Many Americans remember Vice Admiral James Stockdale as H. Ross Perot’s running mate during the 1992 presidential campaign. Standing on stage between Dan Quayle and Al Gore during the vice-presidential debate, Admiral Stockdale opened by rhetorically asking: “Who am I? Why am I here?”
Those questions immediately became a sound bite and a punchline for late night comedians, and for millions of Americans, they defined a man they knew little about.
Adm. Stockdale’s legacy goes far beyond a few sentences spoken at a debate. Over the course of his Naval career, he earned 26 combat awards including two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Distinguished Service Medals, two Purple Hearts, four Silver Stars, and in 1976 President Gerald Ford presented him with our nation’s highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.
In 1947, Adm. Stockdale graduated from the United States Naval Academy, and in 1965, then-Captain Stockdale’s plane was shot down over North Vietnam. He was then captured and brought to the Hoa Lo Prison, infamously referred to as the Hanoi Hilton.
Being the highest-ranking Naval officer held prisoner of war, he became a leader among the other POWs establishing a code of conduct to help keep them from being used by the North Vietnamese for propaganda purposes. Adm. Stockdale, who was forced to wear leg irons for two years while held captive, at one point slashed his own face with a razor to keep from being put on camera, and according to his Medal of Honor citation, he once used glass from a broken window to slit his own wrist in order to “convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate.”
During his seven and a half years as a POW, Adm. Stockdale was able to send letters to his wife, Sybil, in California. Quickly, she figured out his correspondences contained coded messages and she coordinated with the CIA to continue their communications while her husband was held captive.
Sybil herself was a force to be reckoned with. She was a vocal advocate for the families of POWs and soldiers missing in action at a time when the United States government followed a “keep quiet” policy, asking relatives of POWs not to call attention to their family members (this policy was primarily for public relations purposes). And as a response, she helped found the National League of Families of American Prisoners Missing in Southeast Asia, a nonprofit organization that is still active today as The National League of POW/MIA Families.
Below: Listen to an excerpt from a February 1973 conversation between James and Sybil, speaking to each other on the phone for the first time in seven and a half years. Recorded by their son Stanford, James was at Clark Air Base in the Philippines at the time and would days later be reunited with his family.
In 1979, Sybil was awarded the U.S. Navy Department’s Distinguished Public Service Award, presented to civilians for specific courageous or heroic acts. The citation that accompanied the honor noted, “Her actions and indomitable spirit in the face of many adversities contributed immeasurably to the successful safe return of American prisoners, gave hope, solace and support to their families in a time of need and reflected the finest traditions of the Naval service and of the United States of America.”
In July 2005, Adm. Stockdale died at the age of 81, and in October 2015, Sybil died at the age of 90. They are buried alongside each other at the United States Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland.
Their son, Jim, who was a teenager at the time of his father’s capture, came to StoryCorps with his friend, Jasey Schnaars (pictured at left), to talk about his mother’s strength as they waited for his father’s return home.
Originally aired May 27, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.