Who was James Stockdale?


James Bond Stockdale (23 December 1923 to 05 July 2005) was a United States Navy vice admiral and aviator awarded the Medal of Honour in the Vietnam War, during which he was a prisoner of war for over seven years.

President Gerald Ford presents the Medal of Honour to Stockdale at the White House on 04 March 1976.

Stockdale was the most senior naval officer held captive in Hanoi, North Vietnam. He had led aerial attacks from the carrier USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) during the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. On his next deployment, while commander of Carrier Air Wing Sixteen aboard the carrier USS Oriskany (CV-34), his A-4 Skyhawk jet was shot down in North Vietnam on 09 September 1965. He served as President of the Naval War College from October 1977 until he retired from the Navy in 1979. As vice admiral, Stockdale was the president of The Citadel from 1979 to 1980.

Stockdale was a candidate for Vice President of the United States in the 1992 presidential election, on Ross Perot’s independent ticket.

Early Life and Education

Stockdale was born in Abingdon, Illinois, on 23 December 1923, the son of Mabel Edith (née Bond) and Vernon Beard Stockdale. Following a brief period at Monmouth College, he entered the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 1943.

On 05 June 1946, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree from the Naval Academy with the Class of 1947 due to the reduced schedule still in effect from World War II. Academically he ranked 130th among 821 graduates in his class. His first assignment was assistant gunnery officer aboard the destroyer minesweeper USS Carmick (DD-493) from June to October 1946. He next served aboard the USS Thompson (DD-627) from October 1946 to February 1947, the USS Charles H. Roan (DD-853) from February 1947 to July 1948, and the USS Deming (PCS-1392) from July 1948 to June 1949.

Stockdale was accepted for flight training in June 1949 and reported to Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. He was designated a Naval Aviator at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas, in September 1950. He was next assigned for additional training at Naval Air Station Norfolk in Virginia from October 1950 to January 1951. In January 1954, he was accepted into the United States Naval Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River base in Southern Maryland, and he completed his training in July 1954. There he tutored the US Marine Corps aviator John Glenn in mathematics and physics. He was a test pilot until January 1957.

In 1959, the US Navy sent Stockdale to Stanford University, where he earned a Master of Arts degree in international relations and comparative Marxist thought in 1962. Stockdale preferred the life of a fighter pilot over academia, but he later credited Stoic philosophy with helping him cope as a prisoner of war.

Vietnam War

Gulf of Tonkin Incident

On 02 August 1964, while on a DESOTO patrol in the Tonkin Gulf, the destroyer USS Maddox (DD-731) engaged three North Vietnamese Navy P-4 torpedo boats from the 135th Torpedo Squadron. After fighting a running gun and torpedo battle, in which Maddox fired over 280 5-inch (130 mm) shells, and the torpedo boats expended their 6 torpedoes (all misses) and hundreds of rounds of 14.5mm machinegun fire; the combatants broke contact. As the torpedo boats turned for their North Vietnamese coastline, four F-8 Crusader fighter aircraft from USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) arrived, and immediately attacked the retreating torpedo boats.

Stockdale (commander VF-51 (Fighter Squadron 51)), with Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Richard Hastings attacked torpedo boats T-333 and T-336, while Commander R. F. Mohrhardt and Lieutenant Commander C.E. Southwick attacked torpedo boat T-339. The four F-8 pilots reported scoring no hits with their Zuni rockets, but reported hits on all three torpedo boats with their 20 mm cannon.

Two nights later, on 04 August 1964, Stockdale was overhead during the second reported attack in the Tonkin Gulf. Unlike the first event, which was an actual sea battle, no Vietnamese forces were, however, believed to have been involved in the second engagement. In the early 1990s, he recounted: “[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.”

The next morning, on 05 August 1964, President Johnson ordered bombing raids on North Vietnamese military targets which he announced were retaliation for the alleged incident of 04 August. When Stockdale was awoken in the early morning and was told he was to lead these attacks he responded: “Retaliation for what?” Later, while a prisoner of war, he was concerned that he would be forced to reveal this secret about the Vietnam War.

