Unexpected Prisoner: Memoir of a Vietnam POW by Robert Wideman and Cara Lopez Lee

Updated: May 12, 2020

On a cloudless day in May 1967, Robert Wideman heard a noise that would change his life forever.  It was a small, simple click.  That seemingly innocuous noise meant the A-4 Skyhawk that Robert had been flying over Vietnam had been hit.  Robert was forced to eject from his plane only to land on North Vietnamese soil and subsequently be taken prisoner.  The story that follows in Unexpected Prisoner is a recounting of Robert’s harrowing, gripping ordeal as a Vietnam POW.

After Robert was captured, he was forced to strip to his underwear and march blindfolded and bound, in mud and cold from one village to the next as his captors led him to the first of many prison camps in which he would be detained.  In each camp he would experience varying degrees and types of persecution and suffering. Throughout his imprisionment in North Vietnam, he was interrogated repeatedly by North Vietnamese soldiers.  They would not hesitate to torture him (although Wideman doesn’t see it that way – he says so many others suffered so much worse than he) if he did not “answer correctly”.  He bears some of the physical and mental scars of his captivity to this day.

Wideman would finally be released in March 1973, after spending time in the infamous Hanoi Hilton in addition to other lesser-known prison camps.  In Unexpected Prisoner, he writes frankly of his time in North Vietnam, the conditions he endured as well as the unforseen difficulties of living in a stressful, demanding environment with other American POWs.  His matter-of-fact narration allows the reader to easily be there with him through the fear and the boredom, the friendships and the betrayals, the hopelessness and the hope.  Robert never paints himself or his fellow POWs as saintly, just human.  And it is in reckoning with his own innate imperfection under inhumane conditions that Robert allows us to glimpse the elemental divinity within us all.

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