- - Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Forty years ago, on Feb. 12, 1973, our nation started to welcome home 591 American prisoners of war, most of them from the infamous Hanoi Hilton POW camp. Some of the released prisoners had been held for up to nine years, and U.S. military doctors expected broken men to step off the C-141s landing at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Instead, they found fewer than 5 percent of the POWs suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Using just their brains and tin cups, these Americans created their own high-performance society, communicating with each other through prison walls by tapping on the cups – employing a type of Morse Code as their language. They built a civilized culture against all odds – including extreme torture and extended isolation. For the longest-held of the POWs, this duress lasted more than eight years. No other group of POWs in our nation’s history has ever been held captive as long as these men.

Texas Rep. Sam Johnson was one of those POWs. Four decades later, he believes the leadership these men demonstrated can provide today’s political leaders with some genuine role models.

Mr. Johnson recalls one hot summer night in 1967 when he shared a cell with James Stockdale, the senior ranking officer among the group of POWs, and their de facto leader. They were trying to communicate with recent “shoot-downs,” other aviators whose planes had been recently shot down. Captured and incarcerated, many of these men were still recovering from their aircraft ejection injuries. As Mr. Johnson describes it, “They were scared, for good reason. We wanted to talk to them and make them know that there were other Americans around.” The tap code communications system was the POWs’ lifeblood, but the risks for using it were high. Punishment by the camp guards for communicating with each other was harsh. When possible, the POWs assigned at least one man the task of “clearing,” or alerting other POWs of a guard’s impending approach. This required lying on the filthy prison cell floor and peering through the crack under the prison door. The alternative was balancing on their toilet buckets to look over the top of the cell door for moving shadows along the hallway. 

Stockdale had a broken leg, and I had a busted arm. The bunks were, you know, about that high and concrete,” Johnson explained, as he held his hand up to his knees. Johnson is a tall man, so the concrete slab allowed him to peer out the high cell windows.

“Jim would get on the floor and ‘clear’ and I’d get up on the concrete bunk and talk to [a new guy] down the back side out of the window. We happened to be on the back of the jail. We would tell him essentially how the cow eats the cabbage [how the things worked in the prison system] and, that ‘you’re going to be all right.’”

On this particular night, they were finally caught. “The guard and an officer came charging down the hall. Jim barely got up before the door opened. I’m standing there and the door pops open and here’s this little North Vietnamese guy wearing Air Force 2nd Lieutenant bars. Turns out he was a camp commander. He wasn’t a lieutenant – he was masquerading as one. Jim hauled off and decked him right there. Just knocked him down. And, I thought, ‘…We’re in deep serious now.’ And we were.”

Punishment was immediate and harsh. Mr. Johnson spent 72 days in leg stocks in a small cell with the windows boarded up. He quietly notes, “Jim got the worst punishment.”

Why did Stockdale intentionally assault the camp commander by punching him in the face? An irrational outburst of anger or violence was completely out of character for this Stanford-educated philosopher. He was noted around the camp for his towering intellect, not his emotional volatility.

Mr. Johnson pauses for a long moment before answering that question, choosing his words deliberately. “Frankly, I think he was protecting me. You know, that’s a characteristic of leadership.” 

Stockdale exhibited several noteworthy characteristics of a great leader that day. He stayed focused on the POWs’ agreed-upon mission, he chose his battle carefully and — without fear of personal consequences — he sacrificed himself to protect those under him. He asked nothing of his followers that he would not first deliver himself. When pain was on the agenda, Stockdale didn’t delegate. He led.

Even today, Mr. Johnson found Stockdale’s actions a model for himself and others in challenging leadership positions: “All of us who serve America in public office would do well to pause at this 40th anniversary of our homecoming to ask ourselves whether we are showing the same courage and selflessness I saw in his leadership during our time in the Hanoi Hilton. This is America — where we rise to the occasion to make this country better for the next generation. This is our time.  This is our challenge. When we honor the legacy and values of outstanding leadership like Jim, America will win.”

Taylor Baldwin Kiland and Peter Fretwell are co-authors of the forthcoming book, “Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams” (Naval Institute Press, 2013).