James Stockdale, "a giant of a patriotic American," a "real scrappy guy"
December 16, 2016
Americans love heroes, that's for sure. One of our problems is we don't always appreciate who most of our real heroes are or were. Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, USN (Ret.) died on July 5, and is one of those great American heroes of all time. At his funeral aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, Admiral Vern Clark, the Chief of Naval Operations, said, “Admiral Stockdale challenged the human limits of moral courage, physical endurance and intellectual bravery, emerging victorious as a legendary beacon for all to follow.”
The admiral was born in Abingdon, Illinois in 1923, in the West Central part of the state, the first town south of the Knox County seat, Galesburg.
You can safely say he was a small-town boy. In the 2000 census, the population was 3,612. We understand it was about 2,800 when Stockdale was born. Abingdon is one of several towns in this part of Illinois great for train watching.
CB&Q depot at Abingdon, 1918. Presented by Bill's Galesburg Journal
At one time, the Northern Cross Railway, later known as the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy (CB&Q) and the Minneapolis and St. Louis (M&StL) ran through town in what is called by some a "flyover" configuration. Bill's Galesburg Journal says, "The 'Q' passes through town in a "trench", while the M&StL crossed over it; hence the "multilevel" effect."
In 1917, with the outbreak of WWI, dad left his white-collar job and joined the navy. Vernon struggled to educate himself and would say many times that the Navy opened up his world, and he wanted the same for his son. His son going to Annapolis was dad's dream.
While mom dogged him on the piano, Stockdale's major aim was to play football, asserting, "I'm not going to be a sissy." He graduated second in his high school class and was a cocaptain of the school's football team. Stock dale has described himself as chubby and short in high school, one who had to fight to make the football team, and a boy who took his share of bruises battling it out with the big boys.
Stock dale reminisced about the next steps this way:
“My dad would always be present at football practice. That was part of my growing up. He and my mother were kind of at odds about my future. I was second in my class in high school and she wanted me to be a lawyer. He wanted me to go to Annapolis and go into the Navy. He won. I was on his side. I thought it was very good news. I didn't think he could have thought of a better thing to do. This isn't as important as it used to be, but Dad knew the congressman in our district and had negotiated a year when there would be an appointment vacancy.”
The vacancy would not be open until a year after high school. So he briefly attended Know College in nearby Gales burg, Illinois, and then moved over to Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois.
This is the Stockdale Student Center at Monmouth College, Illinois, dedicated in 1989 in honor of Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale. Presented by Monmouth College.
Mother insisted he go to a school nearby, since she understood naval life and feared not seeing her son very much after he won his commission. He was also attracted to Monmouth by the president of Phi Kappa Phi fraternity. Two of Stockdale's cousins had been Phi Kaps.
“He was three and a half years older than I, and thus my idol in high school and college sports. There was plenty to emulate. A mature Bobby stood 5 feet 8 inches, 175 pounds, with a 30-inch waist. A dash man at track, he tried for four years to break the Knox County, Illinois, dash record set by his father in 1905 at 'ten flat,' almost Olympic time in those years. In college, he was an all conference football back … Bobby finished college in '42, getting a little edge in April of that year, being accepted for a Marine officers' recruitment program. A physical marvel, he broke obstacle course records all over the Marine Corps. He fought at Guadalcanal, Vella La Vella, Bougainville, and took his company ashore at Iwo Jima on the 11th wave as a full-fledged company commander at noon, on D-Day, 19 February 1945.”
Dunlap snuck into a position on a hill on Iwo Jima previously occupied by a Japanese soldier. Somehow he had obtained some radio gear, which he was not supposed to have, and over the next four days he effectively took command of the island. Stockdale commented this way:
“(Dunlap was) issuing target assignments and grid positions from his high perch, ordering big guns to open fire.”
Dunlap, ordered to return to his company because he was exhausted, was shot in the hip by a sniper, and evacuated and sent home, but he was already a legend around the island among the Marines. The Marines took Iwo Jima 30 days later. For his heroism, Captain Robert H. Dunlap would later receive the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Truman at the White House.
“I watched my dad for one. When he'd walk through that plant everybody had a good word for him, almost like a salute. He'd stop and joke. I fashioned my personality after his … (At the USNA) I made him so proud that I just couldn't let him down. I worked as hard as I could and I stood in about the 15th percentile.”
