VA Palo Alto Health Care System
Sybil Stockdale-One woman’s fight for Vietnam POWs
Each year during the month of March the United States honors women who have made significant contributions to our country. Choosing one is a challenge as there are many significant women, women’s movements, and organizations that could easily be recognized and celebrated. And, spotlighting one individual does not diminish the accomplishments and contributions of the countless others. The recent death of an often overlooked but game changer woman, Sybil Stockdale, makes her our focus for this year’s tribute.
On October 10, 2015, Sybil Stockdale, the wife of the ranking officer captured by the North Vietnamese and herself an American hero, was laid to rest next to her husband, Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.
As many Veterans’ families have experienced, too often families do not receive the accolades they deserve while their loved ones are deployed to fight around the globe. In the case of Sybil Stockdale, we will learn how she embraced her role as the wife of a Navy Commander and heroically and selflessly became the outspoken voice for all the POWs and MIAs who were in Viet Nam.
Now, before you read this short story about Sybil, take a moment to contemplate the stress and strain on families when Soldiers, Sailors, Marines or Airmen are deployed to a war zone. Spouses remain home with the kids, attempting to maintain as much normalcy as possible. Complicate this vision by thinking of how life would be if that loved one suddenly were a prisoner of war or missing in action. Try to ponder seven and a half years with only a few sporadic letters, little to no information from your government or military on the conditions and treatment of your loved one. You can only imagine the fears, the anguish, and the sadness. This short story does little justice to Sybil or all the other families of our servicemen but hopefully it will make us all more aware of the many sacrifices families make as our servicemen proudly do their duty!
Sybil was born in 1924 and raised in Connecticut. She met Jim Stockdale on a blind date while joining some friends at Annapolis where he was a Midshipman at the Naval Academy. Jim graduated from the US Naval Academy in June 1946, and he and Sybil were married the following June.
After three years of destroyer duty, Jim went to pilot training and his love of flying and career were on the fast track. Sybil was a supportive wife during Jim’s numerous deployments, and four boys arrived during these early years of marriage.
While Jim was deployed on the aircraft carrier Oriskany as the Carrier Air Group Commander in 1965, Sybil was busy with her four boys and actively supporting other pilots’ wives at her home in Coronado, CA, or meeting with them at the Officers Club. She had tremendous energy, enjoyed motherhood, and loved her husband deeply.
On September 9, 1965, Sybil’s life changed dramatically when she was notified that Jim was Missing in Action. He had been shot down in North Viet Nam while on a bombing run in an A4E Skyhawk. His wingman could not confirm he ejected safely although he did see a parachute on the ground. It was not until the spring of 1966 that she received her first two letters from Jim.
The pilots’ wives had been briefed prior to Jim’s deployment indoctrinating them on the prevalent belief that they should never speak to the press (“the keep quiet” policy) and should be extremely cautious with whom they spoke about their loved ones predicament or potential fate. Since Viet Nam was a signature of The Geneva Convention, many believed the North Vietnamese would adhere strictly to the Convention and saying anything could cause them to become hostile and not treat the prisoners in a civil manner.
Jim was an astute leader and covertly included coded messages within his letters, which Navy Intelligence was able to decipher. Following the realization that covert messages could be sent and received, Sybil was contacted by US Intelligence and faced with the decision whether she would be willing to participate in sending encoded messages in her return letters and photographs to Jim. She contemplated what Jim would desire and decided it was exactly what he wanted and agreed. In several letters she was able to covertly provide invisible carbon paper and instruction to Jim on methods to communicate secretly. In this manner, Jim was able to communicate the names of the prisoners at the Hanoi Hilton, the solitary confinement conditions and torture methods the men were enduring.
Unfortunately, the general public back home believed the POWs were being treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth. With her newfound knowledge, Sybil became motivated to gather family members in similar circumstances to discuss the change in direction needed by our government and ways to be more transparent about prisoner conditions so as to influence public opinion.
Throughout the time of Jim’s captivity, Sybil visited with many wives and parents of POWs and MIAs, all of whom had the same frustrations she was experiencing: little communication from the military or the government on the fate of their loved ones. Initially, they were united informally by a common cause, but as time went on, it became apparent that a more formal structure would create synergies and provide a higher profile than would be attainable individually.
By May 1970, Sybil, along with other regional leaders, incorporated “The National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.” The organization provided a unified message, needed attention, and an agenda for increasing pressure on the government and military. They succeeded in increasing public awareness of the cruel torture and inhumane treatment US prisoners endured.
Prior to the formation of the “League,” Sybil had been bringing attention to the plight of prisoners through meetings with the State Department, the Chief of Naval Operations and the North Viet Nam delegation in Paris. She had appeared on several TV shows and was featured in numerous magazine profiles. Sybil’s outreach and the publicity around the formation of the League provided the springboard effect of audiences and publicity needed to increase the bow wave of attention.
Sybil and the “League’s” leadership team had formal audiences with President Nixon, Secretary of State Rogers, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, and Henry Kissinger as well as the North Viet Nam delegation. Additionally, demands skyrocketed for Sybil to share her message with the public via broadcast television, network shows and magazine features. Despite the increased awareness of the POWs, MIAs and the plight of their families, and the Administration’s demands for fair and humane treatment of prisoners, the brutality continued.
In evidence of the league’s achievements was a raid to rescue prisoners of war at the Ton Say prison camp in North Viet Nam (unfortunately the prisoners had been moved) during the fall of 1970, the mining and blockade of Haiphong Harbor in the spring of 1972, and increased bombing of North Viet Nam. This was not only apparent to the “League” but to the POWs as well who became aware of the raid and the increased bombing.
By January 1973, the North Viet Nam and the US governments reached an agreement to end the conflict, account for the MIAs, and bring home all the POWs. Sybil, James and all the families of the prisoners were delighted beyond all imagination. Sybil’s conviction, persistence and dedication to the families of fighting men and women had finally made a visible difference in the Viet Nam War.
In 1976, Rear Admiral James Bond Stockdale was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In recognition of her relentless years of advocating on behalf of the prisoners, Sybil Stockdale was awarded the US Navy Department’s Distinguished Public Service Award upon James’ retirement from the United States Navy in 1979. Sybil is the only wife of an active duty Naval Officer to receive this great honor. Her citation reads as follows:
For distinguished public service to the United States Navy as the organizer and first Chairperson of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. By her courageous and determined actions Mrs. Stockdale performed an outstanding public and humanitarian service for captured and missing military members for all services, their families and for the American people. Her actions and indomitable spirit in the face of many adversities contributed immeasurably to the successful safe return of American prisoners, gave hope, solace and support to their families in a time of need and reflected the finest traditions of the Naval service and of the United States of America. In recognition and appreciation of her outstanding service, Mrs. Stockdale is imminently deserving of the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award.