Have We Forgotten Our Heroes? Chapter 9

Name: James Bond Stockdale11298509_112062220909
Rank/Branch: O5/US Navy, pilot
Date of Birth: 23 December 1923
Home City of Record: Abingdon IL
Date of Loss: 09 September 1965
Country of Loss: North Vietnam
Loss Coordinates: 193400N 1065800E (WG839635)
Status (in 1973): Released POW
Aircraft/Vehicle/Ground: A4E
Missions: 202+

By midsummer 1964 events were taking place in the Gulf of Tonkin that would lead to the first clash between U.S. and North Vietnamese forces. In late July the destroyer USS MADDOX, on patrol in the gulf gathering intelligence had become the object of communist attention. For two consecutive days, 31 July-1 August, the MADDOX cruised unencumbered along a pre-designated route off the North Vietnamese coast. In the early morning hours of 2 August, however, it was learned from intelligence sources of a possible attack against the destroyer. The attack by three North Vietnamese P-4 torpedo boats (PT boats) materialized just after 4:00 p.m. on August 2. The MADDOX fired off three warning volleys, then opened fire. Four F-8 Crusaders led by Commander James B. Stockdale from the aircraft carrier USS TICONDEROGA, also took part in the skirmish. The result of the twenty-minute affair saw one gunboat sunk and another crippled. The MADDOX, ordered out of the gulf after the incident concluded, was hit by one 14.5mm shell.

A day later the MADDOX accompanied by the destroyer USS C. TURNER JOY, received instructions to re-enter the gulf and resume patrol. The USS CONSTELLATION, on a Hong Kong port visit was ordered to join the TICONDEROGA stationed at the mouth of the gulf in the South China Sea. The two destroyers cruised without incident on August 3 and in the daylight hours of August 4 moved to the middle of the gulf. Parallel to the movements of the C. TURNER JOY and MADDOX, South Vietnamese gunboats launched attacks on several North Vietnamese radar installations. The North Vietnamese believed the U.S. destroyers were connected with these strikes. At 8:41 p.m. on August 4 both destroyers reportedly picked up fast-approaching contacts on their radars. Navy documents show the ships changed course to avoid the unknown vessels, but the contacts continued intermittently. At 10:39 p.m. when the MADDOX and C. TURNER JOY radars indicated one enemy vessel had closed to within seven thousand yards, the C. TURNER JOY was ordered to open fire and the MADDOX soon followed. For the next several hours, the destroyers, covered by the TICONDEROGA’s and the CONSTELLATION’s aircraft, reportedly evaded torpedoes and fired on their attackers.

Historians have debated, and will continue to do so, whether the destroyers were actually ever attacked. Most of the pilots flying that night spotted nothing. Stockdale, who would later earn the Medal of Honor, stated that a gunboat attack did not occur. The skipper of the TICONDEROGA’s Attack Squadron 56, Commander Wesley L. McDonald, said he “didn’t see anything that night except the MADDOX and the TURNER JOY.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson reacted at once to the supposed attacks on the MADDOX, ordering retaliatory strikes on strategic points in North Vietnam. Even as the President spoke to the nation, aircraft from the CONSTELLATION and TICONDEROGA were airborne and heading for four major PT-boat bases along the North Vietnamese coast. The area of coverage ranged from a small base at Quang Khe 50 miles north of the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam, to the large base at Hon Gai in the north.

On August 5, 1964, Stockdale led a flight of sixteen aircraft from the TICONDEROGA on the Vinh petroleum storage complex at 1:30 p.m. in response to the presidential directive to destroy gunboats and supporting facilities in North Vietnam which the President indicated were used in the attack on the MADDOX. The results saw 90 percent of the storage facility at Vinh go up in flames. Meanwhile, other coordinated attacks were made by aircraft from the CONSTELLATION on nearby Ben Thuy Naval Base, Quang Khe, Hon Me Island and Hon Gai’s inner harbor. Skyraiders, Skyhawks and F8s bombed and rocketed the four areas, destroying or damaging an estimated twenty-five PT-boats, more than half of the North Vietnamese force.

Air wing command was usually placed in the hands of an individual who had completed a tour as squadron commander of an attack or fighter unit. The CAG was typically a better than average pilot with a solid record of performance, and more than likely he was a pretty fair politician. By another definition, he’d survived in a profession unforgiving of error.