We have seen another report that he was in the top 10 of his graduating class. As an interesting aside, the guys who worked for Vernon Stockdale called him "Stock."
Midshipman Stockdale excelled in the primarily engineering curriculum at Annapolis. At the Academy, Stockdale and his 5-foot-9, 170 lb. frame played football for the middies, of all things, lineman! Fellow Midshipman Thomas Hudner, Jr., a classmate of Stockdale, and later to receive the Medal of Honor for action during the Korean War, said this of the 170-lb lineman:
“He was very aggressive, a real scrappy guy and a real football player.”
He spent his first three years in the Navy on destroyers, one of which was the USS Thompson, (the second ship with that name), a Gleaves-class destroyer commissioned in 1943 that would become an Ellyson-class minesweeper. But he had always wanted to be a fighter pilot. His uncle was as fighter pilot in WWI. His mother was not enamored with the idea, given the risks. Stockdale has remarked that he told his mother this:
“I told her I had good coordination, and that I felt I could make good, quick decisions. I didn't think of being a pilot as just flying around in the sky. I went in expecting I would end up fighting at some point. See, that was the attitude for young men back then - it's your privilege to enjoy freedom, so be prepared to fight for it."
He was accepted to flight school and became a naval aviator in 1950. As an aside, for her part, the USS Thompson went to fight in the Korean War. Stockdale drove a wide variety of propeller-driven aircraft, mostly anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and some fighters. He has commented that during this period he “got four years of many kinds of small ships,” but in 1954 he was sent to Test Pilot School at Patuxent, Maryland, a sure feather in his cap. He said that there were only 17 in his class and the schooling lasted six months.
Marine Major John Glenn stands by an F-86 Saber Jet in which he shot down 3 MiGs as an exchange pilot with the Air Force. The name of his wife Annie, and children Lyn and Dave, are painted on the plane. So is the slogan, "MiG Mad Marine". Photo credit: John Glenn Archives, The Ohio State University. Presented by Korean War Stories.
John Glenn, a Marine aviator, was in his class. Glenn flew marine F-9Fs and Air Force F-86s in Korea and, with the F-86, had three MiG kills to his credit. Stockdale lamented to Glenn that he not yet gotten his hands on a jet. He has related this dialog with Glenn about that:
“Listen, John, I'll make you a deal. You don't know how to do algebra too well, I can help you with that but you're going to have to teach me to fly jets."
Glenn's response was, "It's a deal."
Stockdale graduated third in his class of jet fliers. He was then assigned to a unit called Service Test, but then was called back to be an instructor. He did that for two and one-half years.
Carl "Tex" Birdwell, Jr., USN, a 1962 trainee pilot astronaut candidate to fly a "spaceplane," the X-15, Navy test pilot, commander VFA-216 "Black Diamonds" (A-4 Skyhawk), received the Silver Star for actions during a strike against the Haiphong petroleum facilities on July 7 1966.
Tex Birdwell, a contemporary of Stockdale, worked with him at the test school and said, “He's the toughest guy I'd ever known.”
VF-21 F-4B "Freelancer" ready to be launched from the USS Midway for a mission over North Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Scott McGaugh, presented by USS Midway Photo Gallery.
Fred "Bill" Franke, another contemporary, served with Stockdale on the test pilot faculty and said, “Jim is the smartest human being I've ever known.” Franke commanded the VF-21 F-4B "Freelancers" aboard the USS Midway, CVA-41, and was shot down over North Vietnam and captured in 1965.
Captain Orson Swindle, USMC, F8E Crusader,1965, MCAS Beaufort, SC. U.S. Marine Corps photo
Orson Swindle, a marine pilot shot down over North Vietnam in 1966, on his last mission, occupied a POW cell near Stockdale, and commented: “He was courageous beyond belief and a great intellectual.”
Their descriptions, the toughest and the smartest, turned out to be prescient. And remember this. Each of them was a colleague of Stockdale at Patuxent, and each served under the CAG in prison in North Vietnam.
As a side note, it turns out that while an instructor at Patuxent, Stockdale trained four of our earliest astronauts, three Navy, one Marine. That included Alan Shepard, Jr., the first US astronaut in space, a sub-orbital flight; John Glenn, who would make the first orbital flight; Scott Carpenter, who followed Glenn in the next orbital flight; and John Young, who flew with Gus Grissom on Gemini 3, the first crewed Earth-orbiting spacecraft.
