As author Joseph Conrad wrote in his great book Lord Jim, ‘A certain readiness to perish is not so very rare, but it is seldom that you meet men whose souls, steeled in the impenetrable armor of resolution, are ready to fight a losing battle to the last.’ Conrad could not have described Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale better if he had tried. That might be why the late admiral included the quote in his memoir In Love and War, co-written in 1990 with his wife Sybil.
The former prisoner of war, arguably one of the best-known residents of the infamous Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison), died at age 81 in July 2005 on Coronado Island, Calif., after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Forty years earlier, on September 9, 1965, the commander of the air group — ‘CAG,’ as his fellow naval aviators called him — flew his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk off the deck of USS Oriskany for the last time. Stockdale’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire later in the mission. He ejected, breaking a bone in his back and, upon impact with the ground, dislocating a knee, which never properly healed.
The mission on which Stockdale was shot down, a bombing run over the North, took place just a little more than one year after the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August 2 and 4, 1964. Congress had quickly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, with only two senators, Wayne Morse and Ernst Gruening, opposed. That, in turn, had cleared the way for bombing North Vietnam. The retaliatory bombing raids ordered by President Lyndon Johnson were the first major step in the escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Whether or not North Vietnamese torpedo boats actually fired on destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy remains highly contested to this day. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese military commander from the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 through the 1968 Tet Offensive, has disavowed the August 4 attack, although he confirms that the August 2 attack on the American vessels did occur.
Commander Stockdale was airborne during the Tonkin crisis, and he seemed to express doubt about the incident that changed American policy in Vietnam. ‘When the destroyers were convinced they had some battle action going, I zigged and zagged and fired where they fired, unless it looked like I might get caught in their shot patterns, or unless they had told me to fire somewhere else,’ he wrote. ‘The edges of the black hole I was flying in were still periodically lit by flashes of lightning — but no wakes or dark shapes other than those of the destroyers were ever visible to me.’
Ironically, Stockdale was sitting in his chair in the ready room of Oriskany when President Johnson announced on nationwide television that the retaliatory bombing raids had begun. In fact, they had yet to commence. ‘We took off knowing that the Vietnamese had been alerted that we were coming,’ he told filmmakers Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders in their 1998 documentary Return With Honor.
Recalling his 1965 capture, Stockdale told the Academy of Achievement’s Museum of Living History in Washington, D.C.: ‘As I ejected from the plane, I broke a bone in my back, but that was only the beginning. I landed in the streets of a small village. A thundering herd was coming down on me. They were going to defend the honor of their town. It was the quarterback sack of the century.’
At the very beginning of his 71¼2 years in captivity, four of which were in solitary confinement, Stockdale was the senior ranking naval officer in the prison. According to his Medal of Honor citation: ‘Recognized by his captors as the leader in the Prisoners’ of War resistance to interrogation and in their refusal to participate in propaganda exploitation, Rear Adm. Stockdale was singled out for interrogation and attendant torture after he was detected in a covert communications attempt.’
Commander Everett Alvarez Jr. was the first American to be shot down and captured (August 5, 1964). From his office in McLean, Va., Alvarez recently remembered: ‘In hindsight, it was as if [Stockdale] were meant to be there. It was as if God had a plan for him.’
During their long years of imprisonment, Stockdale and the other POWs used the ‘Smitty Harris Tap Code,’ named for Captain Carlyle Smith Harris, the POW who introduced it to the other prisoners. The tap code was a method of communicating by tapping on the prison cell walls. While the code initially eluded the North Vietnamese prison guards, they quickly caught on. From that point forward the prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton suffered severe punishment whenever they were caught using it.
‘On one of those cold December nights, Robbie [Lt. Col. Robinson Risner, the senior Air Force POW in the Hanoi Hilton] gave me lessons in how to tap messages through the wall,’ Stockdale wrote. ‘Robbie instructed me to call him up with the ‘shave and a haircut’ beat: tick-tick-ta-tick-tick. He would let me know he was ready to receive my first word by answering tick-tick.’
‘We were lucky to have Risner,’ remembered Alvarez. ‘With Stockdale we had wisdom. With Risner we had spirituality.’
