StoryCorps 475: Keeping the Faith

In this week’s episode of the StoryCorps podcast, we hear stories from and about two men who never gave up. While politics eventually made them both household names, when they were younger they both faced obstacles and confronted dark times.

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?”

Stockdale3Those 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 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. 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.

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.

Clyburn_lgJim Stockdale (pictured in the player above), their son, was a teenager when his father went missing. He came to StoryCorps to talk about how his family spent the years waiting for his father’s return and his mother’s strength.

After the interview, producers Michael Garofalo and Alletta Cooper talk in greater detail about Adm. Stockdale’s time in captivity, and share additional audio that did not make it into the original broadcast.

South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn tells our second story.

In 2007, Rep. Clyburn recorded a StoryCorps interview with his granddaughter, Sydney Reed (pictured at left), in which they discussed his journey to Washington, D.C., his many electoral losses along the way, and what he learned from a note left in the bathroom by his mother the morning after his first primary win in 1970.

Today he serves as the Assistant Democratic Leader (the third ranking Democrat in the House) and won his last election in 2014 with 73% of the vote.

Like the music in this episode? Support the artists:
Alialujah Choir – “Part of Me” (Instrumental)
Charles Atlas – “Demus”
Robin Allender – “M Laurelle”
Jon Luc Hefferman – “Mangata”
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
Scott Holmes – “When I’m with You”
Top: Jim Stockdale and his brothers, Taylor (right) and Stanford (left), greet their father, Navy Captian James Stockdale, at Miramar Naval Air Station on February 15, 1973, as he returns home after after spending seven and a half years as a POW. (Photo courtesy of Jim Stockdale.)