In 1961-62, the Navy sent Stockdale to Stanford University for graduate work, already an indication that the navy recognized his talents. Apparently the navy in its divine wisdom intended to send him to be a strategic planner at the Pentagon. By now, Stockdale was 38, had spent most of his career in a cockpit, and was at Stanford studying international relations. He has admitted, “My heart wasn't in it.”
However, at Stanford, he took a course call Philosophy 6, “The Problems of Good and Evil,” from Professor Philip Rhinelander, then dean of humanities and science, and himself a former naval officer. Rhinelander introduced Stockdale to the works of many ancient philosophers. Stockdale was subsumed by philosophy, and asserted, “From then on, I was out of international relations and into philosophy.
He was awarded a master's degree two years later. There was some pressure for him to continue on to a PhD but he preferred being a fighter pilot and returned to the cockpit.
Much has been written about Stockdale's studies at Stanford. One of the philosophers that impressed Stockdale perhaps the most was a fellow named Epictetus.
Epictetus wrote a "manual" called The Enchiridion. Its opening words describe the theme:
"Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions."
Stockdale sums up the dominant impact this philosopher had on him this way:
“Mostly, I was gradually taken with the idea that we can't always control the circumstances we find ourselves in but we can always control how we respond to them."
To understand James Stockdale, you have to appreciate how much he believed in this view: disciplined thought. Stockdale has written a great deal about the impact Epictetus had on him. Indeed, Stockdale viewed himself as a “philosopher fighter pilot,” and has said so often.
By this time, circa 1963-64, war in Southeast Asia was on everyone's mind. He launched on three seven-month cruises all designed to prepare for war in that section of the world. One of those training missions was aboard the USS Ticonderoga, CVA-14, which had seen action over Vietnam since 1961.
A-4 Skyhawk landing on board the USS Ticonderoga, after a simulated strike on "enemy" forces during an operational readiness inspection, 18 January 1963. An A-3B Sky Warrior and F-3 Demon are parked on the carrier's after flight deck, and another A-3 is in the upper left distance, making its landing approach. Official US Navy photography courtesy of Scott Dyben, presented by NavSource Online: Aircraft Carrier Photo Archive.
Stockdale, now in command of VF- 51 aboard the Ticonderoga, was sent to the Gulf of Tonkin.
North Vietnamese motor torpedo boat attacking the USS Maddox, August 2, 1964. Photograph taken from USS Maddox (DD-731) during her engagement with three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, 2 August 1964. The view shows one of the boats racing by, with what appears to be smoke from Maddox' shells in its wake. Official U.S. Navy Photograph. Presented by Naval Historical Center.
On August 2, 1964, while on a training mission over the Gulf, Stockdale was directed to support the USS Maddox which had reported being attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats. He received a similar call the next day. On the first occasion, Stockdale and his fellows attacked the PT boats. While he could not comment about whether the enemy boats had attacked the US ship, he did say they were there and there was a fight to do them in. Stockdale said he quickly learned that the best way to attack was is to hit the deck, fly right up next to the PT boats, and “just give them 40 millimeter machine bullets and cut the whole thing up the side.” On the first day's attack, Stockdale and his men left one PT dead in the water (DIW) and two others spewing lots of oil.
On the second day's attack, Stockdale again hit the deck, a little nervous that others, mainly A4s, were flying higher and intended to practice their dive-bombing with him in between them and their targets. But he was also anxious about the potential for the US destroyers, now the USS Maddox and Turner Joy, to fire at friendly aircraft with lights on at higher altitudes, so he preferred to stay low, down on the deck. While the destroyers thought they were under attack, and fired a great deal, Stockdale reported back that there were no enemy patrol boats out there, an observation echoed by others.
Stockdale has said that President Johnson had the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution signed, standing at the ready for implementation before the incidents took place. But Johnson was reluctant to take action after the first day's attacks, worried in an election year the public might think him too hasty. However, he did call for action after the second day, during which the consensus was that there were no attacks.
