Spotlight: Q&A with Robert Wideman


unexpected-prisonerFormer Lieutenant Robert Wideman praised by veterans for his memoir Unexpected Prisoner; a unique glimpse into the courage and endurance of POWs.

Fort Collins, CO — When Lieutenant Robert Wideman’s plane crashed on a bombing run in the Vietnam War, his worst fears became reality when he was captured in North Vietnam and held captive as a Prisoner of War for six long years. Unexpected Prisoner: Memoir of a Vietnam POW tells his harrowing story and explores Wideman’s struggle with enemies and comrades, Vietnamese interrogators and American commanders, his lost dreams and ultimately — himself.

His story of captivity is the most accurate version of the events that occurred in the North I have ever heard,”  says Captain William Roberts, a retired U.S. Marine. “It’s truly refreshing.”

A sentiment many veterans have shared upon completing Wideman’s memoir. “Especially those who were in the infantry,”  says Wideman.  “I think it supports what they went through and what they feel.”

Born in Montreal, Canada, Wideman grew up in East Aurora, New York.  His father flew over the Himalayan Mountains in Burma during World War II. One uncle served as a pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force and flew for  Britain during WWII.  Another uncle was captured at the battle of Dieppe at the beginning of WWII and was held as a German prisoner until the end of the war.

It seemed natural that after attending the University of Toledo, Wideman joined the navy as a naval aviation cadet in 1963. Upon receiving his wings and commission in 1965, Wideman served on the USS Enterprise in 1966 and on the USS Hancock in 1967.  In 1967, Wideman’s plane went down over North Vietnam where the story of Unexpected Prisoner begins.

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Q&A with Robert Wideman


You have a very unique story – and one someone couldn’t really tell unless they experienced it first-hand. What inspired you to tell this story?

My two sons and six grandchildren – they’re the most important thing to me. I wanted to leave them something that had meaning. After four years of writing, I had my story down on paper about my time in a North Vietnamese prison camp, but nothing else. One of my daughters-in-law said I needed to put some of my life before and after prison into the book. A Colorado Publisher connected me  with author and editor Cara Lopez Lee in 2014, and she helped me piece things together. We published Unexpected Prisoner  two years later.

What do you think will surprise readers most about Unexpected Prisoner?

Even given my experience, I  think readers will be surprised at my attitude toward the North Vietnamese. I don’t really have bad feelings toward them, because the treatment could have been so much worse.  

How so?

When I came home from the war,  I read everything I could on POWs and the Vietnam War. I learned that since the beginning of time, POWs have been treated very, very badly.

For example – In World War II, the Japanese chopped off two American heads for every mile of the Bataan death march. Twenty-seven to forty percent of American prisoners held by the Japanese died in captivity. In our revolutionary war, 20,000 colonial prisoners died in the holds of British ships in Brooklyn and Boston harbors.  Five times as many colonists died on those ships as died on the battlefield. Of the 5 million Russian prisoners held by the Germans in World War II, 3 million died in captivity. The Russians captured 95,000 German troops at the battle of Stalingrad, and only 5,000 of those prisoners ever came home. Thirteen thousand union soldiers died at Andersonville within 14 months during our own civil war – that’s one soldier every 45 minutes!  Our tour guide at Andersonville took 45 minutes to do the tour.

Only 7 American prisoners died in Hanoi the whole time I was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Only 28 prisoners died in North Vietnam. If you compare the treatment we received from the North Vietnamese with the treatment POWs received from their captors in other wars, ours  looks pretty good.

You enjoy sharing your experience with audiences through speaker presentations. What is your favorite part of that process?

I get a rush from telling my story – it can be addictive. The audiences are always good, and I enjoy the connection with them.

How has sharing your story benefited others (and have there been any unique stories prompted by audience members)?

Many veterans – especially those who were in the infantry – seem to relate to my story. I think my story supports what many veterans went through and what they feel.

It surprised me – but I’ve also seen that teenagers have benefited from my story, as they have their own challenges and can relate to the adversity in my memoir. So really – it can appeal to anyone going through a difficult time in their life.

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