By Devon Hubbard Sorlie, Communication and Outreach Division, Naval History and Heritage Command
It’s been more than 50 years since then-Cmdr. Stockdale was shot down in Vietnam during his third tour. He had already flown nearly 200 combat missions during the three deployments, earned numerous awards and medals for his leadership and bravery. He led the first bombing mission over North Vietnam in August 1965, and after being shot down and captured, wasn’t released until Operation Homecoming in February 1973.
Being the highest-ranking Navy officer to serve as a prisoner of war during Vietnam isn’t what made Stockdale legendary or earned him the Medal of Honor. Nor was it the 26 combat decorations, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals, four Silver Star medals and two Purple Hearts.
It was how he led his fellow prisoners by example for nearly eight years in captivity in the Hanoi Hilton and a special hellhole they called Alcatraz.
“He was probably the strongest, most exemplary leader of the whole North Vietnamese POW environment,” said fellow POW and retired Navy Cmdr. George Coker in the March 31, 1992 issue of The Seattle Times.
Quarterback Sack of the Century
It was late morning on Sept. 9, 1965, when Stockdale, flying a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, left the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA 34) for a mission over North Vietnam. Soon after, he flew into a tree-top flak trap. Within seconds, the Skyhawk was on fire and Stockdale ejected over a small village. Then he heard bullets ripping through his parachute canopy.
As he floated closer to the fist-waving “thundering herd of men” running through the streets toward him, Stockdale recalled saying to himself in those final seconds of freedom: “Five years down there at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”
He was wrong about one thing – it would be nearly eight years before Stockdale’s stint as a prisoner of war would end.
No sooner than he disengaged from the chute when villagers defending their community got the “quarterback sack of the century,” Stockdale stated in a 2001 Academy of Achievement interview. The pilot was tackled by 10-to-15 young men who beat him for three or four minutes until a police official took Stockdale into custody. His injuries included a broken bone in his back and a badly broken leg.
Stockdale knew the broken bones in his left leg would likely cripple him for life. He recalled the teachings of Epictetus, a Greek-speaking Stoic philosopher Stockdale studied while earning his master’s degree in philosophy at Stanford University just three years earlier. Epictetus, born a slave, had undergone torture that left him permanently injured: “Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. For you will find such things to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.”
Stockdale was then transported to Hanoi and imprisoned in the Hoa Lo Prison, or Hanoi Hilton as the prisoners of war called it.
Creating Honorable Prisoners
Stockdale prepared himself to follow the American Fighting Man’s Code of Conduct: If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.
“We had a war to fight and were committed to fighting it from lonely concrete boxes,” Stockdale said during his Academy of Achievement interview. “Our very fiber and sinew were the only weapons at our disposal. Each man’s values from his own private sources provided the strength enabling him to maintain his sense of purpose and dedication. They placed unity above self. Self-indulgence was a luxury that could not be afforded.”
As the most senior officer, Stockdale’s principle order to his fellow prisoners was the acronym BACK US: don’t Bow in public, stay off the Air, admit no Crimes, never Kiss them goodbye and Unity above Self. They communicated by tapping an alphabetic code on the walls and floor. Those who were caught were punished.
Through his leadership and personal conduct, it didn’t take long for Stockdale to run afoul of the prison officials as he communicated and urged prisoners to resist cooperating with their captors. As the leaders of the resistance, Stockdale and 10 other senior POWs were separated from the others and taken 10 blocks away to another jail block the prisoners called Alcatraz.
Alcatraz is where he and his fellow leaders within the prison suffered the most egregious torture. In a 3-foot-by-9-foot windowless cell the lights remained on 24/7. Their ankles were shackled to leg irons embedded in the concrete floor limiting them to only two positions –prone or sitting completely erect. They were kept in isolation as they awaited their turn “in the ropes.”
While the Alcatraz Gang considered the leg irons and isolation as annoyances, being “in the ropes” was torture. With their ankles bound in leg irons, their hands were cuffed their backs until their elbows touched. Then their arms were pulled over their heads and tied to their ankles, or hoisted onto a hook in the ceiling, where their own weight would pull their arms out of joint. To intensify the pain, guards walked on the prisoners’ backs to further cut off their upper body circulation.
“Look not for any greater harm than this: destroying the trustworthy, self-respecting, well-behaved man within you.” – an Epictetus teaching
Stockdale understood a prisoner giving up only his “name, rank, serial number and date of birth” would incite more torture. Knowing the importance for his fellow service members to live as, what he coined, “honorable prisoners,” Stockdale allowed the prisoners the grace to yield under pressure, as long as only useless information was given to their captors. One POW famously blinked in Morse code T-O-R-T-U-R-E during his television interview with a Japanese journalist and then went off script to state he was supportive of the United States. Another gave the name of comic book heroes when his captors demanded the name of top pilots. In doing so, he was able to save the men’s spirits while also ensuring American secrets were safeguarded.
Stockdale and his fellow POWs were released during Operation Homecoming in Feb. 12, 1973 after nearly eight years in captivity. Rear Adm. Stockdale received the Medal of Honor on March 4, 1976, for his Sept. 4, 1969 action of self-sacrifice rather than capitulate to his captors, which ended the North Vietnamese use of excessive harassment and torture toward all prisoners of war.
Vice Adm. Stockdale concluded his 32-year career in the Navy after a nearly two-year stint as president of the Naval War College from Oct. 13, 1977 until Aug. 22, 1979.
In 1980, the Secretary of the Navy Edward Hidalgo created the Vice Admiral James Stockdale Award for Inspirational Leadership, which is given to those below the rank of captain, one from the Atlantic Fleet and one for the Pacific Fleet. Of the past four Chiefs of Naval Operations, three of them — Adm. Michael Mullen, Adm. Jonathan Greenert and current CNO Adm. John Richardson — all received the award during their time as commanders with the Pacific Fleet.
Stockdale was inducted into the Carrier Aviation Hall of Fame, the U.S. Naval Aviation Hall of Honor at the National Museum of Aviation in Pensacola, Fla.
As a civilian, Stockdale served as president of The Citadel in South Carolina for a year, as a philosophy lecturer at Stanford University and a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford for 15 years.
He and his wife, Sybil, wrote “In Love and War” (Harper and Row, 1984) that was turned into a movie by NBC in 1987 starring James Wood and Jane Alexander.
He also wrote two books of essays, “A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection (Hoover Press, 1984)” and “Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Hoover Press, 1995),” both receiving the Freedom Foundation’s George Washington Honor Medal for books.
In 1992, Stockdale reluctantly agreed to become the interim vice-presidential candidate for his friend, H. Ross Perot, who was running as the Reform Party presidential candidate.
Stockdale died at his home in Coronado, Calif. on July 5, 2005, at the age of 81. He remains the only three-star admiral in the history of the Navy who has worn both aviator wings and the Medal of Honor.
In a statement following the announcement of Stockdale’s death, Adm. Vern Clark, then-Chief of Naval Operations, said Stockdale, “challenged the human limits of moral courage, physical endurance and intellectual bravery, emerging victorious as a legendary beacon for all to follow.”