This A-4E Skyhawk, on display outside the main gate at Naval Air Station North Island, is for the most part ignored by thousands of motorists each day. It is somewhat hidden by a tree, and of course each driver is digging in pockets for an ID card or drivers license to show the sentries as they approach the gate. Being an airplane junkie I glance at it most every time, having flown the two-seat training variant of the A-4 in flight school. A fun little jet, and I’ve bombed, strafed, shot rockets from it, trapped aboard USS Lexington in them off Pensacola, fought them in multi-plane engagements over east central Mississippi. One of the guys I fought in training was Major “Tamer” Amos, who had a successful career in the Marine Corps. As a Hornet pilot I fought quite a few “adversary” A-4’s, and one of those pilots was a cool guy named Lex Lefon. Roughly 100 TA-4J hours in my logbook prove that I was technically a Skyhawk pilot, but I would never claim that I flew the legendary Skyhawk in my career, because it would dishonor those who did, like the man who flew a Skyhawk into combat in September of 1965.
Commander Jim Stockdale was the Wing Commander, the “CAG,” when, flying a VA-163 Saints A-4E as replicated on this jet, he catapulted off USS Oriskany and headed west into North Vietnam. CAGs and squadron CO’s like Jeremiah Denton who led from the front were targeted by North Vietnamese gunners; anyplace in the skies of North Vietnam was dangerous, but flight lead losses were fearful, as they were for the eight-plus years of that conflict. Stockdale’s Skyhawk was hit and he ejected.
That morning in Oriskany’s wardroom he ate breakfast on china plates and white linen. For the next 7.5 years it was meager rations, solitary confinement, threadbare clothing and torture, brutal torture to include the dreaded ropes. The North Vietnamese were quick to identify and punish resisters, to break their will, and finding himself as the senior POW, Stockdale was targeted for more than his share of punishment. During this time – years of misery we cannot fathom – he led, from the front as Wing Commanders do, and organized the prisoners into a military organization that allowed them to not only draw support from one another but to serve with honor. And survive.
Vietnam was tearing the country apart, but in San Diego…and Lemoore, Oak Harbor, Jacksonville, Virginia Beach…families of POWs were hurting. Missing absent husbands and fathers was one thing, but not even knowing their fate or being denied even a letter was itself torture. Like her husband, Sybil Stockdale was a leader, and founded the National League of Families to call attention to the plight of the POWs and petition the government to lean on North Vietnam for humane treatment. Our government, and the Navy, consoled Mrs. Stockdale, saying they were doing everything they could and to please refrain from more public statements. She had none of it, and like her husband in captivity 8,000 miles away, she also led, working for the families to find resolution and pressure the enemy to improve the treatment of their loved ones.
At the time I was a boy living in San Diego’s University City; children of POWs with the names Burns, Shumaker and Rutledge were my schoolmates. We knew things were bad for POWs and many like my parents wore POW bracelets. “POWs never have a nice day” – remember that bumper sticker? To a large extent it was through the efforts of Sybil Stockdale, and others, leading from the front, in this case the home front.
We watched the POWs return home in 1973 and I get emotional thinking about it, seeing my schoolmates on TV run up to their fathers deplaning at Alameda or Miramar whom they had not seen in years. The family of one absent aviator who lived up the street didn’t have a joyous homecoming; their dad was Missing-in-Action, and decades later I read his remains were finally identified.
Stockdale was a legend I knew about as I entered flight school, as was Denton, John McCain (who also flew a Saint A-4E from Oriskany when he was downed), Bud Day, Leo Thorsness…names few Americans could remember by the early 80’s. But in 1992 America was reintroduced to retired Vice Admiral James Stockdale, the presidential running mate of billionaire Ross Perot. At the televised vice-presidential debate, standing alongside Dan Quayle and Al Gore, neither of whom was qualified to carry his helmet bag, he opened with this line to try to generate interest in this newcomer to national politics. “Who am I? Why am I here?”
The line backfired, and the white-haired grandfather, appearing confused and hard-of-hearing, was transformed into a national laughingstock, ridiculed for not being as sleek and smooth as Quayle or Gore. Maybe the Perot-Stockdale ticket cost Bush the 1992 election, but regardless, James Bond Stockdale retired from public life having tried to again serve the public through servant leadership. By the early 2000’s Alzheimer’s set in, and he succumbed in 2005 at the age of 81.
Once you go through the VADM James B. Stockdale Gate at North Island, the birthplace of naval aviation with piers and runways familiar to Commander Stockdale, you’ll see the Stockdale Training Building, and drive on Stockdale Boulevard. Go south along the bay, under the bridge to the 32nd Street Naval Station piers and you may see USS Stockdale, an Aegis guided-missile destroyer named for the Medal of Honor recipient, a warship bringing the Stockdale name back to the Western Pacific on each deployment. And there is the Stockdale Leadership Award, a coveted award one can receive only after nomination by ones peer group. Stockdale Award recipients are considered the best of the best, and good people.
Several years ago we were at a Change of Command ceremony aboard the carrier John C. Stennis at North Island, and during the hangar bay reception spied Sybil Stockdale. Elderly and suffering from Parkinsons, guests whispered in reverence that “Mrs. Stockdale is here,” and all were honored by her presence. There’s no escalator from the pier to the quarterdeck; she walked up the brow on her own power. The ladies present honored her with their gentle greetings, knowing exactly who she was and how special her being at the ceremony was for everyone there. The living legend passed away later that fall at the age of 90.
She and her beloved husband wrote a book about the Vietnam experience they shared half a world apart called In Love and War. It is a story of faith, in God and one another, of conviction, of devotion to duty, and courageous leadership in the face of enemy fire and US government bureaucracy. Published in 1984, it is only available “hard copy,” but it is a priceless story, a true love story, and one that is required reading for today’s generation of military couples. Anyone who has experienced a deployment homecoming can relate to this cover image, but imagine coming home after 7.5 years to a teenage son taller than you.
In Love and War by Jim and Sybil Stockdale is unforgettable. Do not pass it by.