Stockdale, James Bond

views updated

Stockdale, James Bond

(b. 23 December 1923 in Abingdon, Illinois; d. 5 July 2005 in Coronado, California), heroic and highly decorated U.S. Navy officer who became the 1992 Reform Party vice presidential candidate.

Stockdale was the only child of Vernon Stockdale, an executive at a pottery factory, and Mabel (Bond) Stockdale, a teacher. Stockdale excelled in both academics and sports as a youth, playing quarterback for Abingdon High School and graduating second in his class in 1942. His father, who had served in the navy during World War I, wanted him to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, and Stockdale entered in 1943. There, he excelled in his classes and, though only five feet, nine inches tall and 170 pounds, played lineman for the football team. He graduated in 1946, earning a BS, and the following year he married Sybil Bailey, of East Haven, Connecticut, a teacher who had graduated from Mount Holyoke College. She would later lead a national movement to draw attention to the plight of American prisoners of war in Vietnam.

Stockdale became a naval aviator in 1950 and in 1954 enrolled in test pilot school at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, in Maryland, where he also served as a flight instructor. The navy envisioned Stockdale becoming a strategic planner and in 1960 sent him to Stanford University to study international relations. A philosophy professor there introduced him to Epictetus, a Roman born into slavery who believed, like the ancient Greek Stoics, that a self-disciplined man could rise above even the most trying of circumstances by adhering strictly to a code of ethics. Stockdale later noted that he relied heavily on Epictetus’s teachings in honorably surviving his years as a prisoner of war.

After receiving an MA from Stanford in 1962, Stock-dale was sent to Vietnam in command of a fighter squadron on the USS Ticonderoga, flying an F-8 Crusader. On 5 August 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a reprisal mission in response to North Vietnamese patrol torpedo (PT) boat attacks on American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin and persuaded Congress to allow him to escalate military action. Stockdale carried out the orders, thus leading the first bombing raid on North Vietnam, but he attested then and years later that he never saw any evidence of a strike against the American vessels. He also recalled that the consequent American strikes were performed in vain: “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there.... There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.” Still, he remained a supporter of the war and blamed the American peace movement for lengthening it unnecessarily.

On his third tour in Vietnam in 1965, Stockdale commanded the air wing on the USS Oriskany. Returning from a mission on 9 September, his plane was hit by antiaircraft fire. He ejected, landed in a small coastal village, and was beaten by its inhabitants. For the next seven and a half years Stockdale was a prisoner of war, mostly in the notorious Hoa Lo prison, known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” He spent two years in leg irons and four in solitary confinement.

The North Vietnamese prized Stockdale, the highest-ranking American naval officer in their custody, for his great potential value in the propaganda war. Stockdale saw himself as a leader of the hundreds of imprisoned Americans, with a responsibility to protect their honor and spirits. Even when confined alone, he presided over a communications network that kept him and his compatriots apprised of each other’s location and health. The system, which involved little more than tapping on walls with metal mugs, allowed Stockdale and his officers to maintain a code of conduct and to convey messages of hope. Stockdale later wrote, “We organized a clandestine society via our wall tap code—a society with our own laws, traditions, customs, even heroes.” Stockdale was tortured fifteen times during his imprisonment and displayed uncommon fortitude, on several occasions disfiguring himself so that the enemy could not use him to bolster claims that they treated prisoners humanely.

In the fall of 1969 Stockdale smashed a window in his cell and used the shards of glass to cut his wrists; his captors later found him in a pool of blood and revived him. According to the citation for the Medal of Honor Stock-dale received in 1976, his willingness to court death rather than break under torture largely convinced the North Vietnamese that their harsh methods were of little use on the Americans, and at length the abuse abated. For his bravery and service, Stockdale received twenty-five other combat medals, making him one of the navy’s most highly decorated officers.

During her husband’s captivity, Sybil Stockdale, who was caring for the couple’s four young boys, began to distrust her government’s assurances that American prisoners were being treated decently in Vietnam. She helped organize the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia to draw attention to their plight and in so doing struck up a friendship with the wealthy Texan entrepreneur Ross Perot, who shared her concerns. In December 1969 Perot tried unsuccessfully to send a planeload of medicine and food to Americans imprisoned in Vietnam. Stockdale was freed three years later—on 12 February 1973—after a massive American bombing campaign prodded the North Vietnamese to come back to the negotiating table. He returned to the United States prematurely gray and with a pronounced limp but able to resume the duties of a naval officer.

Stockdale served as president of the Naval War College from 1977 to 1979, when he retired from the military, as a vice admiral, to become the president of the Citadel. He sought to attract more serious students to the South Carolina military college and to bolster its curriculum with more liberal arts courses. However, facing resistance from alumni and trustees, he left after less than a year.

In 1981 Stockdale became a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford University, where he would spend the next fifteen years writing and teaching, particularly on the role of personal character in the military. Among his more widely read works was one he wrote with his wife: In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years (1984). In 1987 the story was made into a television movie that attracted 45 million viewers.

The Stockdales had maintained a friendship with Perot after Vietnam, but the retired vice admiral said that he was nevertheless shocked when the businessman called him in March 1992 and asked him to serve as temporary running mate in his presidential bid. Until he could find another vice presidential candidate, Perot needed a respected person’s name to serve as a placeholder on several states’ ballots. Stockdale agreed, but Perot, without having found a replacement vice presidential candidate for his Reform Party, dropped out of the race in July. In October, however, Perot reentered the race, and one week before the vice presidential debate he informed Stockdale that he would have to participate.

Stockdale’s performance on 13 October 1992 puzzled both viewers and pundits, who found him unprepared to debate the Democrat Al Gore and the Republican Dan Quayle. His opening statement—which included “Who am I? Why am I here?”—became the butt of jokes; he later explained that he meant with these questions to introduce his philosophy of personal responsibility and self-mastery. At one point he asked the moderator to repeat a question because he had not turned on his hearing aides. At other points during the debate, however, as decades senior to Gore and Quayle, Stockdale played the wise elder, chiding them for their sniping.

Stockdale campaigned little. He and Perot garnered 19 percent of the vote on Election Day, as compared to 43 percent for Gore and Bill Clinton and 37 percent for Quayle and George Bush. Stockdale spent his retirement in Coronado, California. He suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died on 5 July 2005. He is buried on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy.

Stockdale authored several books on his years in Vietnam, including A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection (1984) and Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (1993). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 6 July 2005).

Lauren Markoe