Robert Wideman was born in Montreal, grew up in upstate New York, and has dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship. During the Vietnam War, he flew 134 missions for the U.S. Navy and spent six years as a prisoner of war. He earned a master’s degree in finance from the Naval Postgraduate School. After retiring from the Navy, he graduated from the University of Florida College of Law, practiced law in Florida and Mississippi, and became a flight instructor. He holds a commercial pilot’s license with an instrument rating. He belongs to Veterans Plaza of Northern Colorado and lives in Fort Collins near his two sons and six grandchildren.
Book description with link to book: When Lieutenant Robert Wideman’s plane crashed on a bombing run in the Vietnam War, he feared falling into enemy hands. Although he endured the kind of pain that makes people question humanity, physical torture was not his biggest problem. During six years as a prisoner of war, he saw the truth behind Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “Hell is other people.” Unexpected Prisoner explores a POW’s struggle with enemies and comrades, Vietnamese interrogators and American commanders, his lost dreams and ultimately himself.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write it.
My two sons and six grandchildren inspired me to write this book. I wanted to leave something permanent for them about my experience as a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam for six years. I also wanted to tell others about how that experience affected my family. I have always said that the Vietnam POW experience was harder on our families than it was on us. We knew we were getting our two slops and a flop every day. Our families knew nothing. When I came home, my father looked 100 years old. He was 57. The POW experience destroyed him. My mother could not eat a steak for six years because she did not know if The North Vietnamese gave me enough to eat.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
I am a stream-of-consciousness writer. I did not create an outline for this book. It was all in my head. It took four years for me to write 100 pages. I had only written about my six years in captivity and nothing else. One of my daughters-in-law said I needed to add my life before and after prison. Two years ago, at age 71, I realized I might not complete this book before someone put me in the ground. I contacted Mark Graham at Graham communication in Denver, Colorado. He introduced me to Cara Lopez Lee. I turned the writing over to her. Back in 1973, I did 30 hours of interviews. I had those interviews transcribed to 700 pages for Cara. Cara worked off of the 100 pages that I wrote and the 700 pages of transcripts to finish my book. She finished this book in two years and did a great job.
What was your goal when writing this book?
I wanted to tell the true and complete story about the Vietnam POW experience. When I came home the senior American POWs and the U.S. government wanted to promote a certain image about the treatment of POWs in North Vietnam. This image supported the narrative our government and the senior American POWs wanted the world and the American people to believe about how bad the communist North Vietnamese treated us. Many of those senior American POWs got promoted to admirals and generals as a reward for supporting the party line. If you compare the POW treatment in North Vietnam with the treatment of POWS in other wars, our treatment comes out very, very good. I am just adding the stuff that our government and the senior American POWs omitted.
After reading my book, a reader will learn that things are not always what they seem. He will learn that our government presented an incomplete picture about the treatment of POWs in North Vietnam. Only seven American POWs died in captivity in Hanoi. Only 28 American prisoners died in all of North Vietnam during my incarceration for six years. In our revolutionary war, 20,000 colonists died as prisoners in the holds of British ships off the coasts of New York City and Boston. In WWII, 3,000,000 Russian prisoners died in German prison camps. The reader will also will learn that 27-40% of American POWs in Japan died. At the battle of Stalingrad in WWII, the Russians captured 95,000 German soldiers. Only 5,000 of those prisoners returned home after the war ended. When you compare the treatment of POWs in North Vietnam to the treatment POWs in other wars, our treatment looks very, very good. Our government will never tell you that.
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
I actually wrote a manuscript in 1975 and sent it to the U.S. Navy for approval. They told me not to publish it. You could say that it took forty-three years to publish this story. Six years ago I began to write this story in my own words. After four years I had only written 100 pages. I realized that I might not live long enough to finish this book so I turned it over to Cara Lopez Lee. She finished the book in two more years. So you could say that it took six years to write Unexpected Prisoner.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
That is an excellent question and a hard one to answer, because all the reviews of my book are five stars on amazon. My book has never received a negative review. That said, if my book ever receives a negative review, I think I would treat that as a learning experience. If I were to ever write another book, I would certainly take into account any negative reviews I received for Unexpected Prisoner. Speaking about writing another book. I really don’t think that will happen because I actually hate writing. Is that quirky enough? Writing is very, very hard. In that way it is akin to golf. I like hiking, playing golf and outdoors activities. Sitting down to write is sedentary and very stressful for me. Writing is also a solitary adventure, and I like dealing with people. Just saying.
As an author, what is your greatest reward?
Readers who like my book are my greatest reward. I wrote this book so my sons and grandchildren would have this story in permanent form. I have learned, however, that people who read my book really like it. I am especially happy that the Vietnam veterans who fought on the ground like my book a lot. Those folks are my true heroes, because those who fight on the ground always bear the brunt of any war. They have sacrificed so much for our country.