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Book Review
Sunday, May 27, 2012
Guts and Glory That Descend into Hell and End in Key West

"Glory Denied" by Tom Philpott (Norton, $16.95)

This is an updated reprint of one of the most distressing biographies of all time, a story of the most extreme courage imaginable devolving into a heartrending conclusion here in Key West.

Floyd "Jim" Thompson was a Green Beret officer captured in South Vietnam after a plane crash in 1964. Thompson survived with burns and a broken back and then spent his first five years of imprisonment by the Viet Cong in solitary confinement, mostly in jungle camps in the mountains. He suffered brutal beatings, disease, starvation and mind-bending loneliness.

In 1969, near death, he was at last allowed to join other American POWs. Two years after that, still the ornery and difficult solder he'd always been, Thompson escaped and eluded capture for two whole days, an act of heroism for which he was eventually awarded the Silver Star.

In 1973, two weeks short of nine years as a POW, he returned home. He told his fellows that one of the things that helped him cope with his ordeal was thinking of the fine family that awaited his return. He and his wife Alyce had two daughters, ages 6 and 5, when he left for Vietnam. When an Army officer visited a pregnant Alyce to tell her that her husband was missing, she went into labor and her son, Jim, was born that evening.

Jim Thomp-son's marriage had been troubled before his captivity; he was abusive to Alyce and to the girls. In his absence, believing him dead, Alyce had begun living with another man and was still doing so when her husband was repatriated. Jim and Alyce divorced in 1975. Jim, still serving in the Army, then remarried but divorced soon after.

Thompson fell into chronic alcoholism and was hospitalized several times in military hospital, eventually attempting suicide by overdosing on pills. He became and, for the rest of his life, stayed stubbornly and completely estranged from all of his children. (His son Jim was convicted of murder in 1990 and imprisoned for 16 years.)

In 1991, after being medically retired from the Army, Jim moved to a condo at Key West by the Sea. He paid to have three flagpoles put up in front of the complex on South Roosevelt Boulevard, one of them flying the black-and-white MIA flag. He bought a new black Cadillac complete with silver-plated flagstaffs bolted to its front fender and a license plate that read POW. His only real friend in town was his local attorney, Tom Sireci.

In 2001, Thompson was found on the floor of his condo lying in vomit and blood A visitor to his bedside reported he was in restraints to control delirium tremens and seizures. He told his doctor he had no intention of quitting drinking or smoking.

In 2002, staff at Joint Interagency Task Force East held a 69th birthday party for Thompson.

Eight days later, on July 16, he was found dead in his condo. He was cremated and his ashes scattered offshore.

Alyce, married to her second husband, John, for 34 years, died in her Tennessee home of lung cancer in 2009 at the age of 74.

Thompson's biographer, Tom Philpott, writes that his story "reflects not only the cost of war and separation but how such trauma can bring out the best and worst in us, the story of a family's disintegration in war and in its aftermath, a uniquely American tragedy."

This new edition of Philpott's book has a foreword by Sen. John McCain. It is an astonishing read that should be, if they can bear it, in everyone's library.

(Another good book, and later a movie, on the POW experience with a very different outcome is "When Hell was in Session" by Admiral John Denton, who spent almost eight years as a prisoner in North Vietnam and finished his service at NAS Pensacola. In 1980 he ran as a Republican for a Senate seat in Alabama and won a surprise victory over the Democrat contender, becoming the only retired admiral to be elected to the U.S. Senate.)

-- Reviewed

by Mark Howell

"All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren (Mariner Books, $7.95)

This book's dead-on characterizations of political behavior are as relevant today as they were when it won a Pulitzer in 1947. Often described as the story of Willie Stark, a thinly disguised fictional stand-in for fabled Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, it is really much more that of Jack Burden, Stark's aide and friend, from whose first-person point of view the story is told.

Alternately attracted and repulsed by the tangy smells of commitment and corruption, Jack engages our sympathy and intellect as he personalizes the complex, unintended and sometimes tragic consequences of his leader's political decisions. How frustratingly difficult it is to achieve even admirable goals in the real world of a voter-driven governmental system. Sound familiar?

Complementing the intriguing story line is author Warren's magnificent writing that reflects the skills and emotions of the poet he actually was.

In this political season of 2012, "All the King's Men" provides an extended opportunity for reasoned reflection on what is and is not possible, in government and in our own lives.

-- Reviewed

by Lew Weinstein