November 2023

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

The 2021 Best Indie Book Award winner for Nonfiction Military History!
In May 1969, at the peak of the Vietnam War, two American prisoners of war escaped from a brutal North Vietnamese prison camp. Their story is one of incredible bravery against the longest of odds—and also one of bitter conflict. Air Force Captains John Dramesi and Ed Atterberry escaped with help from their fellow prisoners, but that help was not given freely. Their attempt killed one man and brought many others a lifetime of pain.THE PARTY DOLLS tells the true, tragic story of an escape code-named the “Party.” The story is told by the men who lived it, American POWs, via interviews conducted by the author some two decades ago, but never published until now. For decades, questions lingered about how Dramesi and Atterberry did it, and how Atterberry died, even among their fellow prisoners. Indeed, the story of the Party is virtually unknown outside Vietnam POW circles. THE PARTY DOLLS opens the door into one of the most tortured stories of the Vietnam War.The story opens in April 1968, in a Hanoi POW camp called the Annex. John Dramesi believed it was American POWs’ duty to escape, mandated by the U.S. military’s Code of Conduct, even though there was virtually no chance of successfully reaching freedom. Dramesi’s cellmates believed any attempted escape would violate standing orders and the Code of Conduct, whose articles were vague and conflicting, and subject them to horrible tortures and suffering. Nonetheless, Dramesi recruits one man, quiet and unassuming Ed Atterberry, to go with him. They and their reluctant cellmates spend the next year devising a way out of the cell, building, and camp, while amassing props and supplies that can aid the escape. Their story, told by Dramesi and nearly a dozen other former POWs, includes anecdotes, arguments, conflicts and incidents, some humorous, some horrifying, and some graphically raw. Ultimately, Dramesi and Atterberry escape, only to be recaptured, and causing months of suffering for dozens of American POWs throughout the summer of 1969.

About the Author

George Hayward

Award-winning author George Hayward grew up in the Boston area and lived in six states before settling for good in Colorado. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he spent 12-plus years enlisted in the space systems and public affairs career fields. A former staff writer for Airman Magazine, he was recognized as one of the service’s top journalists in the 1990s. Among his two dozen military journalism awards, he was a four-time journalist of the year at the major command level, won the Department of Defense’s Thomas Jefferson Award for editorials and commentaries in 1991, and was the Air Force’s journalist of the year in 1993.

George left the service in 1999 and has worked primarily in public relations since, including media relations for NASA, director of public affairs at The Aerospace Corporation, public relations for Hilton Hotels in Hawaii, seven years at a Colorado p.r. agency, and four rewarding years at a nonprofit serving Colorado veterans and military families. Today, when he’s not writing, he focuses his p.r. work on public service—local government and nonprofits.

His books SOUL AFFLICTED and THE PARTY DOLLS are vastly different works – a fiction novel of spiritual self-discovery bordering on the paranormal, and the award-winning, true-history account of a tortured and tragic escape from a Hanoi prison. Yet both delve into the conscience and consequences of personal choices, of right and wrong, and the gray areas in between.

THE PARTY DOLLS has won literary awards for nonfiction military history from the Best Indie Book Awards and Independent Press Awards, and was a finalist for the Independent Authors Network and National Indie Excellence Awards.


Book Club Session

Session Notes:

Air Force Historical Foundation Book Club

Party Dolls: The True, tragic Story of two American’s Escape Attempt from a 1969 Hanoi POW Camp

 by George Hayward

16 November 2023


Moderated by Mr. “Pepe” Soto and Mr. Dik Daso, Director of AFHF and featuring special guest and author, Mr. George Hayward.


Key Take-Aways:

  • Mindset is an amazing take-away from these PoWs: they had an amazing knack for not sweating the small stuff. They took pleasure in the little things and not letting others bog them down.
  • The code of conduct allowed men the opportunity to start over after breaking to torture, and knowing they had the code of conduct to get them back up and to do it over and over again.
  • The Dramesi case demonstrated a lot of leadership lessons to include the importance of following the code of conduct and understanding the Senior Ranking Officer (SRO) rules.

Opening Remarks by Mr. Pepe Soto and Mr. Dik Daso, director of the AFHF who highlighted that we’re coming down to the last few sessions emphasizing the drawdown of our 50 years post-Vietnam War book series. *9 May will be the Army Navy Country Club AFHF Awards ceremony with a membership drive in the upcoming weeks.* Mr. George Hayward wrote this book about May 1969 and American POWs who attempted escape from a Hanoi POW Camp. It’s a “tragic, heroic and conflicted story” that Hayward highlighted as a history book with one of the most detailed accounts from POWs.


