Robert Wideman says he hates to write.
But he had a story to tell and he found a way to do it—by teaming up with Cara Lopez Lee of Ventura, Calif. Together they lived through the details of his six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to produce “Unexpected Prisoner: Memoir of a Vietnam POW,” published in November, in time for Veterans Day 2016. It is available at Firehouse Books and Wolverine Farm Bookstore in Fort Collins and online from Amazon.
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Wideman was released in 1973, and two years later made 31 hours of tapes recording his experiences. At the time, he was collaborating with Brad Wells Scott to write a novel based on his POW experiences. After a review and comments by the U.S. Navy, that book never saw the light of day but the details Wideman recorded in the tapes enabled the writing of “Unexpected Prisoner.”
A wish to “leave something on paper” for his grandchildren was the motivating force behind the writing of “Unexpected Prisoner.” The book is much more than a chronicling of his days in captivity. It is an in-depth look at his fellow prisoners and at himself as they cope with their captivity. He doesn’t hesitate to describe the difficulty he had co-existing with some of his fellow prisoners while confined to tight quarters with little to do. He also debunks the overblown torture stories told by some prisoners on their return from captivity.
After two years at the University of Toledo where he studied chemical engineering, Wideman jumped at the chance to join a two-year Naval Aviator program. By the time he was 22, he had qualified as a pilot. “The Navy rescued me,” he said. His dad had flown “the hump” as a World War Two pilot and Wideman had always wanted to get his wings. His long-range goal was to become an airline pilot.
He had three-and-half-years of service in the Navy and only 27 combat days to go before he was due to return home when his A-4 Skyhawk crashed during a bombing run in North Vietnam on May 6, 1967. He ejected safely with only minor injuries and was captured immediately.
The book is a fast-paced page turner. I glanced first at Wideman’s afterword and what I read there drew me into reading the whole thing. Briefly and precisely, he summarizes prisoner of war situations in history and then moves on to specifics noting that American political and military leaders knew that Vietnam was an unwinnable war but proceeded anyway in order to protect their careers. He cites a story told to him about a raid on a prisoner of war camp even though military officials knew the camp was empty and there would be no opportunity to recover prisoners. The raid went ahead anyway because of a need to keep the American propaganda machine running.
Wideman’s marriage was a casualty of his wartime experiences and he describes his divorce after becoming the father of two sons as more painful than his six years as a prisoner of war. After his return, he finished college, earned an MBA and eventually become a lawyer. After serving as a prosecutor and working in private practice, he returned to the Navy and for 17 years was a flight simulator instructor until he retired in 2012. While he regretted never becoming an airline pilot, he found this job “one of the best I ever had.”
He now lives in Fort Collins, close to his two sons and six grandchildren. He’s an avid golfer, enjoys hiking and has recently begun singing lessons. “Another new career,” he said.