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THEN & NOW: Discovering My Mother’s Diary Unlocked Secrets of My Father’s Time as POW

Adm. Jim Stockdale’s family endured severe trauma during his captivity. Only now is his son able to come to terms with the ordeal

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Courtesy Sid Stockdale

My father was Vice Adm. James Stockdale, a naval aviator. During the Vietnam War, he was the highest-ranking Navy POW in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. From 1965 to 1973, the North Vietnamese tortured, dehumanized and isolated him in incomprehensible ways.

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The day he returned to us was perhaps the happiest of my life. I was 18 and hadn’t seen him since I was 11. But the trauma and heartache of these seven years of my youth took a toll that I have only just been able to address now, in my late 60s.

Fate was with me. In 2016, one year after my mother’s passing, I finally received a copy of her diary, which had been lost in the shuffle of papers in the attic. And at the top of the first page in Mom’s distinctive cursive hand were the words: “Written as if addressing our four boys.” 

Hearing her voice calmed me, and her diary helped me push back my defenses for the first time and reconstruct my story as a child growing up in a world I barely understood, even as I was thrust into monumental circumstances.

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Before then, I never thought I could dig deep enough emotionally to put those pieces together. It seemed the defenses I had built to protect myself from the pains of my past allowed me to see only fragments of my story.

It felt as though she was sitting in the room next to me describing how we coped during the first seven months after Dad was declared missing.

She wrote of her frustrations with the government’s “keep quiet policy” that, early in the war, instructed families in our situation to not talk about their circumstances with anyone, and certainly not the press. She described how I assumed a big brother role caring for my two younger brothers after our oldest brother went to boarding school. 

In January 1973, I was a senior at South Kent School in Connecticut and having dinner when a friend told me there was a phone call for me. It was from my mother, Sybil Stockdale, in Coronado, California.

“Sid, I want you to know that tomorrow afternoon President Nixon is going on the television to announce that an armistice has been signed with North Vietnam, that the war is ending, and the POWs are coming home,” she said. My mind went numb, and the noise of the dining hall faded.

I hung up the receiver and walked outside into the cold, dark courtyard and gazed up into the brilliant stars. During the next few weeks, I was floating on air and wearing a huge grin wherever I went. 

My father, then Navy Cmdr. James Stockdale, had been shot down over North Vietnam on Sept. 9, 1965.

Valentine’s Day 1973 was the date when Dad was scheduled to return to San Diego with the other POWs. 

There was a huge “Welcome Home” sign hung out in front of the family’s home. I saw Dad coming out the front door, walking briskly toward me with his stiff leg. 

We hugged, and I lifted him off the ground. He felt light as a feather. He said, “Wow, you are big as a horse!” We both laughed, looked into each other’s blue eyes and smiled. We kissed and walked toward the front door, arms around each other.

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It was a joyful feeling as the “young adult me” got to know my father — and he got to know me. He told us about his prison experiences in a way that wasn’t frightening. “I want you to know I harbor no ill will towards my captors; they are professional soldiers, and I am a professional soldier, and that’s just the way it is,” he said. I realized how much bigger than life my father was.

Dad was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor during captivity. He passed away at age 81 in 2005 after becoming a writer and a lecturer at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. His essays on leadership and the stoicism of Epictetus are still widely read. 

Mom died at age 90 in 2015. During Vietnam, she had been founder and first national coordinator of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. She met with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to discuss the POW issue.

The safe return “with honor” of those brave men was due in large part to hard work and determination by women such as my mother. Just like my father, as I grew older and learned more about Mom’s bravery and determination, I was in awe of her character and tenacity. 

In 2017, I retired from teaching history and wanted to write the story of my journey during the Vietnam years. But I realized the defenses my inner self had created to help protect me from the emotional traumas of my early life were preventing me from accessing many memories.

Mom’s diary allowed me to pull back the layers, defenses and calluses of a boy coming of age in one of America’s most turbulent times. It provided a road map guiding me through a forest of repressed emotions and traumas, a cathartic journey I am very happy to have taken.

In understanding what happened to me, I wanted to explain something to my daughters and future generations: Children whose parents leave home to serve our country are part of our national sacrifice to ensure the world remains safe.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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