Whatever the case, Stockdale was ordered on August 5 to lead a strike force from the USS Ticonderoga against the Vinh oil storage yards in North Vietnam. Stockdale took a batch of aircraft, six F-8 "Crusaders," six A-4 "Skyhawks," and four A-1 "Skyraiders." Stockdale, who flew an F-8 Crusader on this mission, told the munitions guys he wanted eight “zoonies” each side, and no defensive weapons. A “zoonie” is Navy slang for small unguided rockets, used for suppression fire from the air. He knew the North Vietnamese were not ready for this kind of attack, and would be completely surprised. He and his colleagues destroyed 95 percent of the oil yards in what Stockdale termed “North Vietnam's Pearl Harbor,” and America's direct involvement in the war was full speed ahead. In addition to Stockdale's assault, other aircraft from the Ticonderoga and USS Constellation attacked patrol boats and associated facilities at Hon Gam Loc Chao, Phuc Loi and Quang Khe, and the Vinh oil storage area was attacked a second time.
Admiral Stockdale has been very vocal about these missions, during interviews and in books. We recommend you assess his renditions of the Gulf of Tonkin fighting during this period. He's quite resolute in what he saw.
The Ticonderoga returned to California in December 1964 and in January 1965 began a five month overhaul. Stockdale relinquished command of VF-51 in November 1964. Five months later he was ordered Stockdale was ordered to the USS Oriskany, CVA-34, with Carrier Air Group 16 embarked. He took command of the air group, taking the sought after title of CAG. Unlike his time with the Ticonderoga, which began as a training mission, the Oriskany was on a full combat cruise bound for Yankee Station (Gulf of Tonkin, off coast of North Vietnam) to begin support of the Operation Rolling Thunder attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Stockdale described the CAG job this way:
“Air Group Commander. He owns all the airplanes, flies them all, they're all his. Of course, he obeys the captain of the ship, but everything with wings on it belongs to him. There were about 70 or 80 airplanes and there were about 1,000 men and 100 pilots. I had an F-8 Marine squadron and an F-8 Navy squadron.”
While he did not say so during this particular conversation, our research says that by the time of the Vietnam War, all carrier wings had at least two A-4 Skyhawk squadrons assigned. Air Group 16 did a lot of flying during the period May 10 through December 6, 1965, flying over 12,000 combat sorties over Vietnam, delivering nearly 10,000 tons of ordnance against enemy forces.
The Oriskany left the region in December 1965, but without Commander Stockdale. He was shot down and captured on September 9, 1965, while flying an A-4 Skyhawk on his 202nd mission into North Vietnam.
This is aviation art done by Nicholas Trudgian, entitled, "Alfa Strike." Squadron VA-163 was stationed aboard the carrier Oriskany on its second cruise, the squadron's A-4 Skyhawks were led by Commander Wynn Foster, one of the Navy's most aggressive strike leaders, and under Air Wing Commander James Stockdale, the A-4 pilots racked up a formidable record as a top fighting unit. This particular art shows Wynn Foster leading a typical ground attack near Haiphong in June 1966. Zigzagging out of the target area at low level, the A-4 Skyhawks are going flat out just a few feet above the coastal landscape of North Vietnam, close to the border with China. This print is signed by both Commander Foster and Admiral Stockdale. Foster was Stockdale's wingman when Stockdale was shot down and captured. Presented by Aviation Art Hangar.
While he said he flew all the aircraft under his command, his flight on this day aboard the A-4 is most telling of this officer's character and leadership.
Commander Stockdale was told by Marine Corps Major Ed Rutty that the A-4s were taking a beating flying over the Than Hoa Bridge, losing two A-4s for every F-8 over the preceding few weeks. This bridge, also known as the “Dragon's Jaws,” would survive countless attacks over many years, and its defenses would cause the loss of many, many US airmen. Knowing the problems at this early stage with the A-4s, Stockdale said:
“For this last flight before we go into Hong Kong I want you (Lt. Col. Chuck Loudon, commander VMF-212) to take all your F-8s, and I'm not going to be in an F-8. I'm going to be back leading six A-4s in flak suppression. I'll go ahead of them and bomb and shoot the gunner, see."
This is a photo taken from an A-4 Skyhawk as an A-4 from the USS Oriskany attacks an enemy target in North Vietnam in September 1967. The target is the Phuong Dinh railroad bypass bridge, six miles north of Thanh Hoa, North Vietnam. While this is not exactly what Commander Stockdale did, it gives you a pretty good idea of what it might have been like as he pulled away from his target after dropping his bombs. Official U.S. Navy photo by LCDR Jerry Breast, USN.
