On October 10th, we lost a great American hero, Sybil Stockdale. Her spirted, effective and tireless advocacy for American prisoners of war in Vietnam saved countless lives.
Her husband, Captain James Stockdale, was shot down over North Vietnam on September 9, 1965. He was listed as “missing in action” before the Pentagon learned he was being held at Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi (often facetiously called the “Hanoi Hilton”).
Jim spent 7 ½ years (2,713 days to be exact) before being released with his fellow POWs in February, 1973. During that ordeal, he spent almost half of his time in solitary confinement, in addition to several years in leg irons. He endured over 15 torture sessions, many lasting more than a week. Even with these constraints and severe injuries from torture, Jim Stockdale became the leader of our POWs, and was credited with saving many of his fellow prisoners. For his leadership and courage, Jim received our nation’s highest award – the Medal of Honor. (For a more detailed discussion of his heroism and leadership during that time, see Wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Stockdale.)
Sybil grew up in East Haven, Connecticut, where her father and uncle operated a dairy. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College and was teaching at a private girls’ school in Richmond, Virginia, when she met her future husband, a midshipmen at the Naval Academy, on a blind date in 1946. They were married a year later. Life as a Navy wife meant a lot of moves over the years – more than 30 in all, including one in 1957 to Palo Alto, where she got a master’s degree in education at Stanford.
Sybil and Jim had been married for 18 years and had four young sons when Jim was shot down. At that time, Sybil and their sons were living in Coronado, and Sybil was taking care of her family and teaching English at San Ysidro Elementary School. She soon began networking with other POW/MIA wives.
For some time after her husband’s imprisonment, Sybil and the other wives were guided by a government dictum that the relatives of prisoners stay publicly silent. At first they were told by the Pentagon that the North Vietnamese were treating their prisoners of war humanely, but even when it became clear that this was not so, the Pentagon asked the POW/MIA families to remain silent for fear of even worse treatment of the POW’s if media attention was brought to bear on the North Vietnamese government.
Sybil Stockdale eventually became convinced that the silence imposed by the Pentagon was no longer the right strategy. Along with other members of a San Diego POW/MIA support group, she decided to go national, and formed the National League of Families of American Prisoners Missing in Southeast Asia. Sybil was the first national coordinator. Other support groups from east coast military communities later became part of the National League.
Finally, in October 1968, she went public in an interview in the San Diego Union. “The North Vietnamese have shown the only thing they care about is world opinion,” she said.
Other media outlets picked up the story, other wives began speaking out, and by the time President Richard M. Nixon took office the following January, he had thousands of telegrams on his desk urging him to do something about the POWs.
Sybil made numerous trips to Washington to lobby President Nixon and Henry Kissinger and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird.
In May 1969, Secretary Laird held a news conference accusing the North Vietnamese of violating the Geneva Convention. The torture soon stopped.
“She was proud when it all came to fruition and the administration changed its tune and acknowledged that POWs were being brutally treated”, her son Sid Stockdale said. “She really felt validated by that, and by the way the public embraced the prisoners.”
In addition to her public advocacy, Mrs. Stockdale was taught by intelligence officers how to share secret messages with her husband – some hidden behind photos that peeled away when soaked in liquid, others written on invisible carbon paper – so that information could be passed back and forth as described by Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal in his tribute to her:
“Sybil Stockdale took the risk because she knew that the man she’d married would want her to do whatever she could to help him fight. He in turn figured out the secret directions. In this resistance to the enemy, Mrs. Stockdale was the Navy pilot’s full partner.
Information was critical, because Hanoi would not reveal who or how many of our men it held. Some of them Washington had thought dead. In one letter, Stockdale sent the names of 40 men.”
During the negotiations in Paris that led to the peace accords of 1973, Sybil was part of a delegation that presented demands to the North Vietnamese for the safe return of our men. “When she introduced herself,” Sid Stockdale said, “one of the North Vietnamese delegates interrupted her and said, ‘Oh yes, Mrs. Stockdale, we know who you are and we know about your organization.’”
For her actions, Sybil Stockdale was given the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award, the only wife of an active-duty naval officer ever to receive that honor. The citation accompanying the award credits her “indomitable spirit in the face of many adversities.”
After Jim’s return, Sybil continued her work on behalf of the families of service men missing in action, making public appearances, speaking out about the role of military families and serving as an informal adviser to countless military wives.
In 1984, Sybil and Jim wrote a memoir, In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam War, which became a bestseller. It was adapted into an NBC movie starring James Wood and Jane Alexander, and was seen by over 24 million people. The book is a classic about war, about sacrifice, and about what a man and woman who trust each other absolutely can overcome.
Numerous tributes have been offered about Sybil in the last several weeks since her passing, and caring articles published about her in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union. Here are a few of the highlights:
“In an era when women weren’t typically looked to as leaders, Sybil Stockdale was one of the most extraordinary leaders during one of the most difficult times in American History . . . She helped launch a movement that united a terribly divided nation around a common goal: bringing home our prisoners of war.” — Alvin Townley, author of Defiant, a 2014 book about the POWs.
“Sybil was just indomitable, tireless. We accomplished so much and it all started around her dining room table in Coronado.” — Karen Butler, 77, whose husband, Lt. Phillip Butler, was shot down in 1965.
“She was our anchor, our leader, our mentor.” — Jenny Connell Robertson, 75, whose husband, Lt. Cmdr. James Connell, was shot down in 1966 and died five years later in captivity – a fact Robertson did not know until the surviving POWs were released in 1973.
“Her selfless service and sacrifice fighting for American prisoners of war, those missing in action, and many who are still unaccounted for has left an indelible mark on this nation that will never be forgotten.” — Sen. John McCain, a former naval aviator and fellow POW with Jim in the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi for over six years.
“[The Stockdales were] the quintessential military couple – full partners in service to our nation.” — Adm. John Richardson, chief of Naval Operations.
“Now Sybil Bailey Stockdale has stepped into eternity. And a good woman takes her final resting place beside her husband she loved and among men and women whose courage illuminates what we mean by ‘the finest traditions of the Naval service.'” — Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal.
— Amen. Jim
Postscript: Debate continues as to whether or not the efforts by the U.S. government, the Vietnamese government in Hanoi and other governments historically involved in the war have been, or continue to be, sufficient regarding the effort to find more than 1,600 U.S. servicemen still listed as Missing in Action. Fifty years after its founding, the National League of Families continues to work at keeping the pressure on both Washington and Hanoi to bring complete resolution to this issue on behalf of each family with a loved one still missing in Vietnam.