Retired Vice Admiral James Stockdale passed away yesterday, July 5, 2005. He was 81 years old. Most people know of Stockdale as Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1992 presidential election and his flubbed debate participation against Al Gore and Dan Quayle. I remember watching this debate, head in hands, upset that not only was Stockdale completely unprepared for the televised event, but that people would walk away not knowing anything of who this man was.
Vice Admiral Stockdale was an American hero of the finest order. Shot down over Vietnam in 1965, he was captured by the North Vietnamese, severely beaten, and placed in a POW prison for seven years. Most of that time he was in solitary confinement. He was routinely tortured. While a prisoner he devised a way to communicate with other prisoners of war by a series of taps on the wall. As the most senior officer in the camp he did his best to keep moral up among the others and to keep them from going insane from the torture. He drew upon the philosophy of the Stoics, which he had studied in graduate school at Stanford, to keep himself sane.
Stockdale’s wife Sybil did not sit idly by while her husband was in prison. Working with federal agents, she sent a letter to Stockdale, with a photograph of a person Stockdale didn’t know. The letter said something about an uncle and a swimming pool, which was actually a hint for Stockdale to get the photo wet, a hint he didn’t quite get. Fortunately for Stockdale, the prison was so humid that the photo ended up getting wet and revealing how secret messages could be written using the letter. Stockdale and his wife used this method to report on actual prison conditions, who was there, who had died. Sybil Stockdale used this information to help raise awareness around the country of the actual horrendous conditions in which POWs were living.
I had the privilege of meeting Vice Admiral Stockdale while he was a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford. He and his wife Sybil had just written a book of their experiences of the war – Stockdale as a POW and his wife Sybil as a political organizer. The book, In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years is not only the stories of these two people, it is a beautiful love story as well – showing how the strength of faith and love in each other helped each of them survive those seven years. I met Vice Admiral Stockdale at a book signing for his book and was struck by his warmth and the deepness of his bright blue eyes. I have never met a man so radiant as James Stockdale.
I highly recommend his book, In Love and War, if you can find a copy. My own signed copies disappeared soon after I bought them. In fact, I was just bemoaning the loss of those books (18 years ago) and wondering how Mr. Stockdale was doing when I read of his passing in the WSJ.