Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale was an extraordinary man. He not only weathered over seven brutal years as a prisoner of war (POW) at the infamous Hanoi Hotel in Vietnam, but recently declassified information reveals that this brave and unflagging war hero also led the POWs there and even ran a successful espionage operation together with the CIA and his wife, Sybil Stockdale.
This incredible story was told in the Smithsonian Channel's “The Spy in the Hanoi Hilton Documentary.” There is more to his story, though, than meets the eye. Underlying that bravery was a steady sense of stoicism that saw him through some of the worst days imaginable.
Early Education and the Discovery of Stoicism
Vice Admiral James Stockdale entered the world just two days before Christmas on December 23, 1923 in Abingdon, Illinois. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1947 and reported for flight training in Pensacola, Florida. By 1954 Stockdale had earned his wings and was accepted by the Navy Test Pilot School program, where he did so well that he also became an instructor. Next, the Navy sent him to Stanford University, where he earned a Master’s Degree in International Relations in 1962.
This proved to be a seminal time for him. While there, Stockdale studied philosophy with the dean, Philip Rhinelander, who pulled out a copy of Epictetus the Stoic's Enchiridion, or "handbook" of Stoicism. Stockdale was immediately drawn to this work, and would keep Epictetus's Discourses, as well as works by Plato, Xenophon and Homer on his nightstand as he lived on aircraft carriers for three years. During this time, Stockdate continued to fly, racking up over 1,000 hours in the F-8U Crusader, the Navy’s hottest fighter of the time, and catapulting himself to fame as the first to amass such a large number of hours. The early part of the 1960s saw him at the height of his career, commanding a Navy fighter squadron.
Then came the rumblings of war. Stockdale was involved in a key position in the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, a spark plug event that the Johnson administration leveraged to justify larger military action in Vietnam. Even though he continued to profess that he had not seen enemy vessels during that time, Stockdale received orders the very next morning on August 6th to lead the first raid of the war on North Vietnamese oil refineries. He performed about 150 combat missions through flak over North Vietnam; he calmly called them “cruises.”
Entering the World of Epictetus
September 9, 1965 proved to be a fateful day for Stockdale. In what ended up being his final mission, the forty-one year old Commanding Officer, VF51 and Carrier Air Group Commander (CAG-16), was returning from the target area when his A-4 Skyhawk was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Many years later, he told the story to Navy cadets, relaying how he whispered to himself, "I'm leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus!"
Stockdate ejected from the plane, breaking a bone in his back and then dislocating his knee when he landed in a small village. This knee was never treated and never healed properly. Thus began his time as a prisoner of war, as he was taken to the “Hanoi Hilton,” Hoa Lo Prison. Stockdale was the highest ranking naval officer captured there, and he led the American resistance against Vietnamese efforts to propagandize the prisoners. Over the course of seven plus years, he faced dire conditions. He suffered in solitary confinement for four years, endured leg irons for two years and was physically tortured more than fifteen times. He was malnourished and did not receive medical care.
His Hand in History: Stockdale’s Time at the Hanoi Hilton
Yet he persevered, developing an effective and elusive tapping system of communication among the prisoners, and fashioning a successful code of laws to govern prisoner behavior. It was called BACK U.S. (Unity over Self), and it helped many prisoners survive by giving them a sense of hope and empowerment. He later wrote, "Our tapping ceased to be just an exchange of letters and words; it became conversation. Elation, sadness, humor, sarcasm, excitement, depression — all came through." Stockdale relied heavily on the stoicism of Epictetus’ writings, which were based on three important beliefs: tranquility, fearlessness and freedom. For Epictetus, the epitome of evil is not death, but fear of death. Stockdale assured prisoners it was ok if they were broken during torture; he urged them not to feel guilt because everyone has their breaking points. His goal was to survive with dignity. His teachings from The Enchiridion and his leadership proved crucial to the prisoners’ wellbeing.
In the spring of 1969, things came to a head when he was told he would be taken downtown and shown to foreign journalists. Stockdale disfigured himself to discourage his captors, slashing his scalp with a razor and using a wooden stool to smash his face. They were deterred from using him as propaganda. Then he went even further when he learned some prisoners had died from torture, and he slashed his wrists. The North Vietnamese realized he would die for his country, so they no longer tortured him. This change also rippled out to other American POWs, who consequently received better treatment.
Another critical factor helped protect him. The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia (founded by Stockdale’s wife) and H. Ross Perot (USNA 53)’s support, along with returned POW Seaman Doug Hegdahl’s debrief, helped convince the Nixon administration to publicly demand that POWs be treated humanely per the 1954 Geneva Accords.
In the end, Stockdale was imprisoned for seven and a half years, longer than fellow-captee and later best friend, John S. McCain. He was released in 1973 to a world that celebrated his heroism. In 1976 President Gerald Ford bestowed upon him The Medal of Honor, and Stockdale became one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the Navy. He earned 26 personal combat decorations, including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals, two Purple Hearts and four Silver Star medals. He was the only three-star admiral in the history of the Navy to wear both aviator wings and the Medal of Honor.
Creating a More Stoic and Ethical World
What became known as the “Stockdale Paradox” was a quote that Stockdale said after his time in captivity. Popularized by Jim Collin’s bestselling business book, Good to Great, it reads, “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.” He went on to note that optimists did not do well in their captivity. Their hope would die out when they weren’t rescued by Christmas, or the next Christmas. He credited a steely realism with helping him survive, along with the spontaneity and humor he learned from his mother’s local drama productions, the pain tolerance he learned as a high school and college football player and the promise he made to his father when he entered the Naval Academy—that he would be the best midshipman he could be.
Stockdale became President of the Naval War College and retired from the Navy in 1978. He then spent fifteen years as a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institute of War, Revolution and Peace; he authored a number of articles; published both A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection and Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot; received eleven honorary doctoral degrees and lectured on the stoicism of Epictetus. In 1984, Stockdale and his wife Sybil co-authored the book In Love and War, which recounts his experiences in Vietnam and her experiences founding the League of American Families of POWs and MIAs while she raised their four sons.
In 1979, the Secretary of the Navy established the Vice Admiral Stockdale Award for Inspirational Leadership, which is presented annually in both the Pacific and Atlantic fleet. He was a member of the Navy’s Carrier Hall of Fame and the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and an Honorary Fellow in the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. In 1992, Stockdale became the vice presidential candidate of the Reform Party at the behest of H. Ross Perot, even though he disliked the glare of publicity and partisan politics; yet he carried himself with grace and honor throughout.
On July 5, 2005, he passed away at the age of 81, leaving a tremendous legacy behind. Yet Stockdale’s story continues to inspire Naval Academy midshipmen today, and the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, established on the Yard in 1998 and renamed to honor him in 2006, steadfastly empowers leaders to make courageous ethical decisions. We are indebted to this Naval Academy graduate for his incredible sacrifices and we keep his memory alive always. Come visit the Yard and see the Center. When you shop at Navyonline and spend time on the Yard, you also continue his legacy of service to country, since all proceeds go back back to the Brigade. Help us to serve Vice Admiral Stockdale and the many distinguished graduates of USNA.