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Stockdale, James

Stockdale, James Bond

Military Combat
Enshrined 2002 1923-2005

Stockdale’s fundamental philosophy was “follow me.” He wanted to be with his subordinates, not on a distant carrier directing traffic. He followed this attitude while imprisoned at North Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison camp in Hanoi. Stockdale demonstrated exceptional personal courage by standing up to severe torture and continuous harassment while at the camp. As the senior naval officer among the group, he organized constant resistance and molded the group into an effective military community.

    Stockdale was the first military officer to teach the academic course in airplane performance at the Patuxent River Navy Test Pilot School, Maryland.
    He was the flight leader of the first supersonic jets on the scene of the 1958 Taiwan Straits crisis.
    He was the flight leader for the first air strike against North Vietnam following the Tonkin Gulf incident in 1964.
    In September 1965 he was shot down over North Vietnam and spent 7 ½ years as a prisoner of war in the Hoa Lo Prison, or “Hanoi Hilton.” Four of these years he spent in solitary confinement and several years in leg irons.
    As a senior naval prisoner-of-war he organized and led American POW resistance at Hoa Lo Prison which earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

 

Biography

Like Fredrick the Great before him, Jim Stockdale was an admirer of Epictetus. He always carried a copy of the Greek philosopher’s Discourses into battle with him, and these texts later proved to be an invaluable survival tool.

When North Vietnamese forces shot down and captured Stockdale in 1965, he told himself, “Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology … and entering the world of Epictetus.”

James Bond Stockdale was born in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1923 to Mabel and Vernon Stockdale. Vernon carefully molded his young son’s inner discipline and encouraged him toward Annapolis and a Navy career. He obliged, graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946.

Stockdale’s first tour after flight training was with the VS-27 an Air Anti-Submarine Squadron flying GM Avengers.

His piloting skills soon earned him a coveted ticket to Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland. There he crossed paths with many other ambitous young fliers, including a strawberry-haired Marine named John Glenn, whom Lt. Stockdale tutored in physics and calculus.

Three years later, Stockdale finished studying political science at Stamford University, from which he earned him a master’s degree in 1962. He returned to the sea as executive officer of the VF-51, “Flying Crusaders”. Stockdale received a promotion to commanding officer and deployed to the USS Ticonderoga.

While temporarily assigned to the USS Constellation the squadron flew missions over Loas before returning to the Ticonderoga. Stockdale led several successful strikes against North Vietnamese PT boats before witnessing the controversial episode that would bring the United States fully into the Vietnam War.

Several encounters with North Vietnamese torpedo boats had been reported in early August. On the evening of August 4th, the USS Maddox and USS C.Turner Joy reportedly encountered and engaged enemy gunboats.

The next afternoon, Stockdale led an air strike on the Vihn petroleum storage complex in retaliation for the alleged gunboat attack. The United States was now officially at war with North Vietnam and Stockdale’s bombs were the first U.S. incendiaries to strike communist soil.

But Stockdale was not content with one tour of duty in the war, and 1965 saw him enter the fray once again, this time as wing commander of the USS Oriskany. On September 9th of that year, Jim was leading his group on a bombing mission over North Vietnam. As he made his approach, Jim spotted the scorched remains of the Vihn City oil storage yards, where he had dropped the bombs that started the war exactly 400 days earlier. Stockdale led his men to their target, a railroad facility near the city of Thanh Hoa. Just as he was congratulating himself for delivering a perfect bomb pattern he felt the impact of a 57 mm anti-aircraft gun below him.

His damaged Skyhawk pitched down, then up, as every red light in the cockpit flashed and blared incessantly. As the fighter raced towards the ground, Stockdale ejected, landing in the midst of a small, hostile village.

Club-wielding assailants decended upon Stockdale, beating him nearly senseless and severely damaging his left knee. The beating set the stage for the next 7 1/2 years of Stockdale’s life, most of it spent at the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, or “Hanoi Hilton.” As a prisoner of war, Stockdale was at the mercy of his North Vietnamese captors. With the help of the stoic teachings of Epictetus, he not only survived those terrible years, but managed to outwit his captors and help his fellow inmates survive.

As the highest ranking naval officer at the Hoa Lo, Stockdale organized resistance among his fellow prisoners, established a code of conduct for the men and used a secret communication system to talk with other POWs. He even passed information to Navy Intelligence, through coded letters to his wife, Sybil.

By 1969 Sybil and other POWs wives and family members had formed the National League of Families of American Prisoners in Southeast Asia to bring attention to the prisoners’ plight and to bring pressure on Hanoi for humane prisoner treatment.

Stockdale was also instrumental in bringing about the end of prisoner torture, but it nearly cost him his life. He was charged with starting a prison riot and an officer told him before leaving him for the night, “Tommorrow we will bring you down.” Stockdale was made to sit up in a chair all night in leg irons and ropes on his arms. He learned that Ho Chi Minh had died the night before on Sept. 3rd, 1969. North Vietnam was unstable due to the death of its icon, and Stockdale made this work to his advantage. During the night, he slashed his wrists with a piece of broken glass. The guards discovered him near death and revived him. Stockdale’s actions convinced his captors he was prepared to die rather than give in. The beatings stopped and the torture-happy prison commander was replaced.

On Febuary 12th, 1973 the North Vietnamese released Stockdale from Hoa Lo.

After a stint as president of Rhode Island’s Naval War College, the vice admiral retired from the Navy in 1979.

Over the course of his 37 year military career, Stockdale had become a hero to countless American soldiers and citizens, while earning 26 personal combat decorations in the process, including the Medal of Honor, for his courage and leadership at the Hoa Lo POW prison.

When he entered cilivian life, Stockdale didn’t leave his military training behind. In fact, he managed to combine it with his love of academia when he became the president of the Citadel Military Academy from 1979-1980.

The quiet academic life seemed to suit Stockdale and in 1981 he became a senior research fellow at the Hoover Intitution, at Stanford University.

With great honor and pride the National Aviation Hall of Fame recognizes James Stockdale for his valor, supreme sacrifice, and unyielding courage.

James Stockdale died at his home near San Diego, California, on July 5th, 2005.

For more information on James Stockdale, you may want to visit the following websites:

Medal of Honor Recipients
Wikipedia
William Stockdale, Ret.
Interview with James Stockdale
POW Network