The story begins the morning of McDaniel's tragic shootdown near Hanoi. Before leaving for his 81st combat mission, McDaniel stopped for breakfast at the chow facility on his ship, the Enterprise. He ate bacon and eggs, but only half of an omelet. For years to come the memory of that half-eaten omelet would haunt him as he starved in captivity.
McDaniel goes on to describe his capture and then torture in the Hanoi Hilton. He and the other prisoners found solace in their efforts to communicate with each other despite the risk of punishment from the Vietnamese.
In the beginning chapters of the book, McDaniel's fellow-prisoners question his repeated attempts to establish communication systems with other Americans, as his efforts often result in tortuous interrogations. McDaniel says, "The fact was I didn't know why or how I could keep pushing myself either, especially when my captors were watching me more closely, knowing I was taking risks with the rules... I had to have some belief in my success, some belief that I could beat the system each day and that, if I stayed with it long enough, I could live one day and be free. This attitude was to become one of my mainstays in the long months and years ahead, and, though I had not planned it, became a contagion that spread later on in the Zoo and the Zoo Annex where I was to spend most of my time in prison. Where did that optimism come from? I knew it was not innate; nobody is really born an optimist. Considering that optimism does not normally flourish in the conditions of a military prison, where torture is the order of the day, it had to be a quality that had been deeply ingrained over time, the product of childhood and young adulthood. And yet, looking over those years, I figured I didn't have that much optimism input either, certainly no more than anyone else."
The book is sometimes difficult to read, as extremely tough circumstances prompted McDaniel to consider these tough questions. At the book's midpoint McDaniel continues to develop his personal philosophy and worldview, and as a reader I anticipate more grueling times ahead for McDaniel and the other heroes of his story.
So far I agree with the friend who loaned me the book, it is a must-read. The brutal conditions of the prison are hard to fathom though they reveal hidden, heroic qualities in McDaniel and his companions. More info. to come on this extraordinary book.