Defiant Prisoner of War

September/October 2005

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Defiant Prisoner of War

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When his A-4 Skyhawk was shot down over North Vietnam on September 9, 1965, James Stockdale ejected and parachuted to the ground. The North Vietnamese whisked him to Hoa Lo Prison, known as the Hanoi Hilton, where he was kept in isolation for six months. During the next 7½ years, Stockdale, the highest-ranking naval officer captured during the Vietnam War, was tortured repeatedly and kept for four years in solitary confinement. Inspired by the teachings of philosophers he had studied at Stanford, Stockdale defied every attempt by his captors to pry information or use him as propaganda.

Years later, as Stockdale prepared to join his friend H. Ross Perot in a third-party bid for the White House, he drew again on the teachings of Epictetus and the Stoics for strength. “But what will people think of you?” several friends worried. “That is not important,” Stockdale replied. “It’s what you think of yourself that is important.”

A retired vice admiral, former Hoover Institution fellow, 1992 vice presidential candidate and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, Stockdale died July 5 at his home in Coronado, Calif., after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 81.

Born in Abingdon, Ill., Stockdale was the only child of a schoolteacher and an executive at a china factory. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1947 and wed his wife, Sybil, the same year. Stockdale rose quickly through the Navy’s ranks, becoming a jet pilot and test pilot before earning his master’s in international relations from Stanford in 1962. As commander of a fighter squadron, he led the first American air strike into North Vietnam in 1964. One year and 201 missions later, Stockdale found himself a prisoner of war.

Stockdale sought to provide an example for other prisoners to emulate, calling on his fellow POWs to disobey their captors at every turn. He devised a system for communicating with other captives by tapping codes on the prison walls. In 1969, rather than be displayed to foreign journalists in a manner that would make it appear the POWs were being treated humanely, Stockdale cut and smashed his face. On another occasion, he slit his wrists with broken glass to prove he preferred death to submission.

“Jim studied philosophy with Phil Rhinelander and he credited what he learned as the key to his surviving the ordeal of the prison,” recalls friend Richard Burress, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. “He had absolutely no bitterness toward the people that tortured him. He just put that out of his thinking and life.”

After retiring from the military in 1979, Stockdale served as president of The Citadel for two years. In 1981, he became a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Stockdale, a Republican, leapt into politics in 1992 as Perot’s running mate. His rhetorical questions at the beginning of a nationally televised debate—“Who am I? Why am I here?”—were lost on the television audience and provoked jokes from late night comedians. Stockdale later admitted he was an unlikely politician. He and Perot received 19 percent of the popular vote.

In 1984, Stockdale and his wife published a memoir, In Love and War. Three years later, more than 45 million people viewed a television movie version of their story.

Stockdale is survived by Sybil, MA ’59; sons James, Sidney, Stanford and Taylor; and eight grandchildren.

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