To lead as a prisoner in a Communist prison is a guarantee of "severe punishment" [torture], public humiliation, exploitation for propaganda purposes and solitary confinement. The fundamental concept driving all American fighting men is : If senior, I will take charge; if junior, I will obey. So the Senior Ranking Officer [SRO] has few options when once he is thrown into a prison situation no matter what the price of admission may be.
James Bond Stockdale ended up being the SRO [Navy] in the communist North Vietnam prison system from 1965 to 1973. This communist system treated prisoners of war [POW] as criminals and accorded them none of the protections of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War. Having flown air cover during the second Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, he was aware that there in fact were no PT boat attacks on our ships; that LBJ was lying. In fact MacNamara had sent some henchmen out to his carrier at that time to tell Stockdale to keep his mouth shut. In 1965 he was back out on the line as an air wing commander with not only that little secret in his head but also intimate knowledge of the Single Integrated Operations Plan [nuclear targeting plan]. So when he arrived in prison he had many good reasons to hunker down, keep a low profile and attempt to protect the knowledge he had. But hunkering down is not Stockdale’s style. I know, because in 1967 Stockdale became my SRO for six years.
Stockdale, being a stand up and take charge kind of a guy was quick to figure out that the communists wanted prisoners for propaganda advantage, not for military information. After all they could get all the information they wanted from Aviation Week ["Aviation Leak"], the GPO, the Congressional Record, Jane Fonda, and the convicted Navy traitors - the Walker family. So by word and example he expounded a philosophy of no voluntary cooperation with anything the communists wanted us to do. One of the big stumbling blocks for the communists was to find senior, undamaged, healthy POW’s to volunteer to go before "American " peace groups visiting North Vietnam. There were so few takers, thanks to Stockdale’s leadership, that the communists had to torture POW’s to see peace delegations.
Finally in desperation, they decided to undermine Stockdale’s authority with his fellow POW’s by having him appear before a peace delegation. Naturally he declined their kind invitation. Now things could get dicey, since if he was tortured [and they did not offer death; he had been tortured 32 times] he stood a chance of divulging some his more closely guarded military secrets as well as the prison covert POW organization. These risks, now exacerbated by his weakened physical condition, were unacceptable.
They hauled Stockdale out of his cell and placed him in the interrogation/torture chamber, gave him a razor and bowl of water, and told him to shave. With a sense of delicacy, they left him alone to complete his toilet. Always having a deep seated desire to have a Mowhawk haircut, Stockdale proceeded to cut himself a grand one. In the process he chopped up his scalp. By the time the guards returned, they were aghast to see what he had accomplished and the attendant blood streaming down his face. But not to worry, they were going to put a stocking cap on his head to hide the damage. They left him alone, telling him to prepare to meet the delegation.
The doors to the torture chamber were boarded up old French doors. All the window panes were gone, but there were still slivers of glass in the window frames. Stockdale worked out a sliver of glass and proceeded to chop at his wrists in a manner to generate a lot of blood [certainly not to commit suicide]. When the guards returned again they assumed they had a major problem on their hands. But, not to worry. They bandaged his wrists and found the largest set of striped pajama tops [the "mess dress" prison garb worn when on public display]. With the pajamas on he was a thing of rare beauty with his watch cap pulled down around his ears, and his long sleeves, hiding the bandages, dragging on the ground.
The communists, no to be deterred, again told Stockdale to contemplate his sins in solitude and prepare to meet the visiting delegation . Stockdale desperately looked around the cell. The only movable object was a 22 centimeter high four legged interrogation stool. He picked it up by its legs and appraised its usefulness to him in his current dilemma. A light came on in his head; he was holding a battering ram. He used that stool to systematically mash his face into a bloody pulp.
He had won. What were they going to do to him? Would they place him in a ski mask like a mid-eastern terrorist? What kind of an appearance would that be in a forum that was claiming to give lenient and humane treatment to the Yankee Air Pirates? They could not risk using him in front of any peace delegation. They tossed him in disgust back into solitary confinement.
Of course Stockdale won more than that single victory. There is an old saying amongst the leaders of troops: "Never ask your men to do anything that you have not done yourself or would not be willing to do if called upon." Stockdale lived his orders: no voluntary appearances, deny the enemy whatever it is that they want, and take punishment up to the point you are going to lose control to thwart the enemy.
The troopers would die for a guy like that. And, indeed, they did put their lives on the line.
For this type of leadership and for this as one of his many actions,
James Bond Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor for leadership at great
risk to himself while a POW in Hanoi, North Vietnam. To this day
he continues to exercise academic leadership through his writings and his
affiliation with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Vice Admiral
James B. Stockdale USN [Ret.] MOH lives with his wife, Sybil in Coronado,
California. Most recently he has appeared on the March 1998 Discovery
Channel presentation "Vietnam
POW’s: Stories of Survival".