Admiral James Bond Stockdale (December 23, 1923 – July 5, 2005):
Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale (December
23, 1923 – July 5, 2005) was one of the most highly decorated officers in the
history of the United States Navy.
Stockdale led aerial attacks from the carrier USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) during
the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident. On his next deployment, while Commander of
Carrier Air Wing 16 aboard the carrier USS Oriskany (CV-34), he was shot down
over enemy territory on September 9, 1965. Stockdale was the highest-ranking
naval officer held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was awarded 26
personal combat decorations, including the Medal of Honor and four Silver
Stars. During the late 1970s, he served as President of the Naval War
Stockdale was candidate for Vice President of the United States in the 1992
presidential election, on Ross Perot's independent ticket.
Early life and career
Stockdale was born in Abingdon, Illinois and, following a brief period at Monmouth
College (1946), he attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis,
Maryland from which he graduated with the class of 1947 (which was in 1946
due to the reduced schedule still in effect from World War II). Stockdale had
promised his father that he would try to become the best midshipman at the
Naval Academy. Concerning his time at the Naval Academy, he would later say
"Plebe year of education under stress was of great personal survival
value to me."
Shortly after graduating, Stockdale reported to Naval Air Station Pensacola,
in Florida, for flight training. In 1954, Stockdale was accepted into the
United States Naval Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River
base in Southern Maryland. It was there that he tutored a young Marine
aviator named John Glenn in math and physics. In 1959 the Navy sent Stockdale
to Stanford University where he received a masters degree in International
Relations and Marxist Theory. Stockdale preferred the life of a fighter pilot
over academia, but later credited Stoic philosophy with helping him cope as a
Gulf of Tonkin Incident
On 2 August 1964, while on a DESOTO patrol in the Tonkin Gulf, the destroyer
USS Maddox (DD-731) engaged 3 North Vietnamese Navy P-4 torpedo boats from
the 135th Torpedo Squadron, commanded by Le Duy Khoai. After fighting a
running gun and torpedo battle, in which the Maddox fired over 280 5-inch
shells, and the torpedo boats expended their 6 torpedoes (all misses) and
hundreds of rounds of 14.5mm machinegun fire; the combatants broke contact.
As the torpedo boats turned for their North Vietnamese coastline, four F-8
Crusader jet fighter bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga
(CV-14) arrived, and immediately attacked the retreating torpedo boats. Commander
James Stockdale and LTJG. Richard Hastings attacked torpedo boats T-333 and
T-336, while Commander R. F. Mohrhardt and Lt. Commander C. E. Southwick
attacked torpedo boat T-339. The four pilots reported scoring no hits with
their Zuni rockets, but reported hits on all three torpedo boats with their
On August 4, 1964, Squadron Commander Stockdale was, again, one of the US
pilots flying overhead during the second attack which occurred in the Tonkin
Gulf; unlike the first attack, which was an actual sea battle, this second
naval engagement is believed to have been a false alarm. In the early 1990s,
he recounted: "[I] had the best seat in the house to watch that event,
and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets - there were no PT
boats there.... There was nothing there but black water and American fire
power." Stockdale said his superiors ordered him to keep quiet about
this. After he was captured, this knowledge threw a burden upon him. He later
said he was concerned that his captors would eventually force him to reveal
that he knew this secret about the Vietnam War.
Prisoner of war
On a mission over North Vietnam on September 9, 1965, Stockdale ejected from
his A-4E Skyhawk, which had been disabled from friendly fire after the
mechanical malfunction of his wing-man's ordanance. Stockdale ejected and
parachuted into a small village, where he was severely beaten and taken into
He was held as a prisoner of war in the Hoa Lo prison for the next seven
years. Locked in leg irons in a bath stall, he was 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, Stockdale beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond
recognition. He told them in no uncertain terms that they would never use
him. When Stockdale was discovered with information that could implicate his
friends' 'black activities', he slit his wrists so they could not torture him
Little did Stockdale know that the actions of his wife, Mrs. Sybil Stockdale,
had a tremendous impact on the North Vietnamese. Early in her husband's
captivity she organized The League of American Families of POWs and MIAs,
with other wives of servicemen who were in similar circumstance. 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 they had
never done even though they had evidence of gross mistreatment), was finally
getting the attention of the American press and consequently the attention of
the North Vietnamese. Mrs. Stockdale personally made these demands known at
the Paris Peace Talks and private comments made to her by the head of the
Vietnamese delegation there indicated concern that her organization might
catch the attention of the American public, something the North Vietnamese
knew could turn the tide against them. The result could not have been more
fortunate for James Stockdale at the very time he slit his wrists.
Stockdale was part of a group of about a 11 prisoners known as the
"Alcatraz Gang": George Thomas Coker, George McKnight, Jeremiah
Denton, Harry Jenkins, Sam Johnson, James Mulligan, Howard Rutledge, Robert
Shumaker, Ronald Storz and Nels Tanner; which was separated from other
captives and placed in solitary confinement for their leadership in resisting
their captors. "Alcatraz" was 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 11 men were kept in
solitary confinement, where cells measured 3 feet by 9 feet that had a light bulb
kept on around the clock and they were locked each night in irons by a guard.