Mr. Soto: What motivated you to write this book?

Mr. Hayward: I did 12 years in the Air Force Enlisted, first in space systems and then public affairs. Bill Baugh was my first boss and he was a mentor and one of the men in the POW cell. He held that here was no such thing as a bad day. He used to tell the story often of his internment. He would do it with eloquence and humor and would tell stories about the escape. It was always a fascinating story both with a human and a military aspect.

Mr. Soto: How were you able to get the former POW’s to discuss this story with you?

Mr. Hayward: It wasn’t hard as most were eager to do so. Bill Baugh & Mike McGrath were key and connected me to the entire network of POWs other than Dramesi, who was a black sheet. It took multiple interview requests to get him to agree, upon which I flew out to his rural farm in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Soto: Why do you think this story is important to tell?

Mr. Hayward: It was an untold story and Atterbury’s death was a mystery. The stories of the conflict are fascinating and there wasn’t a lot of black and white. The story is both tragic and heroic and demonstrates the amazing feat that men can accomplish together. There were 6 buildings in the Annex, attached to another building called the Zoo. There was a 3 part complex next to the zoo and another walled off area. The annex was opened in 1967. One of the challenges with escaping was that no one knew where the annex was.

Mr. Soto: Everyone had heard of the torture our POWs went through, but you go into a lot of detail – how did the POW’s you interviewed become so open about this?

Mr. Hayward: It’s tough- everyone talks differently about it. Bill Baugh talked publicly and in a world of humor. Others were more hesitant and emotional about it. Konnie Trautman sobbed through some of the story.

Mr. Soto: I found it interesting that they had such difficulty in the Annex of figuring out who the SRO was. Did you find this a common issue at the other camps, or was this just an isolated instance?

Mr. Hayward: I think it was the set up with the annex. 9 men to the cell, only one window not blocked off and they had very limited time outside and adjacent rooms were not able to be outside at the same time. The only ready communication was through the tap code. POWs found many ingenious ways to use tap code, but it takes a lot of time to spell out words or messages especially across the different rooms. Everyone was surprised to find out that everyone held the rank of Captain. Zoo members were Majs and Hanoi Hilton held the seniormost officers.

Question from the Audience: There was a lot of conflict on the SRO, particularly with Dramesi. Can you go into why that was a little more?

Mr. Hayward: The rule is that your rank is determined by your Date of Rank at shoot down, and you’re not able to have a promotion after the shoot down. This demonstrated a lot of interesting leadership lessons to include the importance of following the code of conduct and understanding the SRO rules. Trautman made the argument that he should be the camp SRO. Also, Red Wilson & John Dramesi didn’t like each other before they got into the cell together. All of this set off the domino effect that killed Atterberry, in my opinion.

Mr. Soto:  In Chapter 11 you cover the drudgery of day-to-day life in the summer of Hanoi. How did they have the resiliency to get through all of this? 9 guys to a cell, hot and humid, no one is taking a shower… what is the mindset?

Mr. Hayward:  It was important that daily existence reset the mindset. They recognized that all were in it together and would find ways to entertain themselves through talking about movies and about books. They’d tell stories and Hanoi rules said that if you’re telling the story, someone else can’t correct you in the process. They played games and made cards out of toilet paper and taught skills to fill time.

Mr. Soto:  What is your take of the two “Party Dolls”, Dramesi & Atterberry? They seemed so different personality-wise, yet they made their escape attempt.

Mr. Hayward:  Anything with Atterberry, his motives and motivations are speculative. His participation in the escape attempt could have to do with the fact that he was a F-4 R reconnaissance pilot and an intelligence asset. Notably, he was part of same letter writing program that Stockdale was part of with his wife. Wally Newcomb said Atterberry was worried about cracking under torture.

Dramesi was a driven dynamo and could convince you that the sky was red when it was blue. He was a true force of will and made passionate arguments about what he wanted to do.

Dik Daso: How do you describe the transition from escaping and resisting? It seems that it was more readily understood that a prisoner was to resist each and every day as opposed to escaping?

Mr. Hayward: In an interesting philosophical shift, after Vietnam, the code of conduct was changed so prisoners are no longer “bound”, but “required” to resist. It is thought that the word “bound” kept POWs agonizing in torture and they did not want to be perceived as a failure or traitor.  There’s also a distinction in the POW community between early & late shootdowns—late shootdowns were interred together & in 40-50-60 man rooms.


David Byrd: I thought you did a particularly good job at not making judgments in your narrative. Did you find yourself being pulled one way or another during your writing process, and if so, did you have to pull yourself back and perhaps do some rewriting to remove that?