Inspired by Stockdale and Risner, the POWs persevered, but the severe punishment continued at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors. The POWs continually were beaten within an inch of their lives, and some died as a result. They were forced to spend hours locked in leg irons and crude handcuffs, sleeping on cement slabs and using rusted-out slop buckets for a toilet.
Stockdale was no exception. Because he was the highest ranking naval officer, he often was beaten more severely than others in a symbolic effort to break him. The goal of his captors was not only to discourage other POWs, but also through television broadcasts by foreign media to create doubt about the war effort among Americans back home.
Stockdale’s captors long tried to extract information from him about troop strength aboard naval vessels, and confessions for what they termed ‘war crimes against the Vietnamese people.’ Often the POWs made up information that fooled their captors for a time. Nonetheless, the North Vietnamese managed to extract forced confessions: ‘I understand that I am a criminal who has bombed churches, schools and pagodas of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam,’ read one confession Stockdale was forced to sign. ‘I know the nature of my sins, and I now submit to you to do whatever you tell me to say, tape, or write.’
Stockdale did his utmost to remain strong in the face of his captivity. There is little doubt that both his fierce will to live and his burning anger combined to keep him alive. Often that anger was focused against the man people all over Vietnam referred to as Bac Ho (Uncle Ho). As Stockdale later recounted, in 1969 ‘Ho Chi Minh was on his death bed, or dead. It was odd to think of him over there in his house, a mile or less away. I could almost yell over there. What would I say? ‘You old son of a bitch’? No, I’d probably say something like ‘Good-bye you old bastard. You know how this game is played. You didn’t snivel — and neither will I!”
For all of his mental and physical fortitude while a prisoner, Stockdale’s wife, Sybil, was unstoppably ferocious in her own right. Her fight to bring home her husband, and the other POWs, resulted in the founding of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. The organization’s efforts took her to Paris in the fall of 1969, where she met with a delegation of North Vietnamese officials in their embassy. It was no easy task to arrange such a meeting.
‘Each afternoon I sat in my room waiting for the phone to ring and staring into the mirror as I practiced what I wanted to say to the North Vietnamese. I telephoned Xuan Oanh [temporary head of the delegation] to remind him we were waiting,’ Mrs. Stockdale recalled in In Love and War.
On a Saturday morning in early October, Xuan called without warning and instructed Mrs. Stockdale and her delegation of one father and several wives of POWs to come to the embassy for afternoon tea. ‘I was both elated and terrified that we were actually going to see the enemy face-to-face,’ she wrote.
Following that single meeting, the North Vietnamese officials feared they would be inundated by other relatives. They stressed that no other delegations needed to come to Paris, but they promised to look into the individual cases raised by Stockdale and her group. Emerging from the meeting, they were met by a hostile media. ‘Sarcasm salted their questions,’ she recalled. ‘Why were they so angry at us?’ I wondered as I stood in the line-up facing their glaring camera lights.’
That was not the only time Sybil Stockdale faced hostile media. Three years later, in July 1972, she appeared on ABC’s Dick Cavett Show. That experience proved equally negative. While her entire purpose in appearing on television was to help win the release of her husband and the other POWs, she was warned prior to airtime by a Cavett staffer that the show was not political and she was not to make any political statements.
‘As the show unfolded, it became clear that Dick Cavett would make the political statements and I was to be Mrs. Dumb Dumb Navy Wife who could only sit and wring her hands,’ she wrote. ‘When his remarks seemed to be critical of the present [Richard Nixon] administration, I reminded him that Johnson, [Dean] Rusk, and [Robert] McNamara had gotten us into this war.’
Cavett, according to Judy Englander, spokeswoman for his New York–based Daphne Productions, does not have a clear recollection of that interview. But as Sybil Stockdale later wrote: ‘I was relieved when the show was over. I was glad to have told his audience where they could order POW bracelets, and not too sorry later that the program had been canceled.’
She could not know until the POWs were released five months later, on February 12, 1973, that she and her organization had provided a beacon of hope for her husband and the other POWs. While forced to sign and broadcast bogus confessions, they never gave up any militarily significant information that the North Vietnamese could use to prosecute their war against South Vietnam.
