In 1973, 591 American POWs returned home from the Vietnam War, bringing with them harrowing tales of survival. Here is perhaps the greatest story of them all.
I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.
Vice Admiral James Stockdale, POW
On September 9, 1965, while flying from USS Oriskany on a mission over North Vietnam, Stockdale ejected from his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, which had been struck by enemy fire and completely disabled. He parachuted into a small village, where he was severely beaten and taken prisoner.
Stockdale was held as a prisoner of war in the Hoa Lo prison (the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”) for the next seven and a half years. As the senior Naval officer, he was one of the primary organizers of prisoner resistance.
Stockdale was one of eleven U.S. military prisoners known as the "Alcatraz Gang”. Because they had been resistance leaders they were separated from other captives and placed in solitary confinement in “Alcatraz”, a special facility in a courtyard behind the North Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense, located about one mile away from Hoa Lo Prison. In Alcatraz, each of the prisoners was kept in an individual windowless and concrete cell measuring 3 by 9 feet (0.9 by 2.7 m) with a light bulb kept on around the clock, and locked in leg irons each night.
The group received special torture and were taken into torture sessions in order of rank, highest to lowest. Stockdale would receive the brutalist of torture.
Lt Coker, a member of the Alcatraz Gang, said of Stockdale:
“He was probably the strongest, most exemplary leader of the whole North Vietnamese POW environment.”
Tortured routinely and denied medical attention for the severely damaged leg he suffered duringcapture, Stockdale created and enforced a code of conduct for all prisoners which governed torture, secret communications, and behavior. In the summer of 1969, he was locked in leg irons in a bath stall and routinely tortured and beaten. When told by his captors that he was to be paraded in public, Stockdale slit his scalp with a razor to purposely disfigure himself so that his captors could not use him as propaganda. When they covered his head with a hat, he beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond recognition. When Stockdale was discovered with information that could implicate his friends’ “black activities”, he slit his wrists so they could not torture him into confession.
Convinced of Stockdale’s determination to die rather than cooperate, the Communists ceased trying to extract bogus “confessions” from him. The torture of American prisoners ended, and treatment of all American POWs improved.
Early in Stockdale’s captivity, his wife, Sybil Stockdale, organized The League of American Families of POWs and MIAs, with other wives of servicemen who were in similar circumstances. By 1968, she and her organization, which called for the President and the U.S. Congress to publicly acknowledge the mistreatment of the POWs (something that had never been done despite evidence of gross mistreatment), gained the attention of the American press. Sybil Stockdale personally made these demands known at the Paris Peace Talks.
Upon his release in 1973, Stockdale’s extraordinary heroism became widely known, and he received the Medal of Honor in the nation’s bicentennial year. He was one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the Navy, with 26 personal combat decorations, including four Silver Star medals in addition to the Medal of Honor.
Together, the Stockdales told their story in a joint memoir, In Love and War. Admiral Stockdale and his wife lived quietly on Coronado Island, off of San Diego, until his death at age 81 in 2005. In 2009, the U.S. Navy honored him by naming a new missile destroyer in his honor, the USS Stockdale.
Here is a video of James Stockdale giving a talk at the Command Leadership School in Newport, RI.
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