Today we want to honor United States Navy Veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale. Stockdale began his 33-year Navy career at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in June of 1943. After completing training, he spent a few years bouncing from ship to ship, before being accepted into flight training in June of 1949 at Naval Air Station Pensacola. After Pensacola, he was sent to Corpus Christi and then Norfolk for additional flight training. In 1954, he was sent to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland to complete Naval Test Pilot school. He then spent a few years as a Test Pilot, before he was sent to Stanford University, where he gained a Master of Arts degree in international relations.
With all of this education under his belt, Stockdale finally got a chance to put it to use when he was sent to Vietnam. He spent some time leading attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin, flying from the deck of the USS Ticonderoga CVA-14. On the night of Aug. 4th, Stockdale was flying overhead when the second attack was reported in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was later thought that there were no actual Vietnamese forces engaged in the battle that night. The next morning, President Johnson ordered bombing raids in retaliation for the attack. Stockdale was later quoted as saying,
“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.”
On the 9th of September, 1965, Stockdale was flying a mission from the USS Oriskany, when his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk was struck by enemy fire. The plane was badly damaged and descending quickly. Stockdale pulled his parachute and ejected from the plane, landing in a small village nearby. He was badly beaten by the villagers and was then taken to the Hoa Lo Prison, otherwise known as the Hanoi Hilton. As the highest-ranking Naval officer held in Hanoi, Stockdale quickly became one of the leaders in trying to form plans to escape the prison and in the meantime, create a code of conduct for the other prisoners. Stockdale was denied medical attention from his injuries attained in the ejection from his plane and was repeatedly tortured and starved. In 1967, Stockdale and a group of 11 other Americans, what came to be known as the “Alcatraz Gang”, were sent to a separate prison where they were shackled at the ankles and kept alone in a concrete cell measuring 3 by 9 feet. Their captors even kept a light on in their cell 24/7 to torture the men even further. They were kept in this environment for two years, all while enduring countless tortures.
Due to his high rank, his captors wanted to parade him around in public as a form of propaganda. Stockdale refused to be used to their advantage, and even turned to disfiguring himself by cutting his scalp with a razor and beating his own face with a stool beyond recognition. When he had been tortured countless times and heard that he was to be used for a propaganda film, Stockdale could not let it continue. He dragged himself to the window of the room he was being tortured in, smashed the glass out, and cut his wrist in a last-ditch effort to resist his captors. In his Medal of Honor Citation, it reads that, “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.”
Stockdale spent over 7 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, before he was released as a part of Operation Homecoming in 1973. During torture, his legs were badly broken at least twice, and when he returned to the US he could barely walk or stand upright. Later, when Stockdale was asked which men were the ones that didn’t make it out, he responded,
“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. 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.”
James Stockdale received the Medal of Honor in 1976 and proceeded to serve in the Navy until he retired in 1979 as a Vice Admiral. He then went on to serve as the Vice President nominee alongside presidential candidate Ross Perot in the 1992 election. Stockdale passed away in 2005, and is now buried at the United States Naval Academy Cemetery. There have been many Navy structures named after the hero, including the USS Stockdale DDG-106.
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