Fellow POW Commander (later Rear Adm.) Jeremiah Denton, who after retiring from the Navy went on to serve as a U.S. senator, pointed out in the Return With Honor film that he warned the other POWs never to allow their captors to advance the indoctrination process to the point that the POWs were giving up without torture any information that was useful to North Vietnam’s cause.
Stockdale was a practitioner of Denton’s philosophy. True to his tough character, honed at the U.S. Naval Academy from which he graduated in 1946, throughout his imprisonment Stockdale constantly urged his fellow inmates to abide by the U.S. military Code of Conduct for POWs, and adhere strictly to the principle that the longest-held and the sickest would be released first. ‘No early releases,’ as the POWs termed it. Constantly upholding the code, Stockdale often endured beatings and multiple forms of abuse, including the painful Vietnamese ‘rope trick.’ With the POW’s hands behind his back, his arms were rotated in their sockets until the bones popped out of joint, while the guards simultaneously forced his neck forward.
All the POWs went through their individual low periods. Stockdale opted more than once to harm himself rather than submit to the indignations of interrogation, confession and the international media there to film him and the other POWs. In 1969, just after the death of Ho Chi Minh, Stockdale reached a point where he tried to commit suicide rather than be forced to make a confession on international television. His attempt to end his own life was thwarted by prison guards.
The extent to which the North Vietnamese attempted to coerce and exploit Stockdale was never more clear than when they found him lying in his own blood in his cell in the section of the Hoa Lo Prison the POWs called Las Vegas. (They had names for the other areas in and around the prison, such as New Guy Village and Heartbreak Hotel.) ‘How dare you do this! Why did you do this?’ his captors shouted at him as they sloshed soapy water all over the floor of his cell and on his body, in a frantic effort to prevent Stockdale’s suicide attempt from becoming international news.
Stockdale’s survival was fortunate for the other POWs, who would continue to rely on him as a role model and a leadership figure. One of those POWs was future Senator John McCain, the son of Admiral John McCain II, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command during the Vietnam War. McCain’s own POW ordeal began on October 23, 1967, when he landed in the middle of Truc Bach Lake in downtown Hanoi, after a Soviet SAM took the right wing off his Skyhawk bomber.
McCain, whose cell at Hoa Lo was two doors down from Stockdale’s, recently recalled: ‘Jim inspired us to do things we never believed we were capable of. Without him, I certainly wouldn’t have made it out of the prison with my honor intact.’
Many years later, McCain got additional support from Stockdale as the former was campaigning for the Republican Party nomination for president during the 2000 campaign. According to McCain, his political opponents were accusing him of being unpatriotic, treasonous and crazy from having been in prison. ‘Jim told everyone that I was solid as a rock,’ McCain said. ‘He was an inspirational leader. I was very saddened by his illness and death.’
Another of Stockdale’s fellow POWs, retired Marine Colonel Orson Swindle, was equally saddened. Swindle was a captain flying out of Da Nang when he was shot down on an interdiction mission north of the DMZ on November 11, 1966, some 14 months after Stockdale’s capture. Following his arrival at Hoa Lo, he remembered, ‘One night around 10:00, I heard the familiar shuffle of the guards bringing in a prisoner.’ It was Stockdale. ‘We had such high regard for this man. He had been worn down very badly and wasn’t in a talkative mood. Like all of us, he had to recover from what he’d been through.’
One Sunday while the guards were lax, remembers Swindle, the prisoners were whispering argumentatively about how something — which Swindle has long since forgotten — should be done. Stockdale, who had not involved himself in the conversation to that point, suddenly whispered, ‘How about listening to an old man tell you what we should do?’
Swindle got the chance to thank Stockdale personally in February 1973, when the POWs learned that they would soon be released. The two POWs finally met because the prison rules were relaxed somewhat after Ho’s death in 1969, and authorities allowed the POWs to mingle and talk to one another openly. ‘A silver-gray-haired man came limping over to meet me and said hello. I told him I was honored to meet him, but was feeling low having just given a [forced] confession. I told him, ‘When you moved into that cell, you saved my life by yourself and your leadership.”
