Lessons From The Hanoi Hilton

Why were the American POWs imprisoned at the “Hanoi Hilton” so resilient in captivity and so successful in their subsequent careers? This book presents six principles practiced within the POW organizational culture that can be used to develop high-performance teams everywhere. The authors offer examples from both the POWs’ time in captivity and their later professional lives that identify, in real-life situations, the characteristics necessary for sustainable, high-performance teamwork. The book takes readers inside the mind of James Stockdale, a fighter pilot with a degree in philosophy, who was the senior ranking officer at the Hanoi prison. The theories Stockdale practiced become readily understandable in this book. Drawing parallels between Stockdale’s guiding philosophies from the Stoic Epictetus and the principles of modern sports psychology, Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland show readers how to apply these principles to their own organizations and create a culture with staying power.

Originally intending their book to focus on Stockdale’s leadership style, the authors found that his approach toward completing a mission was to assure that it could be accomplished without him. Stockdale, they explain, had created a mission-centric organization, not a leader-centric organization. He had understood that a truly sustainable culture must not be dependent on a single individual.

At one level, this book is a business school case study. It is also an examination of how leadership and organizational principles employed in the crucible of a Hanoi prison align with today’s sports psychology and modern psychological theories and therapies, as well as the training principles used by Olympic athletes and Navy SEALs. Any group willing to apply these principles can move their mission forward and create a culture with staying power—one that outlives individual members.


What is the backstory behind Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton?

For forty years, the Mitchell Center for POW Studies in Pensacola has been studying the long-term physical and mental health of all of our nations’ POWs (from all wars). It is the largest longitudinal study of its kind. The Mitchell Center recently released some of its statistics, which demonstrated that our POWs from the Vietnam War have an average lifetime rate of PTSD of 4%. This is freakishly low. And this is despite being the longest-held group of POWs in our nation’s history. Some of these men were held captive by North Vietnamese for up to nine years.

In addition, this relatively small group of men (591) was subsequently highly successful in their post-Vietnam careers. In their ranks are a presidential candidate, vice presidential candidate, U.S. senators, and U.S. representatives, governors, ambassadors, political appointees at the federal and state level, doctors, lawyers, authors, veterinarians, ministers, commercial airline pilots, public speakers, and 24 admirals and generals.

What the Mitchell Center study studies didn’t address is why.  What about these men made them particularly resilient to the long-term effects of PTSD?  Why? Why are they so healthy and so successful – despite being the longest-held group of POWs in our nation’s history?

We collaborated to uncover our Vietnam POWs’ secret to success. Was it nature or nurture? What role did leadership play?

What we discovered are six principles practiced within the POW organizational culture that can be used to develop high-performance teams everywhere. We offer examples from both the POWs’ time in captivity and their later professional lives that identify, in real-life situations, the characteristics necessary for sustainable, high-performance teamwork. We show readers how to apply these principles to their own organizations and create a culture with staying power.

Originally intending our book to focus on fighter pilot James Stockdale’s leadership style, we found that his approach toward completing a mission was to ensure that it could be accomplished without him. Stockdale, we explain, had created a mission-centric organization, not a leader-centric organization. He understood that a truly sustainable culture must not be dependent on a single individual.

PETER FRETWELL is a former radio news anchor, talk show host, and broadcast executive. He was studying for his MBA when he became interested in the remarkable resilience of the Hanoi Hilton POWs. His graduate research led him to TAYLOR BALDWIN KILAND’S first book on the POWs, which began our collaborative work on Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.

I’m not in the Military, I don’t have any life-threatening challenges, and I don’t even know anyone in the military. I’m just an average dad who lives and works in the suburbs, how would this book benefit me and what could I learn from it?

If there’s one thing the POWs have told us time and time again, they were “ordinary men placed in extraordinary circumstances.” Being a POW, as they have told us, is “months and months of sheer boredom punctuated by minutes of sheer terror.” They have said that anyone could have performed in this situation.

We disagree a bit. Not anyone could have performed. These men brought a unique combination of naturally inoculating factors that provided a psychological buffer to the trauma they experienced. But they also had a highly resilient leader that inspired them every day of their captivity. And, finally, they built a resilient POW organization inside the prison that made them function as a high-performing team.

Taylor is not a dad (she is a mom!), but Peter is a dad of two girls. He can tell you…..an important life lesson for any parent and any child, in my opinion, is the one James Stockdale took from Epictetus and taught his fellow POWs: “You cannot always control what happens to you daily, but you can always control how you view it and respond to it.” 

Is there anything that you had to Edit OUT of the book that you wished was kept in?

Yes, we did not dwell on this in the book, but James Stockdale was not the highest-ranking U.S. military officer in the Hanoi Hilton.  He was the fourth highest-ranking officer. Three others with higher rank did not step up, for what they thought were good and rational reasons. James Stockdale stepped into the breach and took the torture and beatings that went with being their leader. A true leader often serves at great personal cost. 

What lessons can a Junior Officer take from your book?

For a junior office today, the Vietnam War is probably ancient history—as ancient as World War II. And, other than John McCain, most of today’s junior officers may not even be familiar with the story of our POWs from Vietnam. They may not realize the average length of their captivity. Today, our military expends vast resources to find just one missing soldier or sailor—think about the assets deployed to find Bowe Bergdahl (and he was a deserter!). In contrast, we had men in captivity in Vietnam for almost five years before our government started any type of negotiations to secure their release. The men literally languished in prison in North Vietnam (and a handful in jungle prison camps in South Vietnam) for years. These men had to rely on their own individual and group resilience to survive. It turns out, they actually thrived in prison.

Junior officers who read this book will learn about how to increase their resilience and prepare themselves for any potential adversity in their military careers. It will give them tools to increase their individual resilience, help them become more resilient leaders, and increase their organization’s (unit’s, command’s, division’s) resilience.

What are you reading now?

Taylor always has 5-7 books on her bedside table. Right now, I am reading: Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and The Secret Code that Changed Everything by Smitty Harris, (I never tire of POW books); On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle, by Hampton Sides; and Indianapolis: The True Story of the Worst Sea Disaster in U.S. Naval History and the Fifty-Year Fight to Exonerate an Innocent Man, by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic.

Peter is reading…lots of law textbooks. I am studying in hopes of passing the bar exam!

Purchase Lessons From The Hanoi Hilton Here


Peter Fretwell is a former radio news anchor and talk show host. He currently manages a classical radio network. While in graduate school, he began researching the remarkable resilience and performance of the Hanoi Hilton POWs. The research led him to Taylor Kiland’s first book on the POWs, which began their collaborative work on Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.  He holds an MBA with an emphasis on strategic leadership.  He and his wife live in New Jersey.















Taylor Baldwin Kiland has written, edited, or ghostwritten eighteen books, including two about our nation�s Vietnam POWs. A former naval officer, the third generation in her family to serve, she lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and their seven-year-old daughter.

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