James Stockdale is an individual that defines the true meaning of a selfless American Hero. While Stockdale is associated with political pursuits, it is his legacy that completely trumps any of his political endeavors. The early background of Stockdale was a hint of the success that he would achieve later in his life as he was a great achiever. Stockdale’s life is full of highlights and acts of inspiration to all American citizens. Despite the inspiration of Stockdale’s story, it is important to acknowledge that it is one that is full of sad moments, especially during his imprisonment.
Stockdale was born on December 23, 1923, in Abingdon, Illinois. He was raised in the same region and would display his multiple talents while attending high school. Stockdale was involved in track, football, and track in addition to winning a piano competition in the region. He also illustrated his academic achievements as he would graduate high school in the second position. Stockdale attended Monmouth College but only for a short period as he moved to the United States Naval Academy. Stockdale would graduate from the Naval Academy in the year 1946. While attending flight training in Pensacola, FL, Stockdale would fly all the planes in the Navy’s inventory. However, Stockdale was driven to achieve greater heights, and he was accepted to Navy Test Pilot School in 1954, where he would serve as an instructor for a short period of time. At the school, Stockdale would still stand out as he recorded at least a thousand hours flying the F8U Crusader. While Stockdale was making strides in his career, he was still concerned with his academic achievements as he attended Stanford University, earning a Master’s Degree in International Relations. In the mid-1960s, Stockdale would be among those promoted, which represented the pinnacle of his military career. During this time, he was commanding a fighter squadron. This was a period just before he would encounter his most difficult challenge yet. Stockdale would be at the epicenter of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which acted as a justification for the follow up military action in Vietnam. Even years after the incident, Stockdale has always claimed that he had not seen any enemy vessels, and at the time, he was flying quite low. Regardless of his views, Stockdale received orders to lead a raid on North Vietnam’s oil refineries, which was the first of its kind. This would be the war that would create his legacy as an American Hero.
September 9, 1965, was the date that would change the life of Stockdale. He took off his A-4 Skyhawk and went on a mission that would prove to be his last in North Vietnam. Stockdale’s plane was shot with anti-craft fire, and as he ejected, he broke a bone in his back in what would begin his long period of suffering. Stockdale landed in a small village dislocating his knee. A crowd approached him, beating Stockdale paralyzing his arm before the intervention of the military police, where he was taken into custody. Following his capture, Stockdale became the highest-ranking naval officer to be held captive in Vietnam. Hao Lo Prison became the area that Stockdale was held captive for seven years. During his captivity, Stockdale was tortured at least 15 times. The torture included both mental and physical techniques. Beatings and near-asphyxiation with ropes were the norms in prison, while mental torture included solitary confinement as well as abrasive leg irons for a significant part of his confinement. Stockdale would suffer as he was denied medical care as well as being the recipient of a malnourished diet. Even though Stockdale was denied receiving letters from home, this rule would be relieved and would lead to communication with his wife. Stockdale coded messages in the letters, and this led to the creation of a communication channel with the CIA, who coordinated with his wife. Stockdale reported the brutal torture, the poor prison conditions as well as the list of the United States’ POWs in prison. Stockdale refused to be used as a tool of propaganda as he maimed his face with the razor, knowing that he could not be presented to the journalists. Since Stockdale was willing to die than submit to the demands of the Vietnamese, this led to the better treatment of the American POWs. Stockdale was a source of strength for the other POWs as he created a brilliant code they could utilize to communicate. Stockdale was released in 1973, and he would be the recipient of the Medal of Honor, among many other personal combat decorations.
Stockdale would retire from the Navy in 1978, and after spending time in a distinguished academic career, he would enter politics in 1992. Stockdale agreed to join his long-time friend Ross Perot as the vice-presidential candidate of the reform party. The integrity that guided Stockdale throughout his military career was replicated in his political career. Stockdale expressed his dislike for partisan politics, but this did not compromise his dignity and integrity that he had demonstrated throughout the multiple careers. The experience in Vietnam, which led to the creation of his legacy, was also influential in his political career. However, this influence was negative as Stockdale struggled to transform himself into a public figure. Stockdale himself stated that “my sensitivities are different,” in reference to the experience he had as a war veteran as well as his role in the Vietnam War. The political career of Stockdale would lead to little success as his unpreparedness in his first debate tarnished his reputation that would struggle to recover. Stockdale would die of Alzheimer’s disease aged 81, in 2005.
Stockdale was a true American Hero, who held onto his integrity even in a tense political campaign where candidates result in negative tactics. Stockdale is an inspiration to the whole country as his captivity in Vietnam showed that he was ready to die for his country. Even in such a trying time, Stockdale managed to rise up as a leader and source of strength for the other POWs. His bravery, as well as his brilliance in various careers, makes him a standout hero that America is proud of.