Swindle later served as the national spokesman for Ross Perot’s failed independent campaign for the U.S. presidency in 1992. Perot seemed to agree wholeheartedly with his former spokesman about the leadership qualities of Jim Stockdale, whom he chose as his running mate. ‘He was an incredibly intellectual talent,’ Perot remembered from his office in Plano, Texas. ‘He was brilliant and a wonderful man who was a great role model.’
Perot, who at the government’s behest spent four years involved in an effort to bring more humane treatment to the POWs in North Vietnam, also recalled that the torture Stockdale underwent was unthinkable. ‘Yet he never broke,’ Perot said. ‘He never gave a thing. He did one heroic thing after another. He was a hero.’
Perot also believes the North Vietnamese eventually realized it had been a huge mistake to brutalize Stockdale to the extent that they did. The more they tortured him, the worse the North Vietnamese looked in the world’s eyes.
Whatever Stockdale’s political contributions as Perot’s running mate, they never matched the skills and toughness he had honed as an aviator in 1964 at the Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md., alongside the likes of future astronaut and senator John Glenn. Nor did Stockdale’s brief foray into politics match his brilliant years following Vietnam as an educator, which included service in 1976 as the president of the U.S. Naval War College, followed by the presidency of The Citadel military academy in South Carolina in 1979 and 1980. In 1981 Stockdale became a scholar in residence at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he had earned a master’s degree in 1962.
Although he excelled as a scholar and a lover of the Greek classics, politics just did not prove to be Stockdale’s cup of tea.
Remembering his performance in the 1992 vice presidential debate, Stockdale later told PBS anchorman Jim Lehrer: ‘It was terribly frustrating because I remember I started with ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ And I never got back to that, because there was never an opportunity for me to explain my life to people — the four years in solitary confinement in Vietnam, seven-and-a-half years in prisons, dropping the first bomb that started the American bombing raid in North Vietnam. We blew the oil storage tanks off the map. And I…don’t say it just to brag, but I mean my sensitivities are completely different.’
Stockdale came out of the debate as a laughingstock, much to the dismay and anger of longtime Washington insider Ed Rollins, deputy chief of staff for political and governmental affairs during the Ronald Reagan administration. ‘Of all the political injustices of my lifetime,’ Rollins wrote in his book Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms, ‘what happened to Jim Stockdale was the greatest. Congress should pass a law requiring every person who laughed at him during the vice presidential debate to read the citation that explains why Stockdale received the Medal of Honor as a senior prisoner of war in Hanoi….This man is a great academic scholar, a true war hero, and a wonderful human being — the best the military and this country has to offer. He deserved better.’
McCain expressed the sentiment that much of what Stockdale was as a human being came about as a direct result of his time at the Naval Academy: ‘No doubt his time at Annapolis was a great molding experience for him. He passed those ideals on to others during and after prison,’ the senator said in a telephone interview from his office in Washington, D.C. When asked what Stockdale’s legacy would be, McCain replied, ‘That under the most extreme conditions, American heroes not only conduct themselves with honor, they inspire others to do the same.’
Still another man inspired by Stockdale is fellow POW Edward Martin, now a retired vice admiral. Martin’s imprisonment began October 9, 1965, when his A-4 Skyhawk was hit by anti-aircraft fire 30 miles southeast of Hanoi. ‘He gave me inspiration and hope, told me what to expect, how to conduct myself,’ remembered Martin, who went on to command the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet and also served as deputy chief of naval operations for air warfare. ‘He had incredibly strong leadership that provided me with incredible inspiration at a bad time for me.’
Like Senator McCain, Admiral Martin attributed Stockdale’s character to the values that were instilled in him at the academy. ‘Though I am reticent to speak of the effect anything had on someone else,’ said Martin, ‘I will attribute Jim Stockdale’s courage to the humility we learned there.’
Martin also credited Stockdale’s courage as the reason he and the other Vietnam POWs survived the brutality they endured on a daily basis: ‘I was able to leave prison holding my head up high. He is a giant example of what is right in America today.’
This article was written by Marc Yablonka and originally published in the August 2006 issue of Vietnam Magazine. Yablonka interviewed many of Admiral Stockdale’s former POW colleagues for this article.
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