A search plane flew ahead of the pack to report the weather at the bridge. He reported “zero-zero at the bridge.” Stockdale, with his wingman Commander Wynn Foster, circled the Gulf of Tonkin while another strike element searched for a surface-to-air-missiles (SAM) site. If they had found it, Stockdale and Wynn were to join in on the attack. The SAM site could not be found, so they decided to go after another target, a railroad yard near the city of Than Hoa. Once again, Stockdale came in low, he dropped his load, and later described the scene this way:
“The cockpit is no wider than that and it's very noisy inside but I looked right there and I saw that damn plane and I thought 'There's my Armageddon.' And it was fire balls coming at me one after the other. And then now everything is out. The engine is shot up, the hydraulics are gone, and I've just got to get out of the airplane and I did. I didn't have my lip mike on. I had to get it up and say, 'I'm going to eject.'”
He did, and everything else is history for 7 and one-half years in a North Vietnamese prison. Stockdale was the senior officer lost and captured at the time, and the North Vietnamese knew it.
This is a photo of an A-4 Skyhawk's cockpit, described by Stockdale as a "cockpit no wider than that." Cdr. Jack Woodul has talked of shoehorning oneself into it. The ejection seart shot straight upward. A Photo credit: John Pearson, taken at Pensacola. Presented by War Birds In Scale.
Speaking to the student body of the Marine Amphibious Warfare School at Quantico, Virginia, in April 18, 1995. Stockdale said this about his shootdown, capture and the imprisonment that would follow:
“I was Wing commander of the carrier Oriskany on its 1965 cruise. One of our fighter squadrons was transitioning from F8 Crusaders to F4s. The gap was filled by the Marine F8 squadron. The skipper was Lieutenant Colonel Chuck Loudon, the Executive Officer was Major Ed Rutty, former Blue Angel. And my wingman in the squadron was a first lieutenant named Duane Wills (later a lieutenant general and head of Marine Cows Aviation). I spent 7 and one-half years in prison with my shipmate Marine Captain Harley Chapman, who was shot down two months after I was. So I'm in familiar territory, and damned glad to have spent 37 years in the Naval Service with the likes of guys like you.”
We'll summarize by saying that he was tortured beyond belief, he sacrificed beyond imagination, and he successfully resisted his enemy. Perhaps most important, as the Senior Ranking Officer (SRO) in the prison camp, he provided his fellow prisoners with a brand of leadership that few men will ever know, and all who served under him will cherish forever.
His fellow prisoners also made similar sacrifices and by their example provided similar leadership. Many died at the hands of the North Vietnamese torture chambermaids, many in a device known as “the ropes.” Stockdale has said:
“I didn't feel like I had more vitality than the next one. I was alone a lot, and I found way to talk to myself and to bolster my own morale.”
In prison, at the hands of his North Vietnamese butchers, Stockdale invented a program to deface himself, smashing his head, slicing his face, and finally slicing his wrists to be found by his guards lying in his own pool of blood. He created a problem for his captors for which they were not ready. His captors wanted to parade him before the cameras, but could not because of the obvious damage done to his persona. After many years in the hands of these North Vietnamese vultures, his captors finally backed away. Stockdale had defeated them. He knew it. They knew it. All his fellow POWs knew it.
Recall what he learned while at Stanford: Stockdale, while in prison, controlled what he could control and worked not to think about what he could not control. He, like other prisoners not familiar with this philosophy, invented procedures to survive. His were patterned after the Stoicism of the ancient philosopher, Epictetus, a philosopher whose teachings passed through Stockdale's mind about 30 seconds before his chute hit the ground and he was captured:
"The time interval between my finishing graduate school and becoming a prisoner was almost exactly three years, September 1962 to September 1965. That was a very eventful period in my life. I started a war (led the first-ever American bombing raid on North Vietnam), led good men in about 150 aerial combat missions in flak, and throughout three 7-month cruises to Vietnam I had not only the Enchiridion, but the Discourses on my bedside table on each of the three aircraft carriers I flew from. And I read them. On the 9th of September 1965, I flew right into a flak trap, at tree-top level, 500 knots, in a little A-4 airplane, cockpit walls not even three feet apart, which I couldn't steer after it was on fire, control system shot out. After ejection I had about 30 seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed on the main street of that little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: 'Five years down there at least. I'm leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.'”
"I'm entering the world of Epictetus." What might that mean?