Prisoner of War

On 09 September 1965, while flying from USS Oriskany on a mission over North Vietnam, Stockdale ejected from his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, which had been struck by enemy fire and completely disabled. He parachuted into a small village, where he was severely beaten and taken prisoner.

Stockdale was held as a prisoner of war in the Hỏa Lò Prison (the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”) for the next seven-and-a-half years. As the senior Naval officer, he was one of the primary organisers of prisoner resistance. Tortured routinely and denied medical attention for the severely damaged leg he suffered during capture, Stockdale created and enforced a code of conduct for all prisoners which governed torture, secret communications, and behaviour. In the summer of 1969, he was locked in leg irons in a bath stall and routinely tortured and beaten. When told by his captors that he was to be paraded in public, Stockdale slit his scalp with a razor to purposely disfigure himself so that his captors could not use him as propaganda. When they covered his head with a hat, he beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond recognition. When Stockdale was discovered with information that could implicate his friends’ so-called “black activities”, he slit his wrists so they could not torture him into confession. During the course of his captivity, due to torture, his leg was broken twice.

Early in Stockdale’s captivity, his wife, Sybil Stockdale, organised The League of American Families of POWs and MIAs, with other wives of servicemen who were in similar circumstances. By 1968, she and her organization, which called for the president and the US Congress to publicly acknowledge the mistreatment of the POWs (something that had never been done despite evidence of gross mistreatment), gained the attention of the American press. Sybil Stockdale personally made these demands known at the Paris Peace Talks.

Stockdale was one of eleven US military prisoners known as the “Alcatraz Gang”:

  • George Thomas Coker, USN;
  • George G. McKnight, USAF;
  • Jeremiah Denton, USN (who had graduated with Stockdale from the Naval Academy);
  • Harry Jenkins, USN;
  • Sam Johnson, USAF;
  • James Mulligan, USN;
  • Howard Rutledge, USN;
  • Robert Shumaker, USN (originator of the name “Hanoi Hilton”);
  • Ronald Storz, USAF (died in captivity); and
  • Nels Tanner, USN.

Because they had been resistance leaders they were separated from other captives and placed in solitary confinement in “Alcatraz”, a special facility in a courtyard behind the North Vietnamese Ministry of National Defence, located about one mile away from Hỏa Lò Prison. In Alcatraz, each of the prisoners was kept in an individual windowless and concrete cell measuring 3 by 9 feet (0.9 by 2.7 m) with a light bulb kept on around the clock, and locked in leg irons each night. Of the eleven, Storz died in captivity there in 1970.

The Stockdale Paradox

James C. Collins related a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese POW camp. When Collins asked which prisoners did not make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:

Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Collins called this the Stockdale Paradox.

Return to the United States

Stockdale was released as a prisoner of war on 12 February 1973, during Operation Homecoming.

On 04 March 1976, Stockdale received the Medal of Honour. Stockdale filed charges against two other officers (Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Edison W. Miller and Navy Captain Walter E. “Gene” Wilber) who, he felt, had given aid and comfort to the enemy. However, the Department of the Navy under the leadership of then-Secretary of the Navy John Warner took no action and retired these men “in the best interests of the Navy.” Both Miller and Wilber received letters of censure.

Debilitated by his captivity and mistreatment, Stockdale could not stand upright and could barely walk upon his return to the United States, which prevented his return to active flying status. In deference to his previous service, the Navy kept him on active duty, steadily promoting him over the next few years before he retired as a vice admiral on 01 September 1979. He completed his career by serving as the president of the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, from 13 October 1977 until 22 August 1979.

