The Legacy Of An American Hero

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - July 14, 2005
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The day after Independence Day, American hero James Bond Stockdale attained his own independence from the “surly bonds” of Alzheimer’s disease. As one of our mutual comrades from the Hanoi Hilton put it: “CAG took his last ‘cat’ shot (catapult from an aircraft carrier) into the sunset,” and I would add metaphorically, the glow of his afterburner remains with us always!

CAG is the acronym for Carrier Air Group Commander and is accorded affectionately much like a ship or squadron commander is called “Skipper.”

Jim Stockdale was the CAG off the USS Oriskany when he was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965, making him the senior naval officer among the POWs. He had flown more than 200 missions in Vietnam, including the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) mission over the destroyers USS Maddux and USS Turner Joy the night of the Tonkin Gulf incident.

In those earlier days with only 50 or so POWs total, he was one of three senior officers — two Navy commanders (Stockdale and Jeremiah Denton) and Air Force Lt. Col. Robinson (Robbie) Risnor — who took the punishment commensurate with leadership. Although the communists forbade our chain of command, all three officers — when it would’ve been easier to just blend in or keep their heads down — consistently bounced back to exercise proactive leadership, maintain our chain of command, follow our code of conduct and inspire and encourage the rest of us.

Although POWs were a highly educated group, CAG was even more so. With a master’s degree in philosophy, he often quoted the writings of the Roman philosophers and Greek scholars. His favorite was the Roman legionnaire Epectitus, who wrote of the virtue of stoicism, the endurance of duty and suffering.

CAG always reminded us that we were still in combat, although of a different type, but nonetheless requiring professionalism, loyalty, dedication and courage. He spent much of his time anticipating the enemy’s new tactic, the next purge for propaganda or the next big movement of POWs. His resistance to exploitation was creative, even to the point of leaving crude, misleading notes to others in places the enemy was sure to “intercept” them.

CAG’s most inspirational resistance came one time after he had been tortured — to agree to meet with a visiting “peace delegation.” He was left alone to bathe and shave to be presentable for the inevitable cameras, but used the razor instead to slash at his hair to make it look unpresentable. But in the process he cut his scalp which, although actually superficially, caused blood to flow down his face and neck. When his guard and interrogator returned they flipped out, thinking CAG had tried to kill himself. After the cleanup, they made him wear a hat to hide the botched haircut, but in the anteroom while awaiting the delegation’s arrival he used a wooden stool to beat himself in the face so thoroughly that by the time his guard had returned, his entire face was too purple and swollen to meet the visitors.

CAG Stockdale spent four years in solitary confinement, often in dimly lit cells and despicable conditions. But he refused to be out of touch. Through risky and sometimes ingenious methods of communication — tapping through the cell walls, coughing or sneezing in code, covert note drops — he continued to lead us.

By the time of our release in February of 1973, CAG had been promoted to admiral. Never one to rest upon his considerable laurels, he assumed another operational command, was appointed president of the Navy War College in Newport, R.I., and was ultimately awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his inspirational leadership in Vietnam. A Fellowship at Stanford’s Hoover Institute provided a continuing platform for his writing and speaking up until a retirement forced only by the earliest stages of his fatal disease.

Leadership like that of James Bond Stockdale is still out there in the ranks of our commissioned and non-commissioned officers today — in Iraq, Afghanistan and farflung outposts. Although the circumstances may not be as dramatic, they are every bit as dangerous. In reading the daily reports from the battlefields of the Middle East — and sometimes reading between the lines — we know the leadership legacy of CAG Stockdale lives on.

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