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Documentary reveals God’s presence in Vietnamese prisoner of war camps

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–After surviving ejection from a fighter jet at 550 mph, Roger Invalson prayed in a dried-out rice paddy more than 30 years ago for Christ to “take over” his life. Today he credits that relationship with carrying him and many of his fellow prisoners of war in North Vietnam through the torture and isolation that was to follow.

“I had the wonderful psychological feeling that I was really pulling one over on the Vietnamese,” Invalson said, describing one extended period of solitary confinement. “They thought I was in there and really suffering by being alone. [But] I had a cellmate … the entire time I was there. And that was the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Invalson’s story is one of 10 portrayed in “Prisoners of Hope,” a new television documentary produced by the North American Mission Board’s broadcast communications group that will air on NBC stations beginning June 21. Each man shares a similar tale, from the graphic horrors of torture and mistreatment to the strength that each found through faith in Christ.

Bernie Hargis, producer of the documentary, said the concept grew out of another military-themed television special on Medal of Honor recipients last year titled “Valor.” One of the recipients, Col. Leo Thorsness, had also been a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

“When I did his interview and started to tell about that, I saw right away we needed to do an hour on prisoners of war,” Hargis said.

The special is one of two produced each year by NAMB for broadcast by network affiliates of ABC and NBC, which determine when to air them. Each special has sought to reach people with the gospel through personal testimonies of respected individuals.

Hargis found 10 prisoners of war — including several high-ranking officers who have since become widely known political figures — who welcomed the opportunity to openly share Christ’s role in their ordeal.

“One of the things they told me is, ‘We’ve told this story thousands of times, and yet every time it’s on television they cut out the part where we tell about God’s role in it,'” Hargis said. “[The former POWs] were interested in doing the interviews because that’s the direction our show was taking.”

The former prisoners profiled include Invalson, of Chattanooga, Tenn.; Thorsness, of Alexandria, Va.; Norm McDaniel of Fort Washington, Md.; Jeremiah Denton of Mobile, Ala.; Robinson Risner of Austin, Texas; Red McDaniel of Mt. Vernon, Va.; James Mulligan of Virginia Beach, Va.; Porter Halyburton of Newport, R.I.; Fred Cherry of Washington, D.C.; and Sam Johnson of Plano, Texas.

Hargis said the documentary is something of a departure from previous specials in that it consists of simply the men telling their stories — from an opening montage of the accounts of their captures to the details of their releases years later.

“It’s a little graphic,” Hargis admitted. “They talk about the gruesome and unpleasant things that they went through. But over and over they bring it back to the way the Lord sustained them and brought them through it. And every man told how they are a better man, a better Christian, or a better husband and father because of what they went through.”

Often, even small symbols of faith were enough to sustain the men. Halyburton told how one small ray of sunshine made its way through a crack in the wall of his cell, shining on the opposite wall for about 10 minutes each day. He fashioned a small cross out of toilet paper, and glued it to the wall with glue made from rice.

“Every day I would wait in great anticipation for this event where the sun would come through and shine on that cross,” he said. “That’s when I had … my major devotional period of the day.”

Although they were often not allowed to talk, communication in the prison also became a detailed system of codes, whether by tapping on the walls or by various coughs and cleared throats, according to the documentary.

Worship and prayer were also conducted covertly. Johnson told how prisoners signaled to each other the start of Sunday morning worship by someone stomping on the floor.

“We’d all kneel down together — even though we were by ourselves — and pray,” he said. “And the strength of prayer with a group, as you know, is much stronger than just by yourselves.”

Risner, who retired as a brigadier general, echoed the statements of many of the men in describing how the experience had affected him.

“For seven and a half years I never wondered one moment what I was doing there,” he said. “The Lord was getting my attention. … Changed my life completely, and I won’t ever, ever disappoint Him again — not within the realms of my ability. I belong to Him.”

For information on broadcast dates and times or to request favorable scheduling, contact your local NBC station.

Additional (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library. Titles: WAR HEROES and NOT FORGOTTEN.

    About the Author

  • James Dotson