Paul Christopher, in 2001 the Berkshire Head of School in Sheffield, Massachusetts, spoke to his students to discuss, "Who are you, really?" In that talk, he highlighted what he knew about Stockdale and his imprisonment, and he made reference to Stockdale's philosophy teacher at Stanford, Philip Rhinelander:
"What Professor Rhinelander wanted Stockdale to learn from Epictetus is that the only things that are truly valuable in your life, are those things that others can never take away from you. When Stockdale hit the eject button on his fighter plane, all the things he had treasured in his life up to that point were left behind. The thin veneer of culture in which each of us cloaks ourself, all our grand trappings, our wealth, our social status, our titles, our degrees, our investments, the prestige or power we have over other, all these things can quickly disappear; and if they do, who is left? Who is really there when the paper-thin veneer of culture is peeled away?...The linkage of men's character, reputation, and integrity is exposed in glaring detail as soon as the thin veneer of society is peeled away ... Stockdale (said) that those prisoners who had a strong conception of who they were, those with integrity who were comfortable with their self-image, those with character, were able to survive the brutality of a prisoner of war camp because their values were core qualities that no amount of abuse or torture or pain could ever take away."
"(Mental toughness) is at the heart of what it takes to succeed at the Naval Academy. Mental toughness, or discipline, is an acquired habit. It can be taught, and learned, through repetition. It eventually becomes a way of life. It certainly did at the Academy. To my mind, the best example of that is Jim Stockdale ... He once said in an article that Plebe Year at the Naval Academy was the only thing that got him through the POW experience. That's mental toughness."
“Stockdale took hits that would have come to us. He was a leader. If they were going to try to get information, they would try to get it from him.”
"He was decisive and he was stalwart. In the end analysis, they failed to break him permanently and they knew it. He won his fight and they lost theirs. (He) was an inspiration to every POW, and he is directly responsible for as many of us as did get back. He demonstrated a course of conduct and resistance for all of us. We learned from him the valuable lesson that once they break you, you need to get back up on your feet and every time they try to break you, you have to acknowledge the defeat and get on with the business of resisting.
"There were small numbers of POWs that didn't conduct themselves properly. That conduct included isolating themselves from the rest of the POW community while they accepted...treament that was an improvement over what the rest of community was receiving. Rather than criticize and isolate them further, he wanted us all to understand that while they had made a serious mistake, he wanted them back in the community...his insistence was for a united front toward the enemy."
"That, I think, is sort of his style of leadership. He saw our role as something more than just a bunch of individuals doing one thing and perhaps another bunch doing another thing and he didn't want those differences to interfere with the overall cause of getting us home - as many as possible."
"I had been tortured and was in bad shape. Jim Stockdale was two or three cells down from me...he risked a lot calling out, asking who I was. He offered me a lot of courage, and instilled in me the will to resist. He was a brilliant man. He was very philosophical and he demonstrated what I would call an ideal of intellect, bravery, honor, courage and love of country. He was an inspiration, the driving force and inspiration for the conduct of all of the prisoners of war in North Vietnam. The loss of Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale is a tremendous loss to the nation. We have lost a giant of a patriotic American, a uniquely effective leader, and a patriot of the highest order."
“Jim Stockdale and Robbie Risner are the SROs (Senior Ranking Officers). Their rules are: communicate at all costs; when they get around to torturing you, hold out as long as you can, bounce back and make them do it all over again; don’t despair when they break you, they have broken all of us; pray."
As an amusing aside, Stratton did not attend the Naval Academy, but instead Georgetown University. He became a naval aviator through the naval aviation cadet program, called the "NavCads." He affectionately called the Annapolis grads, "Boat School Boys," of BSBs. He was also one of those guys who just wanted to fly, and had little interest in being an officer. He saw differences between NavCads and officers, describing those this way:
"NavCads ran out to the obstacle course; officers rode out and back in a cattle car. NavCads formed up for church call on Sunday while the officers drove by, shooting us the Hawaiian peace sign, to pick off all the best looking girls at Pensacola Beach. The officers got to go to the O’Club and watch pretty girls at the pool and drink Bloody Marys; the NavCads got to go across the street to the ACRAC (Aviation Cadet Recreation and Athletic Club)—a primitive but welcome beer hall. NavCads got to wash aircraft while the officers lounged around. NavCads got to man fire bottles while the officers started their engines. NavCads took the leftovers while the officers got the prime flight times and first shots at available aircraft. Not complaining mind you; just a fact of life registering more because they were no better or no worse an aviator than you were."
