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Lest We Forget

Published: May 25, 2017 12:00 AM

Born in a small Illinois town of Abingdon on Dec. 23, 2923, James B. Stockdale entered Annapolis with the Class of 1947. His frustration at missing out on action during World War II peaked when his cousin, Robert H. Dunlap, received a Medal of Honor for his heroism as a Marine officer during the vicious battle of Iwo Jima.

A stateside instructor's berth kept Stockdale out of the Korean War. Finally, in Feb. 1963, his assignment to a fighter squadron came through. On Sept. 5, 1965, anti-aircraft fire blew his Skyhawk jet apart over North Vietnam. As he drifted toward ground with his parachute, he vowed not to reveal anything to the enemy if he was capture.

Stockdale hit the ground hard and discovered that the force of the ejection had shattered his left knee and broken his left shoulder. Before he could pull himself free from his chute, a crowd of peasants began to beat him with their fists and clubs until North Vietnamese soldiers pulled him away. They took him to the notorious Hanoi Hilton prison camp.

Eight years passed before he knew freedom again. Three of those years were spent in complete isolation. Stockdale said isolation turns a person to putty. One whole month of his isolation was spent blindfolded. In spite of his treatment, he never spilled his guts. In fact, Stockdale, as the senior POW in the camp, organized others into military units. Unit commanders were appointed. Orders were issued. The chief order demanded defiance of the enemy and to resist torture as long as they could. They instituted a simply but effective code for communication by tapping.

The North Vietnamese applied fear, guilt, pain, solitude and degradation to turn prisoners against each other and to pry loose information. Whenever they caught a prisoner in any act considered by them a violation of the Hanoi Hilton's many petty rules, the guards cruelly tortured the offenders. The worst crime was to cause other prisoners to oppose the prison camp authorities.

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In Sept. 1969, Stockdale was caught in a third prison bust. He had been through 13 different torture sessions. Stockdale feared that he might reveal the names of his fellow conspirators, so he took dramatic steps to prevent that. When he was left alone in the small room used for torture, he crawled to its tiny window to break the glass. He slashed his wrists with the shards of glass.

The North Vietnamese found him before he bled to death. His willingness to sacrifice his own life impressed his captors, and the publicity-conscious North Vietnamese could not have the world learn of the senior POW's suicide. They turned off the torture machine. While Stockdale's ordeal would not completely end until his release on Feb. 12, 1973, the North Vietnamese did treat him with considerably more respect.

For his "valiant leadership and extraordinary courage in a hostile environment," Stockdale received the Medal of Honor from President Ford on March 4, 1976. After 33 years of active naval service, Admiral Stockdale retired in 1977.

We should never forget our POWs or our MIAs. Please keep all of them in your prayers along with all of our military personnel and their families.

Charles R. Pearson, Chaplain, Malvern Legion Post #375

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