On July 23, at the U.S. Naval Academy, a true American hero was laid to rest where his service to country first began. The broad makeup of the large audience gathered to pay respects reflected the high esteem in which this hero was held. Many combat veterans, of all ranks and military services, were present. They paid tribute to a man whose life exemplified the warrior ethos of courage, loyalty, duty and honor. Prominent among them was a group representing the bravest of the brave — recipients of America’s highest battlefield honor, the Medal of Honor (MOH).
They, along with a host of other veterans, were there to honor MOH recipient Vice Adm. James Stockdale, 81. Yet even the MOH recipients present felt humbled by the actions giving rise to Adm. Stockdale’s medal as the senior prisoner of war (POW) during the Vietnam War.
In his eulogy, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Bill Crowe noted Adm. Stockdale’s actions involved not a single act of courage on a single day but an aggregate of consistently courageous actions over 7 years of incarceration.
It is important we long remember Adm. Stockdale’s actions, not only for the courage he exhibited but for the lesson he leaves us today as we fight a new enemy in a new era.
Having flown 200 combat missions over North Vietnam, Adm. Stockdale’s luck ran out in September 1965 when he was shot down and captured. His captors and angry villagers beat him, eventually wrenching his shoulders from their sockets, shattering his leg and breaking his back.
After he was taken to Hanoi’s infamous Hoa Lo Prison, known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” his brutal treatment continued. Realizing the senior military prisoner’s cooperation would ensure all POWs cooperated, his captors sought to break Adm. Stockdale first. Adm. Stockdale, however, simply would not be broken.
Despite beatings, torture, two years in leg irons and four years in solitary confinement in total darkness, he refused to betray his country and fellow prisoners. When the North Vietnamese planned to use Adm. Stockdale in a propaganda film, he grabbed a wooden stool, repeatedly smashing it into his face to disfigure himself and prevent the enemy from using him as an unwilling tool to criticize his country. He paid a high price for his defiant act, serving two years in leg irons.
When interrogators later threatened to torture his fellow prisoners if he did not cooperate, Adm. Stockdale — left alone in the interrogation room — removed a picture of Ho Chi Minh from the wall, broke the glass and used the shards to slash his wrists. Passing out in his own blood, he preferred to take his life rather than subject his subordinates to additional torture. As his MOH citation states, his captors became “convinced of his indomitable spirit.” Torture of all POWs then abated.
Many personal beliefs empowered Adm. Stockdale to endure and survive his ordeal. His study of the great philosophers, his belief in God, his belief in country, his belief in and love of family — all imbued him with an inner strength, enabling him to succeed where weaker men would have failed.
The family bond that continued to feed Adm. Stockdale’s indomitable spirit as a POW was exhibited too by his wife, Sybil. She wrote him weekly, knowing it was doubtful many letters would be received, yet hoping some would get through. She organized the POW wives to provide a support base from which each might gain strength and confidence that, one day, their husbands would return. Each letter she wrote her husband, concluded with the salutation: “May God keep you, dearest, all the lonely nights. The wind is still, the moon shines down on Western hills. God keep you, dearest, ‘til the light.”
That light would not shine for Adm. Stockdale until March 1973 when he, among the longest-held group of American POWs in U.S. history, finally returned home.
There is a stark and vitally important lesson to be gleaned from the life of Adm. Stockdale — a lesson by which we must live today. He demonstrated, in confronting a determined 20th-century enemy, that an unwavering commitment and willingness to sacrifice self on behalf of others eventually can overcome an enemy’s resolve. It is a lesson we must bear in mind as we confront our 21st-century enemies as well.
It is said a nation’s greatness is determined by how it honors its warriors. But it is also true a warrior’s greatness is determined by how he honors his country. By this measure, Adm. Stockdale — the warrior the enemy could never break — leaves behind the legacy of a very great man.
James G. Zumwalt is a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars.