An appreciation of an extraordinary man

Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale was a Naval aviator, a prisoner of war who earned the Medal of Honor for his heroism, an outstanding leader and teacher, and a reluctant vice presidential candidate. He died July 5 at the age of 81, after an unsuccessful battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Jim Stockdale was both a warrior and a philosopher, a trait more common than many may think. “Bear and forbear” was the motto of the crippled former Roman slave Epictetus, whose philosophy Stockdale credited with seeing him through more than seven years as a POW in Vietnam, and with helping him to inspire the survival of others.

He was a captain, commanding Carrier Air Group 16 aboard USS Oriskany, when he was shot down over North Vietnam and captured in 1965, becoming the highest-ranking guest at the Hanoi Hilton. His back was injured when he ejected from his A-4, and his left knee was broken as he was being beaten by his captors. It was broken again during torture at the Hanoi Hilton, where he was held in leg irons for two years and in solitary confinement for four. He never regained full use of that leg but, he said, the words of Epictetus helped him again: “Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will.”

His experience at the Hanoi Hilton was unimaginably brutal. As the senior officer in captivity, the Vietnamese saw him as a valuable asset, if he could be used in their propaganda. He could not. When told that he would be paraded in front of foreign journalists, he beat his face with a wooden stool, figuring that a prisoner who had been beaten would not be displayed. It was not possible to resist utterly and survive, but Stockdale gave no bogus confessions. Later, as fellow POWs were dying under torture, he demonstrated quite convincingly that he preferred death to submission. That gamble with his life won better treatment for all of the prisoners, including an end to torture.

In captivity he organized defiance of prison restrictions and established rules which helped his fellow POWs to survive, despite prolonged torture. He devised a code the prisoners used to communicate, and endured some of the worst torture meted out by his captors. You can learn some of the grim details from John McCain’s book, “Faith of My Fathers,” and from Stockdale’s own book, “Love and War.”

Years later, Stockdale said that his POW years gave him more satisfaction than anything else he had done, including his professorship and notable work at the Naval War College. “I came out with a clear conscience,” he wrote. “I don’t think I could have made better use of (the time).”

Perhaps that is due, at least in part, to the lives he saved by risking his own. He used every ability he possessed to improve the situation of his fellow prisoners, seeing duty and opportunity in his captivity rather than despair.

In all, Stockdale earned 26 combat awards, including three Distinguished Service Medals, four Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts, in addition to his Medal of Honor. He was one of the most decorated combat veterans since World War II.

– By Thomas F. Norton

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