Of all the things Richard Nixon is remembered for, surely one of the least known is that he was an ally to the wives of men who'd been taken prisoners of war in Vietnam.
Richmond native and St. Catherine's School graduate Heath Hardage Lee documented the activism of wives of prisoners of war and men missing in action in her upcoming book, "The League of Wives: the Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home from Vietnam."
In November, it was announced that her book is being made into a movie after the rights were acquired by actress Reese Witherspoon and Fox 2000.
But that's not all. As Hardage Lee met and interviewed the wives, many of them mentioned having objects associated with that era such as clothing, scrapbooks, bumper stickers and POW/MIA bracelets. Lee decided that the objects were a treasure trove that should be assembled into a museum exhibit. She also works as a museum curator.
Writing the book, Lee interviewed dozens of wives but wound up focusing primarily on five women: Sybil Stockdale, Jane Denton, Phyllis Galanti, Andrea Rander and Helene Knapp, with 15 other wives in supporting roles. Using primary sources like the diaries of Sybil Stockdale and Jane Denton, letters, scrapbooks, telegrams and meeting notes, she pieced together the story, supplementing it with archival sources from the Virginia Museum of History and Culture and the Robert J. Dole and Elizabeth Dole Political Archive.
Because it was the '60s and good military wives knew their place, the women were scared to talk at all for the first few years. Initially, they tried a letter-writing campaign and speaking to community groups before going national in 1968.
"The two most effective things the women did to get their husbands home were going public in the press about their husband's plight, which was discouraged for years by the American government," Lee explains. "And two, by coding secret letters to their husbands in prison under the auspices of military intelligence."
President Lyndon Johnson's administration wanted the women to stay silent for fear that their activity would affect peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese. But Nixon, once in office, was supportive of the women coming forward to tell their story.
It was the utter frustration of the wives and the lack of support from their own government that ultimately led them to take matters into their own, much more capable hands. Their effort took years, beginning in 1967 and not ending until 1973 when the POWs returned. For many wives of men missing in action in Southeast Asia like Helene Knapp, the fight to find and identify their husband's remains still continues.
The exhibit lays out the extraordinary lengths the wives went to in order to secure their husbands' freedom and how they got the public involved. Hanging from the ceiling is a mobile work of art made entirely of POW bracelets. The bracelets, popular in the '70s, were each inscribed with the name, rank and date the airman, sailor or soldier went missing. Bracelet owners agreed to leave them on until the man named on the bracelet, or his remains, came back to the U.S. and return them to the solider when he did. The bracelet "chandelier" on display was created when Porter Halyburton was released and returned to his wife Marty.
Other objects in the exhibition include clothing from the '60s and '70s that the women wore while fighting for the men's return and just after their homecoming. One of the more glamorous pieces is a yellow silk evening gown worn by Patsy Crayton at President Nixon's POW Return Home Gala, which included guests such as Sammy Davis Jr., Henry Kissinger and John Wayne.
A copy of Life magazine from 1967 shows POW Paul Galanti in the Hanoi Hilton. Staged as a propaganda event by the North Vietnamese, Galanti extended both his middle fingers to make a point. Life air-brushed those fingers out.
For the museum, the exhibit was a natural.
"We like to take a story and refocus the lens on a lesser known aspect," says vice president for exhibitions Andy Talkov. "The remarkable dedication and courage of these women made the POW/MIA symbol something that everybody recognized."
Lee makes it clear that the women were every bit as heroic as their husbands. She sees both halves of each couple as imprisoned in different ways and both as having fought back, not only against the North Vietnamese but also against the indifference of their own government.
"What I liked so much about this story is that the women rescued the men. As I say in the book, they were the POWs' personal Seal Team Six."
"The League of Wives: Vietnam's POW/MIA Advocates and Allies" runs through Sept. 3 at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. Banner Lecture: the League of Wives: the Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home from Vietnam" with Heath Hardage Lee will be held April 5, at 5:30 p.m. at 428 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd. virginiahistory.org.