In a more serious vein, Stratton had enormous admiration for the BSB, saying this:
"It did not take me long in Hanoi to discover that the BSB were in a class all by themselves. Indeed my first life saving contact was with Paul Galanti, BSB extraordinaire (shown here). At great risk to life and limb, you would try to communicate. The purposes of communication were to formulate resistance plans, escape plans, resistance to enemy propaganda ploys, names of downed and imprisoned Americans and their allies, set up the chain of command, establish our rules of the road, build morale, and basically, to screw the VC in any way that we could think of. We had our own war to fight and we could not figure it without communication. The last thing you needed when you started to set up a communication net or pass the word was to have some overly educated jackass try to debate with you the theology and philosophy of what you were trying to do, especially when you were tapping. Some guys wanted convincing, others wanted it to be fair, still others thought it was too something (dangerous, frivolous, demeaning, childish, hard, soft, etc., etc.). You don’t know what a thrill it was to find that on the other side of the wall you had a BSB. He would get it right the first time around. You would get no guff.
"All of the lessons that Mother Bancroft taught her sons, many of which did not have the approval of the Academic Committee, were played out on the VC. A BSB, during a filmed propaganda session, blinked out 'torture' in Morse code. A BSB is on the cover of Life magazine showing an inverted Hawaiian peace sign (Life airbrushed the fingers out lest their customers be scandalized). A BSB, seriously injured and on a stretcher, refused the offer of an early release at a time when our own internal policy for release would have let him go with honor. The stories of the sons of Mother Bancroft go on and on. But BSBs were lifesavers through unflinching leadership and inspiration through example to me. I came out of the prison experience vowing to become a part of the BSB system, which was certainly a change from all of my earlier NavCad and junior officer carping. And indeed, my Navy twilight tour was within the USNA system."
Stockdale was released from captivity in 1973 along with the other POWs with whom he served.
An officer now in Iraq, known as “Major E.,” wrote this about Stockdale from Camp Victory in Baghdad in July 2005:
“I was sad to read of the passing of a truly great American patriot--Admiral Stockdale. I remember that as a service academy cadet, I studied his example from years in captivity during the Vietnam War. Stockdale is still used as the model for resistance efforts when captured, based on his heroism and defiance of the North Vietnamese while he spent years in captivity. Ask any soldier, sailor, airman or marine to name the person who best personifies the Servicemember's Code of Conduct, and he or she will likely say 'Stockdale.'"
Following his release, Stockdale received the Medal of Honor from President Ford and became the commander, Anti-Submarine Warfare Wing, US Pacific Fleet. Three heroic giants of our generation received the medal of honor at the White House at that time, March 6, 1976: Admiral Stockdale, Air Force Colonel George E. "Bud" Day, also a POW, and posthumously, Air Force Captain Lance Peter Sijan; who died at the "Hanoi Hilton" North Vietnamese prison camp.
Studying any one of these heroes will embed chills in your spine for some time to come
In 1977, Stockdale became the president of the Naval War College. He retired in 1979 at the rank of vice admiral (three stars). He became the president of The Citadel in 1979, resigned in 1980 and joined the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. He also served as chairman of the President's Commission on White House Fellowships, and shaped the program.
Professor Robert Marbut, Jr. was selected in 1989 to serve as a White House Fellow. He commented this way about Stockdale's chairmanship:
“He really grew the program. Admiral Stockdale added prestige to the program. He was a consummate teacher. I was the benefactor of his leadership.”
“The 'CAG' was the last of a breed and one of the great bargains Uncle Sam received in exchange for his Annapolis education.”
This is surely a most appropriate tribute. That said, we suspect the admiral might quibble with it. He once noted:
"People sometimes ask me, `How did you live through all that stress and punishment? Was it the Boy Scouts, was it football, was it this or that? And I say, yes . . . but probably the most important asset I had going in there was all that acting. I had one interrogator that was with me for 3 1/2 years (say), `You know, I look back and realize the only thing I ever did was just furnish you a stage on which to perform. ' "
That was James B. Stockdale of Abingdon, Illinois, son of Vernon and Mabel. He beat 'em. They knew it. He knew it. Now you know it.
Fair winds and following seas, Admiral Stockdale.
A Navy honor guard carries the casket of Retired Vice Adm. James Stockdale past a row of F-18 jets on the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan during a memorial service for Stockdale held Saturday, July 16, 2005, in San Diego. Photo credit: Denis Poroy, AP
A Belated Tribute and Apology to A Hero: Adm. Jim Stockdale