Story by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class David A. Cox
PACIFIC OCEAN – As a prisoner of war (POW) during the Vietnam War, Cmdr. James B. Stockdale was the epitome of fortitude and love of country. When his captors told him he was going to be used for propaganda, Stockdale slit his scalp with a razor, purposely disfiguring himself, so that his captors could not use him in a video. When they covered his head with a hat to try again, he beat his own face with a stool until it was swollen beyond recognition.
Stockdale was shot down in his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk Sept. 9, 1965, during an escalation of bombing raids and the beginning of open warfare against North Vietnam. After ejecting from the aircraft, he landed in a nearby village and was captured. For more than seven years, Stockdale endured mental and physical torture at the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” (Hoa Lo Prison). As the senior naval officer at the prison, Stockdale felt it his duty to coordinate the resistance to Vietnamese torture; he provided his fellow prisoners with a mission and a goal they could all work toward: to ‘Return with Honor.’
Routinely beaten and denied medical treatment for his severely injured leg, Stockdale spent four years in solitary confinement, locked in leg irons at night, with nothing but a concrete slab to sleep on. Whenever he had the opportunity, he unified and organized the other prisoners and ensured they used the code of conduct to govern their actions. He helped to spread secret communications known as the ‘Smitty Harris Tap Code’ among his fellow POWs.
Later, when his captors discovered Stockdale had information that could implicate his friends in activities the North Vietnamese deemed evil, Stockdale slit his own wrists so that they could not torture him into a confession.
“The crew knows Vice Adm. Stockdale’s story and the story of those who served alongside him in the prison system,” said USS Stockdale (DDG 106) Commanding Officer Cmdr. Sean T. Grunwell. “They know what the human mind is capable of, through their example. When we start to get down or think we have it difficult, we have a vivid reminder of what people before us have gone through. It keeps us focused on the mission.”
James C. Collins quotes Stockdale in his book ‘Good to Great,’ “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 not trade.”
Stockdale was released as a prisoner of war Feb. 12, 1973, during Operation Homecoming. He received the Medal of Honor March 4, 1976. Stockdale went on to achieve the rank of vice admiral, served as president of the Naval War College and was a vice presidential candidate in 1992.
As much as Stockdale was a pillar of strength and excellence, so was his wife during his tenure of abuse and punishment. Sybil Stockdale fought for the rights of Vietnam POWs during the 1960s and 1970s. USS Stockdale, sponsored by Sybil Stockdale, was christened May 10, 2008.
“I feel fortunate to be on this ship. I think he would agree that the ship also honors Mrs. Stockdale,” said Grunwell. “It is an absolute honor to be connected to two great patriots; I know they would both be very proud of this ship and the crew.”
For more information on USS Stockdale (DDG 106) visit http://www.facebook.com/USS-STOCKDALE-DDG-106.