Mr. Hayward: I had to refer back to training as a journalist knowing that I needed to be impartial. For example, Dramesi was hard man to like, but I wanted to be fair and objective.

Mr. Soto:  It appears that the other POWs ridiculed the “Party Dolls” for their escape plan – but still provided supplies and assistance to make it happen. What drove them to support a plan none of them believed would be successful?

Mr. Hayward:  I think it was a reflection of their duties to the SRO and appointed Party Chairman and they felt obligated to help them. They thought, if he’s going to go one way or another, we might as well help him and give him a chance to succeed.


Mr. Soto:  LTC Trautman seemed haunted by his own indecision on the escape – why do you think he was unable to make a more definitive decision?

Mr. Hayward:   There was a note passed from building to building in which Trautman had a code name in their note “Twitty”. Dramesi said “who’s Twitty” to which cell mates were upset that he didn’t know people’s names. As an escape, Dramesi was expected to take responsibility for carrying survivor names to the outside. This unawareness prompted the note in which Dramesi’s cell mates told Trautman that Dramesi wasn’t actually the SRO and the escape was also only planned for two people.

Mr. Soto:  The repercussions of the escape were brutal! I’ve never read about the systematic, continuous torture of our POWs over a prolonged period of time! This was difficult to read – how tough was it to write about it?

Mr. Hayward:   You’re telling their story. You’re being their voice. You should tell their story and their pain. It’s hard stuff.

Question from the Audience: Dramesi seemed like a total jerk from the get-go. It seemed like everyone let him bully them into doing what he wanted including letting him be the SRO, letting him appoint the head of the escape committee, letting him leave when he wanted etc. Why did everyone go along with this?

Mr. Hayward:   That’s the great question… he had no authority and they could have contested it. One man was able to force his way to being the top alpha dog among a group of US military fighter pilots.

Mr. Soto:  Both Dramesi & Atterbury were awarded the Air Force Cross for their escape attempt, even though it caused wide-spread pain and anguish amongst their comrades. Did you sense any resentment for them being awarded the Air Force Cross?

Mr. Hayward: I’ve never heard anyone say anything resentful. I think they were Air Force Crosses instead of Medal of Honors because of the controversy. Dramesi actually admitted that Atterberry should have gotten the Medal of Honor, but that would have validated his escape attempt.

My last Air Force assignment was at Airman Magazine, where I sold them on the idea of investigating this story, and after I did in 1999, they decided to not publish because it was too controversial.

Mr. Soto:  Do you think of LTC Atterberry should have his award elevated to the Medal of Honor?

Mr. Hayward: Fellow prisoners worshiped Trautman and felt that he was in a difficult position. He is one of biggest heroes in the whole book.

Bill Strandberg:  How did Dramesi later end up as commander of 509th in SAC & why did he have few impacts from his actions?

Mr. Hayward:  You are spot on that a lot of people resented that Dramesi continued on in his Air Force career. However, I don’t think that his career was glorified. His last assignment was as a wing commander out of New Hampshire, where he got fired.

Mr. Soto:  What do you think are key lessons today’s Airmen should take away from this story? Absolute support of chain of command- dominos in room six when someone who wasn’t senior took command, teamwork & unity, everyday life & things we take for granted- how we conduct ourselves & treat other people

Mr. Hayward:  Bill Baugh had an amazing knack for not sweating the small stuff. He lived by taking pleasure in the little things and not letting some little things bog you down.

Mr. Soto:  The crux of whole book seems to be article III & article IV – do you think code of conduct today is still relevant? Or do all of us know that you’re going to get captured and then you’re going to break?

Mr. Hayward:  It’s still relevant and knowing that in horrific circumstances you’ll be reminded to keep faith in your country, with your service and with your fellow prisoner is really important.

Closing Remarks

Mike Holmes: This is an amazing book which I shared with my son who is also a fighter pilot. It demonstrates the pressure of conflicting norms and principles. It’s a great story and gift to Airmen.

My take on the code of conduct is not surprise those guys broke, but that every time they did, they had the code of conduct to get them back up and to do it over and over again. Thank you, George, for sticking with the story. It’s hard work to get through this story and understand the conflicting guidance and responsibility. Thanks, as the chairman of the board for the AFHF for writing this book and getting through the story.


Mr. Soto: In closing, this book was amazing and tells the story in a hard time of the Vietnam War. On 13 December, the AFHF book club will host “Moral Imperative” by John Wickham and a story about Combat Search and Rescue.  


*Notes were produced by Maj Melissa Sidwell Bowron, Air Force Intelligence Officer assigned to the LeMay center, Maxwell AFB, AL and may be paraphrased*