upon their release, Hanoi Hilton POWs remained united and returned home with dignity and honor.

Fretwell said that scholars, military experts, and sports psychologist they interviewed confirmed that this was where the diverse cultures of elite athletes, ancient philosophers, and the world of Hanoi Hilton POWs seemingly converged with a common mantra: Control what you can and refuse to expend energy on what you can’t control.

As the title of the book suggests, Fretwell and Kiland identified six distinctive characteristics within the culture of Hanoi Hilton POWs that strengthened them as a group, and enabled them to survive, and later thrive. Fretwell says these very same strategies can be used by any organization desiring to maximize performance, especially in the face of adversity. This can apply to economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, social service organizations, even educational institutions, Fretwell said.

"I can take you across the Mercer campus and you will see these things in action," he said.

Fretwell said the experience of researching the book was invaluable on a personal level, as he was able to achieve an insight into a chapter in our nation’s history that few ever see, and hear first hand from the people who lived it.

"If this book never sells a single copy, I would do it again in a heartbeat," Fretwell said. "The opportunity to meet these individuals and hear their stories was phenomenal. There’s something about the way these guys carry themselves that you can’t explain."




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