Civilian Academic Work and Writings

After his retirement in 1979, he became the president of The Citadel. His tenure there was short and stormy as he found himself at odds with the college’s board as well as most of its administration, by proposing radical changes to the college’s military system and other facets of the college. He left The Citadel to become a fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in 1981. During his twelve-year tenure at the Hoover Institution, Stockdale wrote and lectured extensively. His primary focus was ancient Stoicism and the Roman slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus, whose lessons captured in The Enchiridion Stockdale credited with providing him strength during his ordeals as a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton. Between 1981 and 1988 Stockdale also served as chair of the White House Fellows under the Reagan administration.

In 1984 Stockdale and his wife Sybil co-authored In Love and War: the Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam War which was published by Harper and Row. It recounts Stockdale’s experiences while in Vietnam and in alternating chapters also tells the story of Sybil Stockdale’s early involvement in the League of American Families of POWs and MIAs which she helped to found and served as its first chairperson. Their story was later made into an NBC television movie under the name In Love and War starring James Woods and Jane Alexander.

Stockdale was a member of the board of directors of the Rockford Institute, and was a frequent contributor to Chronicles: A magazine of American Culture.

Vice-Presidential Candidacy

Stockdale came to know businessman and presidential candidate Ross Perot through his wife’s work in establishing an organization to represent the families of Vietnam POWs. On 30 March 1992, Perot announced that he had asked Stockdale to be his provisional Vice Presidential nominee on Ross Perot’s 1992 independent ticket. Perot intended to replace Stockdale with another candidate, but did not do so before he dropped out of the race in July 1992.

Perot eventually re-entered the race in the fall of 1992, with Stockdale still in place as the vice-presidential nominee. Stockdale was not informed that he would be participating in the 13 October vice-presidential debate held in Atlanta, Georgia, until a week before the event. He had no formal preparation for the debate, unlike his opponents Al Gore and Dan Quayle, and did not discuss any political issues with Perot beforehand.

Stockdale opened the debate by saying, “Who am I? Why am I here?”, when responding to a request for an opening statement from debate moderator, Hal Bruno, the political director of ABC News. Initially, the rhetorical questions drew applause from the audience. However, his unfocused style for the rest of the debate (including asking the moderator to repeat one question because he did not have his hearing aid turned on) made him appear confused and almost disoriented. An unflattering recreation of the moment on Saturday Night Live later that week, with Phil Hartman as Stockdale, cemented a public perception of Stockdale as slow-witted. He was also often parodied for his repeated use of the term “gridlock” to describe slow governmental policy.

As his introduction to the large segment of American voters who had not previously heard of him, the debate was disastrous for Stockdale. He was portrayed in the media as elderly and confused, and his reputation never recovered. In a 1999 interview with Jim Lehrer, Stockdale explained that the statements were intended as an introduction of himself and his personal history to the television audience:

It was terribly frustrating because I remember I started with, “Who am I? Why am I here?” and I never got back to that because there was never an opportunity for me to explain my life to people. It was so different from Quayle and Gore. The four years in solitary confinement in Vietnam, seven-and-a-half years in prisons, drop the first bomb that started the … American bombing raid in the North Vietnam. We blew the oil storage tanks of them off the map. And I never—I couldn’t approach—I don’t say it just to brag, but, I mean, my sensitivities are completely different.

In a 1994 HBO comedy special, Dennis Miller gave an impassioned defence of Stockdale’s debate performance:

Now I know (Stockdale’s name has) become a buzzword in this culture for doddering old man, but let’s look at the record, folks. The guy was the first guy in and the last guy out of Vietnam, a war that many Americans, including our present President, did not want to dirty their hands with. He had to turn his hearing aid on at that debate because those fucking animals knocked his eardrums out when he wouldn’t spill his guts. He teaches philosophy at Stanford University, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, courageous man. And yet he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television.

Perot and Stockdale received 19% of the vote in the 1992 presidential election, one of the best showings by an independent ticket in US electoral history, although they did not carry any states.

