The Story Behind the Story: An Inside Look at the Extraordinary True Events that Inspired 'Glory Denied'
Glory Denied is about the cost of war, in this case the Vietnam War, to an American family. But in many ways, it is also the story of our country’s painful growth in the 1960s and 70s.
United States Army Colonel Floyd “Jim” Thompson, the longest held prisoner of war (POW) in American history, and his wife, Alyce, were products of the idealism of post-World War II America. When Thompson was shot down and captured, they began a journey that changed them forever. Thompson survived nine years in captivity, enduring torture and extreme deprivation before he was released. Alyce, left at home with four small children, the youngest of whom was born the day after Jim was shot down, had to learn how to navigate her own captivity within the army bureaucracy while grappling with the expectations and judgments of our society. They both survived, but not without great cost.
Shortly after his capture, the North Vietnamese released one radio statement that was purported to be Thompson, but that was the only information the army had. Alyce wasn’t even completely certain that it was Jim on the recording. She believed that it was highly likely Jim was dead, and desperately wanted to get on with her life. She began a relationship with a veteran (called Harold in the opera), and, in order to protect her and her children’s privacy, she refused to let the army release Jim’s name on any of Missing in Action/POW lists (at the time, bracelets were issued with the names of POWs as a gesture of support for the missing and their families). As a result, Everett Alvarez, a navy pilot who was captured a couple of months after Thompson, was named as the longest held POW when the conflict was finally over. It took several months for the error to be corrected.
In 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed and the prisoners were released. Imagine the shock to Alyce and her family when it was confirmed that Jim was, in fact, alive and would soon be coming home. She was honest with Jim about what had happened during his captivity and gave him the choice of whether or not to stay in the marriage. This was a huge adjustment period for the children as well. The two older daughters had some memories of their father, but the youngest daughter and the son had no recollection of him. In fact, the boy (who was named Jimmy), thought Harold was his father.
The familial trauma was hard enough for Jim, but it was equally difficult for him to come home to a country that he barely recognized and had moved on without him. The trauma of the Vietnam War cracked open the perfect veneer of mid-century American life. Disenfranchised groups began to find their voices in the turbulence of the 1960s, as the civil rights, women’s liberation, gay liberation, and anti-war movements erupted, often violently. Society was changing at a breakneck pace. Race riots, the Summer of Love, the moon landing, Woodstock, Kent State, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy all happened within a few months. America went from Perry Como and Lawrence Welk to the Beatles, Hair, and the Rolling Stones. Long hair, bell-bottoms, and miniskirts became the fashion. The government passed landmark civil rights legislation and created Social Security and Medicare programs that helped millions. But it also concealed and lied about what was actually going on in Indochina. The anger of some in the anti-war movement was unfortunately directed at returning Vietnam veterans.
Jim and Alyce’s marriage did not survive the trauma, although they tried to make it work. Jim was deployed on a “lecture circuit” for the army, and telling his story became one of the ways he found purpose and healing in his life. Both Jim and Alyce suffered from alcohol abuse during these years. Eventually, they each remarried, although Jim’s second marriage also ended in divorce. Jim became estranged from his children, but eventually reconnected with two of them. Each of the children had difficulties in life as well. Jimmy was perhaps the most damaged by the experience and eventually served time in prison for killing another man.
By 2002, Jim had disinherited each of his children. In 1981, Jim had a debilitating stroke, which, combined with his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and intermittent alcohol abuse, severely compromised his final years. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 1982 and President Ronald Regan presented him with a Prisoner of War Medal in 1988. Jim died in 2002; Alyce died in 2009.
Tom Philpott created an oral history about Jim and his family, which he titled Glory Denied, published in 2001 and amended in 2012. He interviewed Jim, Alyce, the children, and many military personnel that Jim had worked with or been imprisoned with. Everyone was extremely forthcoming in their conversations with Philpott. Even Jim, who had already suffered his stroke, was able to communicate well enough for the interviews. In 2007, composer Tom Cipullo turned Philpott’s book into an opera, writing both the music and libretto. The opera has enjoyed numerous productions, including Fort Worth Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Nashville Opera, and Pittsburgh Opera, to name just a few. Boston Conservatory at Berklee is honored to welcome Cipullo as an artist in residence for the school’s East Coast premiere of the fully orchestrated opera.
Glory Denied is indisputably an American tragedy, but it is also a story of resilience and survival against terrible odds. With the current situations in the Middle East and ongoing discussions about how and where our military is deployed, the opera is even more topical. Our long history in Vietnam has already been surpassed by our longer history in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the War on Terror. There has been a sharp rise in PTSD diagnoses among America troops, and all too often veterans are not given the support they need to transition back to civilian life. The same type of trauma that is depicted in Glory Denied continues today. In telling this story, Boston Conservatory encourages this dialogue, and supports an important American opera.
Boston Conservatory at Berklee Center Stage presents the East Coast premiere of the fully orchestra version of Glory Denied from December 5 through 8. A special $5 ticket sale runs Monday, November 25 through Monday, December 2. Learn more about the opera and purchase tickets at bostonconservatory.berklee.edu/glorydenied.