News | April 10, 2024

The Party Dolls: The True, Tragic Story of Two Americans’ Attempted Escape from a 1969 Hanoi POW Camp

By George Hayward

Review by Dr. Robert Oliver

It was a factory of dreams that became an oubliette of pain. The Cu Loc Prison Camp in the southwest region of Hanoi, some 4 miles west of the Red River, had been built as a movie studio during the French colonial period, and even after it was converted to a prison during the Vietnam War, the detritus of elegance remained. Old movie cans littered the ground, torn posters covered the walls and a large swimming pool that had turned into a cesspit dominated the middle of the compound. To the American aviators held and tortured there it was the Zoo, so called because of the North Vietnamese habit of parading inmates for propaganda purposes, and the adjoining walled area that had once been a warehouse compound was known as the Annex. By 1968, the Annex held over a hundred allied prisoners, mainly American airmen of the rank of Air Force captain or Navy lieutenant, crammed into poorly ventilated cells holding nine poorly fed, poorly treated, undernourished, but determined captives.

George Hayward’s book “The Party Dolls” tells the story of an attempted breakout (the “party” of the title) from the Annex in 1969, an endeavor centered on inmates of Room 6 and their ostensible senior-ranking officer (SRO), Air Force Capt. John A. Dramesi. Hayward’s prose is quasi-journalistic, more in the tradition of court testimony than James Clavell. But his spare writing fits the story of ordinary Americans united by horrific circumstances and stoic bravery while split by rank, service, personality and background, all against a murky backdrop of torture, duty and spinning geostrategic wheels.

Dramesi embodied many of these warring factors. A man of undoubted courage and determination, he had little respect for the fine points, or sometimes even the basic points, of military tradition. Having a reputation for completing required training more through gall and defiance than skill, he had seized the SRO position in Room 6 from a longer-tenured captain on the basis of what was at best a technicality, and pushed his escape plan in the face of standing orders and military doctrine, even going so far as to place himself at the center of planning and execution, a role generally delegated to someone other than an SRO, who bore the greater responsibility for all the men placed under him by circumstance.

Dramesi undertook the escape himself, becoming one of the “Party Dolls” of the title. The other was Air Force Capt. Edwin “Ed” Atterberry, an RF-4 reconnaissance pilot with an amiable manner but a cypher-like relationship to his cell mates, a combination perhaps befitting his status as an intelligence asset. The escape, the so-called “Party,” failed miserably due to poor planning, lack of knowledge of the surrounding terrain and sheer foolhardiness. The result was Atterberry’s death, the brutal torture of the Annex prisoners and darkening of Dramesi’s reputation for the remainder of his life.

Hayward’s style is straightforward, the discussion not especially erudite, and some of the facts themselves have been recounted elsewhere. But the author’s direct, clear style powerfully conveys the cruelty and complexity of the situation these POW’s experienced, as well as the tragedy that befell them. In that, it is a worthy chronicle, for what human institution is more complex, more cruel or more tragic than war?

Dr. Robert Oliver is a historian for the Air Force History Support Office, Washington, D.C.