James Stockdale was a Naval aviator, a prisoner of war who earned the Medal of Honor for his heroism, a teacher, and a reluctant vice presidential candidate. He died July 5 at the age of 81, after an unsuccessful battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Vice Admiral Stockdale 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. For more than seven years in captivity he organized defiance of prison restrictions and established rules that helped his fellow POWs survive, despite prolonged torture. Stockdale spent four of those years in solitary confinement, beat himself so he wouldn’t be used in propaganda films, devised a code the prisoners used to communicate, and endured some of the worst torture meted out by his captors.
Years later, Stockdale wrote 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 change the situation of his fellow prisoners for the better, 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.
In 1992, he was the vice presidential candidate on Ross Perot’s independent ticket.