In a business book by James C. Collins called Good to Great, Collins writes
about a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy
during his period in the Vietnamese POW camp.
"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
When Collins asked who didn't make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:
"Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're
going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would
go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would
come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be
Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart."
Stockdale then added:
"This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you
will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose - with the
discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality,
whatever they might be.”
Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it as the
Return to the United States
Stockdale was released as a prisoner of war on February 12, 1973. His
shoulders had been wrenched from their sockets, his leg shattered by angry
villagers and a torturer, and his back broken. But he had refused to
He received the Medal of Honor in 1976. Stockdale filed charges against two
other officers who, he felt, had given aid and comfort to the enemy. However,
the Navy Department under the leadership of then-Secretary of the Navy John
Warner took no action and merely retired these men "in the best
interests of the Navy."
Debilitated by his captivity and mistreatment, Stockdale could hardly walk or
even stand upright upon his return to the United States, which prevented his
return to active flying status. Out of respect for his courage, and out of
high regard for his intellect, the Navy kept him on the active list, steadily
promoting him over the next few years before permitting him to retire as a
Vice Admiral. He completed his career by serving as President of the Naval
War College, from October 13, 1977, until August 22, 1979.
Civilian academic career and writings
After his retirement in 1979, he became the President of The Citadel, The
Military College of South Carolina. His tenure there was short and stormy as
he found himself at odds with the college's board as well as most of its
administration, by proposing changes to the college's military system and
other facets of the college, including the curbing of student hazing. He left
The Citadel to become a fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford
University in 1981.
During the following two decades, Stockdale wrote a number of books both on
his experiences during the Vietnam War and afterwards. In Love and War: the
Story of a Family's Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam War was
co-written with his wife Sybil and published in 1984. It includes several
letters sent between the Stockdales while he was a captured POW. It was later
made into an NBC television movie, watched by 45 million people.
Admiral Stockdale was a member of the board of directors of the Rockford
Institute, and was a frequent contributor to Chronicles: A magazine of
Stockdale came to know businessman and presidential candidate H. Ross Perot
through Sybil Stockdale's work in establishing an organization to represent
the families of Vietnam POWs. On March 30, 1992, Ross Perot announced that he
had asked Stockdale to be his provisional Vice Presidential nominee Vice
President on the 1992 Reform Party ticket at a news conference at the Loews
Annapolis Hotel in Annapolis, Maryland.
Perot eventually re-entered the race in the fall of 1992, with Stockdale
still in place as the vice-presidential nominee. Stockdale was not informed that
he would be participating in the October 13 vice-presidential debate held in
Atlanta, Georgia, until a week before the event. He had no formal preparation
for the debate, unlike his opponents Al Gore and Dan Quayle. Stockdale
infamously opened the debate by saying, "Who am I? Why am I here?"
Initially, the rhetorical questions drew applause from the audience, seeming
to be a good-natured acknowledgment of his relatively unknown status and lack
of traditional qualifications. However, his unfocused style for the rest of
the debate (including asking the moderator to repeat one question because he
didn't have his hearing aid turned on) made him appear confused and almost
disoriented. An unflattering recreation of the moment on Saturday Night Live
later that week, with Phil Hartman as Stockdale, cemented a public perception
of Stockdale as slow-witted. He was also often parodied for his repeated use
of the word "gridlock" to describe slow governmental policy.
As his introduction to the large segment of American voters who had not
previously heard of him, the debate was disastrous for Stockdale. He was
portrayed in the media as elderly and confused, and his reputation never
recovered. In a 1999 interview with Jim Lehrer, Stockdale explained that the
statements were intended as an introduction of him and his record to the
It was terribly frustrating because I remember I started with, "Who am
I? Why am I here?" and I never got back to that because there was never
an opportunity for me to explain my life to people. It was so different from
Quayle and Gore. The four years in solitary confinement in Vietnam,
seven-and-a-half years in prisons, drop the first bomb that started the ...
American bombing raid in the North Vietnam. We blew the oil storage tanks of
them off the map. And I never - I couldn't approach - I don't say it just to
brag, but, I mean, my sensitivities are completely different.
Perot and Stockdale received 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential
election, one of the best showings by an independent ticket in US electoral
history, although they did not carry any states.
Stockdale retired to Coronado, California, as he slowly succumbed to
Alzheimer's disease. He died from the illness on July 5, 2005. Stockdale's
funeral service was held at the Naval Academy Chapel and he was buried at the
United States Naval Academy Cemetery.
In January 2006, the Navy announced that the USS Stockdale (DDG-106), an
Arleigh Burke–class guided missile destroyer, would be named for him. It was
christened on May 10, 2008 in a ceremony at Bath Iron Works. The ship was
Commissioned in Port Hueneme, Calif. on April 18, 2009, and will be
homeported at Naval Station San Diego, Calif.
