FORT MEADE, Md., Nov. 8, 2013 – Navy Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale’s journey — from prisoner of war in Vietnam to Medal of Honor recipient to Ross Perot’s vice presidential running mate in 1992 — reflects the path of a true American hero.
In a Nov. 6 interview here for the pilot episode of The Pentagon Channel’s upcoming series, “Legends of Seapower,” Stockdale’s son, James Stockdale II, shared his father’s story and legacy.
The elder Stockdale, who died of Alzheimer’s disease at age 81 on July 5, 2005, in Coronado, Calif., played a critical role in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a seminal event that would prompt the onset of large-scale military operations in Vietnam.
“Dad’s story … is about of group of individuals who chose duty before dishonor and they self-selected out to be courageous … to the point of just dying before capitulating,” Stockdale II said.
An Abingdon, Ill., native and U.S. Naval Academy graduate in 1947, Stockdale completed Navy Test Pilot school in Pensacola, Fla., in 1954. His love of flying carried him west to Stanford University in California, where he earned a master’s degree in international relations in 1962.
It was also at Stanford where Stockdale would embrace philosophy, particularly stoicism, which later helped him endure the crucible of captivity with unflinching heroism and remarkable leadership for seven and a half years during the Vietnam War, Stockdale’s son explained.
As the CIA formulated plans to support the South Vietnamese government amid encroachment by North Vietnam, Admiral Stockdale, his son recounted, learned a lot as the commanding officer of Carrier Air Group Sixteen flying from the aircraft carrier the USS Oriskany.
“[The admiral] saw the ricochets from [patrol torpedo] boats off the hull … he saw actual torpedoes in the water, he could see wakes in the daylight because the seas in the Gulf of Tonkin are phosphorescent and when you stir them … they turn up an eerie light, even in the daytime,” the younger Stockdale said.
U.S. troops along the coast, Stockdale II explained, were kept in combat-ready gear in the hot Tonkin sunlight. The USS Turner Joy joined the apprehensive and tired men on Aug. 4, 1964, for patrol, continuing to sweep areas of North Vietnam for signal intelligence.
“They would take gunboats up into the North Vietnamese coast, do signal intelligence, destroy radar stations … [transport] people going into the coastal villages and try to recruit people to give them intelligence,” Stockdale II said.
On a routine patrol, the USS Maddox proceeded with signal intelligence that indicated an attack by the North Vietnamese.
“From the Vietnamese perspective, this was pretty serious warfare,” the younger Stockdale said. “But [U.S. officials] couldn’t find any hard evidence that an attack took place –- they even sent a film crew out … to replicate the event, which made it a non-event in calm waters.”
On Aug. 5, Stockdale II said, the U.S. carried out 64 sorties, sparking the beginning of the air war in Vietnam.
More than a year later, on Sept. 9, 1965, Stockdale II said his father was flying a mission when his A-4 fighter-bomber was struck by a missile and he ejected over a small coastal village. He tried to make it to the ocean but came down instead in North Vietnam.
“When he bailed out, it was clumsy of course,” Stockdale II said. “What you can’t anticipate with practice bailouts is that the plane is going different directions and you’re being jostled around and about.”
Stockdale said his father found a way to “pull the curtain,” basically a stick of dynamite that sends the pilot in his seat hurtling from the plane. But during the ejection, one of his shoulders somehow got caught on the canopy.
Suddenly Stockdale was caught in a tree and forced to cut himself down. By the time he hit the street in Phong-ve, his left leg was dangling with the lower portion of it protruding from his knee at a 45-degree angle.
Stockdale was roughed up by locals, then put into a torture cell followed by a cold soak at the “Heartbreak Hotel,” a prison in Hanoi.
The admiral moved around to various camps over the next seven and half years there, developing a reputation as a hard-core resister despite placement in leg irons and time in solitary confinement, according to his son.
As the highest-ranking U.S. Navy officer to be held captive in Vietnam, the admiral often credited the teachings of Epictetus, one of the ancient Stoics, with helping him endure the ordeal.
“Dad took great pride in the fact at one point … the adjutant to the commissar said Stockdale was the ‘blackest of criminals,’” Stockdale II said.
One tenet of stoicism states lameness is an impediment to the spirit but not to the will, Stockdale II said, noting many of his father’s techniques were simply guerilla tactics.
“He had nothing, all he had was his wits … they had every component imaginable to make him talk,” he said. “They can turn your body into a pretzel, but they can’t control your mind if your will and your intention are clear.”
Stockdale galvanized prisoner culture and developed a cohesive set of rules to assist prisoners in resisting captors, giving them hope and stamina to withstand the ordeal. For example, “BACK U.S.,” Stockdale II explained, meant B: do not bow in public, A: stay off the air, C: admit no crimes, K: do not kiss the Vietnamese goodbye. U.S. stood for unity over self.
The younger Stockdale said his father even took a razor down the center of his head to make himself less photogenic and avoid being a participant in propaganda films. When captors tried to obscure his cuts and missing hair with a hat, he then beat himself about the face until he was unrecognizable.
The admiral’s leadership called for full resistance and no admission of crimes, as seen in the citation for the military’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, which Stockdale earned in 1976 after his release in 1973.
An excerpt of his citation reads: “Stockdale deliberately inflicted a near mortal wound to his person in order to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate. He was subsequently discovered and revived by the North Vietnamese who, convinced of his indomitable spirit, abated their employment of excessive harassment and torture of all prisoners of war.”
Families of POWs were once discouraged from communicating with the media or even each other, prompting the admiral’s wife, Sybil, to organize the League of American Families of POWs and MIAs. This got the attention of former seaman H. Ross Perot, a prominent businessman with political aspirations.
“[Perot] called mom out of the blue and introduced himself,” the younger Stockdale recalled, noting that it would be years before his father would be released and meet him.
Perot not only attended several events celebrating the return of the prisoners, but Stockdale II said the businessman filled a jet full of supplies for the ones who remained in country, though they could only get as close as Thailand to distribute the materials as charity.
By 1992, Ross Perot was circulating petitions to be put on the ballot in all 50 states as a third party presidential candidate, but had not yet selected an official running mate.
“In half the states you needed to name a potential running mate [and Perot] knew that he could call dad and ask him to stand in,” Stockdale II said.
By the time Perot re-entered the campaign for president that fall, temporary vice presidential running mates had to be permanent.
“You’ve taken a guy who was part of very deep-thinking, detailed aspects of stoical history in a monk-like setting,” he said, “and now you’re going to throw him into the national spotlight on television.”
Stockdale said his father’s affection for his fellow prisoners never wavered, even decades later. He emphasized that his father’s relationship with fellow POWs was unassailable and that the admiral was aware that any leadership he provided would’ve been an empty vessel were it not for the willingness of those who would follow.
“As we’re committed to these many asymmetrical wars, several of them are multi-generational, carried by culture, carried by tribal tradition,” Stockdale once said. “Awareness of that commitment on their behalf should inspire our military members … to prevail or improve conditions in countries that are dominated by totalitarian influence.”
Stockdale said his father’s story has been “so shaping” in his own life.
“It’s a saturation in culture and a sense of commitment and combinations of intellect, emotion … spirituality,” Stockdale II said. “You can create a culture where the leadership is viral and virtual and committed to the mission and the mission prevails at the expense of the individual.”
Stockdale said his father was optimistic about people.
“If you appeal to their deepest moral hooks -– the reason they got into doing what they’re doing in the first place, you can usually find in some definition, the very best they have to offer,” the admiral once said.
(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @lyleAFPS)