On his second Vietnam tour, CDR James B. Stockdale was the commander of Air Wing 16 onboard the USS ORISKANY. He had led the successful strike off the TICONDEROGA against the petroleum storage facility at Vinh on August 4, 1964. On one mission, he had the canopy blown off his aircraft and had to ditch in the Gulf of Tonkin where he was rescued. Then on September 9, 1965 flying an A4E Skyhawk, he led another strike mission over North Vietnam. A major strike had been scheduled against the Thanh Hoa (“Dragon Jaw”) bridge, and the weather was so critical there was a question whether to launch. Finally the decision was to launch. Halfway through, weather reconnaissance reported the weather in the target area was zero, and Stockdale had no choice but to send the aircraft on secondary targets.

Stockdale and his wingman, CDR Wynn Foster, circled the Gulf of Tonkin while another strike element departed to look for a SAM site at their secondary target. Had anything been found, Wynn and Stockdale were to join them. After fifteen minutes or so, the other group came up empty. The group made the decision to hit a secondary target, a railroad facility near the city of Thanh Hoa.

CDR Stockdale’s aircraft was hit by flak and he ejected, landing in a village. His wingman saw the parachute go down, but could not see what was happening to Stockdale on the ground. On a low pass, Foster saw that the villagers were brutally beating Stockdale. There was nothing he could do. The village was an unauthorized target. Throughout the rest of the war, Foster carried the guilt of being unable to do something to help CDR Stockdale.

James Stockdale was captured by the Vietnamese and taken to Hanoi, where he spent the next seven and one-half years as a prisoner of war. He had briefed his pilots during the period he was CAG on the ORISKANY that the Code of Conduct would apply to anyone captured. There had been some dispute about the validity of the Code in Vietnam, an undeclared war. American POWs who had flown with Stockdale had no doubt as to what was expected of them as prisoners. The knowledge, however, was a two-edged sword–on one hand, the captives were glad to understand the guidelines. On the other, when they “broke” (which inevitably they did), immense guilt and shame ensued. Eventually, as they communicated with one another, everyone understood that they had only to do their best.

It was not possible to resist utterly and survive. A few who cooperated with the enemy “above and beyond” what was considered appropriate, received special treatment from their guards in return. These men were despised by other POWs who were doing their best to adhere to the Code of Conduct. Upon his return, Jim Stockdale accused two POWs of mutiny. Official charges were never brought against these men, or any others similarly accused.

jamesstockdalepowDuring his captivity, Stockdale was considered to be a troublemaker by the Vietnamese. As a senior officer, Stockdale developed a policy of behavior for the POWs called “BACK US.” The policy provided guidance on such things as propaganda broadcasts, bowing to guards, and unity, thwarting the “obedience” the Vietnamese tried to extract from the American POWs. The POWs were shuffled from one camp to another, many times based on “unsatisfactory” behavior; many were held long periods in solitary confinement; many were tortured in “interrogation” sessions.

In early 1969, one of the POWs became ill and was in great pain at a camp known as Alcatraz, located some ten blocks from the famed Hoa Lo (Hanoi Hilton). The man was receiving no medical care, and fellow prisoners put the pressure on. What ensued might be called a prison riot. The efforts did bring a doctor to the ill POW’s cell, although the doctor did nothing to ease his pain. The next morning, Stockdale organized a forty-eight hour fast to demand medical attention for the ailing officer. The next evening each prisoner was interrogated and on the morning of January 27, Stockdale was taken away to another prison center. Finally, on February 12, 1973, Jim Stockdale was released from prisoner of war camps and sent home.

(Stockdale is second man on the left.)

In all, 591 Americans were released. Since the war ended, nearly 10,000 reports relating to Americans missing, prisoner or unaccounted for in Southeast Asia have been received by the U.S. Government. Many authorities who have examined this largely classified information are convinced that hundreds of Americans are still held captive. These reports are the source of serious distress to many returned American prisoners. They had a code that no one could honorably return unless all of the prisoners returned. Not only that code of honor, but the honor of our country is at stake as long as even one man remains unjustly held. It’s time we brought our men home.

Retired Navy VADM James B. Stockdale, Medal of Honor recipient, former Viet Nam prisoner of war (POW), naval aviator and test pilot, academic, and American hero died July 5, 2005, at his home in Coronado, Calif.  He was 81 years old and had been battling Alzheimer’s disease.



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