On August 30, 2007, the newly built main gate at Naval Air Station North
Island in Coronado, California, was inaugurated and named after Vice Admiral
The headquarters building for the Pacific Fleet's Survival, Evasion,
Resistance and Escape (SERE) school at NAS North Island was also named in his
In July 2008, a statue of him was erected at the Southeast entrance of Luce
Hall (Naval Academy), which houses the Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Center
for Ethical Leadership.
A luxury suite at the Loews Annapolis Hotel, the hotel where Perot announced
his candidacy, was named in Stockdale's honor.
1992 election for U.S. President/Vice President - popular vote share
Clinton/Gore (D), 43.0% (370 Electoral Votes)
Bush/Quayle (R), 37.7% (168 Electoral Votes)
Perot/Stockdale (I), 18.9% (0 Electoral Votes)
from the DDG-106 homepage:
On September 9, 1965, then-Commander Stockdale catapulted his A-4E Skyhawk
off the flight deck of the U.S.S. Oriskany on what turned out to be his final
mission over North Vietnam . Approaching his target, his plane was riddled
with anti-aircraft fire. Within seconds, his engine was aflame and all
hydraulic control was gone. He "punched out," watching his plane
slam into a rice paddy and explode in a fireball. Stockdale himself best
describes what happened next:
"As I ejected from the plane I broke a bone in my back, but that was
only the beginning. I landed in the streets of a small village. A thundering
herd was coming down on me. They were going to defend the honor of their
town. It was the quarterback sack of the century."
They tore off his clothes and beat him mercilessly. Stockdale suffered a
broken leg and paralyzed arm before a military policeman took him into
custody. He was now a prisoner of war, the highest ranking naval officer to
be held as a POW in Vietnam.
Stockdale wound up in Hoa Lo Prison - the infamous " Hanoi Hilton"
-- where he spent the next seven and a half years under unimaginably brutal
conditions. He was physically tortured no fewer than 15 times. Techniques
included beatings, whippings, and near-asphyxiation with ropes. Mental
torture was incessant. He was kept in solitary confinement, in total
darkness, for four years, chained in heavy, abrasive leg irons for two years,
malnourished due to a starvation diet, denied medical care, and deprived of
letters from home in violation of the Geneva Convention.
Through it all, Stockdale's captors held out the promise of better treatment
if he would only admit that the United States was engaging in criminal
behavior against the Vietnamese people, but Stockdale refused. Drawing
strength from principles of stoic philosophy, Stockdale heroically resisted.
His courage was an inspiration to his fellow POWs, with whom he communicated
in an ingenious code, maintaining unit cohesion and morale. His jailers
increased the level of torture, so Stockdale determined to fight back in the
only way he could.
Told that he was to be taken "downtown" and paraded in front of
foreign journalists, Stockdale slashed his scalp with a razor and beat
himself in the face with a wooden stool. He reasoned that his captors would
not dare display a prisoner who appeared to have been beaten. When he learned
that his fellow prisoners were dying under torture, he slashed his wrists to
show their captors that he preferred death to submission. Stockdale literally
gambled with his life, and won. 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. Upon his release in 1973,
Stockdale's extraordinary heroism became widely known, and he received the
Congressional 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.
Throughout Stockdale's captivity, his wife Sybil campaigned for respectful treatment
for the families of all POWs by founding the League of Families. Sybil
Stockdale was presented with the U.S. Navy Department's Distinguished Public
Service Award by the Chief of Naval Operations. She is the only wife of an
active-duty officer ever to be so honored.
After serving as the President of the Naval War College, Stockdale retired
from the Navy in 1978 and embarked on a distinguished academic career,
including a term as President of the Citadel, and 15 years as a Senior
Research Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. In 1992 he
graciously agreed to a request from his old friend H. Ross Perot to stand
with Perot as the vice presidential candidate of the Reform Party, and
throughout the campaign he comported himself with the same integrity and
dignity that marked his entire career. 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 in 2005.
Medal of Honor citation:
Rank and organization: Rear Admiral (then Captain), U.S. Navy.
Place and date: Hoa Lo prison, Hanoi, North Vietnam, 4 September 1969.
Entered service at: Abingdon, Illinois.
Born: 23 December 1923, Abingdon, Illinois.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and
beyond the call of duty while senior naval officer in the Prisoner of War
camps of North Vietnam. Recognized by his captors as the leader in the
Prisoners' of War resistance to interrogation and in their refusal to
participate in propaganda exploitation, Rear Adm. Stockdale was singled out
for interrogation and attendant torture after he was detected in a covert
communications attempt. Sensing the start of another purge, and aware that
his earlier efforts at self-disfiguration to dissuade his captors from
exploiting him for propaganda purposes had resulted in cruel and agonizing
punishment, Rear Adm. Stockdale resolved to make himself a symbol of
resistance regardless of personal sacrifice. He 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 in their employment of excessive harassment and
torture toward all of the Prisoners of War. By his heroic action, at great
peril to himself, he earned the everlasting gratitude of his fellow prisoners
and of his country. Rear Adm. Stockdale's valiant leadership and
extraordinary courage in a hostile environment sustain and enhance the finest
traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.