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.
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.
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.