Military Awards

Stockdale’s decorations and awards include:

  • Naval Aviator Badge.
  • Medal of Honour.
  • Navy Distinguished Service Medal with Two 5/16″ Gold Stars.
  • Silver Star Medal with Three 5/16″ Gold Stars.
  • Legion of Merit with Combat “V”.
  • Distinguished Flying Cross with One 5/16″ Gold Star.
  • Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V” and One 5/16″ Gold Star.
  • Purple Heart with One 5/16″ Gold Star.
  • Air Medal with Strike/Flight Numeral 10.
  • Combat Action Ribbon.
  • Navy Unit Commendation with One 3/16″ Bronze Star.
  • American Campaign Medal.
  • World War II Victory Medal.
  • Navy Occupation Service Medal.
  • National Defence Service Medal with One 3/16″ Bronze Star.
  • Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal with Two 3/16″ Bronze Stars.
  • Vietnam Service Medal with Three 3/16″ Silver Stars and One 3/16″ Bronze Star.
  • Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (Gallantry Cross) with Palm.
  • Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960-device.
  • Navy Pistol Marksmanship Medal with “E” Device.

Medal of Honour Citation

Stockdale’s official Medal of Honour citation reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while senior naval officer in the Prisoner of War camps of North Vietnam. Recognized by his captors as the leader in the Prisoners’ of War resistance to interrogation and in their refusal to participate in propaganda exploitation, Rear Adm. Stockdale was singled out for interrogation and attendant torture after he was detected in a covert communications attempt. Sensing the start of another purge, and aware that his earlier efforts at self-disfiguration to dissuade his captors from exploiting him for propaganda purposes had resulted in cruel and agonizing punishment, Rear Adm. Stockdale resolved to make himself a symbol of resistance regardless of personal sacrifice. He deliberately inflicted a near-mortal wound to his person in order to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate. He was subsequently discovered and revived by the North Vietnamese who, convinced of his indomitable spirit, abated in their employment of excessive harassment and torture toward all of the Prisoners of War. By his heroic action, at great peril to himself, he earned the everlasting gratitude of his fellow prisoners and of his country. Rear Adm. Stockdale’s valiant leadership and extraordinary courage in a hostile environment sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Later Life and Death

Stockdale retired to Coronado, California, as he slowly succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. He died from the illness on 05 July 2005. He was 81. Stockdale’s funeral service was held at the Naval Academy Chapel and he was buried at the United States Naval Academy Cemetery.


The Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale Award for Inspirational Leadership is a United States Navy award established in 1980 by United States Secretary of the Navy Edward Hidalgo to honour the inspirational leadership of Stockdale. The award was first made in 1981.

The US Navy has named a number of structures after Stockdale, including the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Stockdale (DDG-106), christened on 10 May 2008. At the Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, California, the main gate (inaugurated on 30 August 2007) and the headquarters building for the Pacific Fleet’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school were both named in his honour. In July 2008, a statue of him was erected in front of Luce Hall at the US Naval Academy; the hall which houses the Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Centre for Ethical Leadership.

In 1976, he received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement.

Stockdale Centre, the student centre at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, which he attended prior to transferring to the Naval Academy, was dedicated in his honour in 1989.

He was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2002.

The Admiral James & Sybil Stockdale Arena at South Kent School was named after Stockdale and his wife in April 2014.

In October 2014, Airbase Arizona of the Commemorative Air Force placed on display a restored Grumman AF-2S Guardian (BuNo 126731) flown by VADM Stockdale early in his Navy career with his name on the canopy rail and all markings as they were when he flew the aircraft in the 1950s.

Stockdale’s naval experiences and his leadership decisions while senior Naval officer in prison in North Vietnam are an integral part of every Midshipman’s educational experience at Annapolis.

A luxury suite at the Loews Annapolis Hotel, where Perot announced his candidacy, was named in Stockdale’s honour.

The Abingdon-Avon High School Auditorium in Abingdon, Illinois, has been named “Stockdale Auditorium” in his honour.


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