James Stockdale Dies; Won Medal of Honor, Ran for Vice President

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 6, 2005

James B. Stockdale, 81, the retired Navy vice admiral, teacher and thinker whose heroism in Vietnamese captivity won him the Medal of Honor and who later ran for vice president, died July 5 at his home in Coronado, Calif.

A statement released by the Navy said he had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Embodying the virtues of both warrior and philosopher, Adm. Stockdale, an aviator, credited the tenets of Epictetus, one of the ancient Stoics, with helping him survive 7 1/2 years of abuse as the highest-ranking U.S. Navy officer to be held captive in Vietnam.

As Adm. Stockdale's character and conduct in desperate circumstances became known after the war, he won praise as a national hero who transcended the divisiveness of the times.

His selection as the vice presidential candidate on the third-party ticket headed by Ross Perot in 1992 raised expectations.

"The brainy, selfless and distinctly unegotistical Stockdale, will make both Vice President [Dan] Quayle and Sen. Albert Gore Jr., the Democrats' No. 2 man, seem like callow youths" in their debate, David Broder wrote in The Washington Post.

However, Adm. Stockdale's debate experience reminded many of the dangers of the format.

"Who am I?" he asked. "Why am I here?" The rhetorical nature of those questions was lost; they seemed amusing rather than thought-provoking.

If anyone was suited to withstand such a setback, it may have been Adm. Stockdale. The Navy once sent him to Stanford University; he later said that from a philosophy course there, he learned of Epictetus, the crippled former slave whose motto has been given as "bear and forbear."

Whatever hardships he bore in politics, they appeared to pale in comparison to Vietnam.

On Sept. 9, 1965, his A-4 fighter-bomber was hit by antiaircraft fire, and he ejected over a small coastal village. A beating on the ground broke his left knee. It was broken again in prison, and he never regained its full use. In prison, he was tortured and suffered other injuries. He was placed in leg irons for two years and held in solitary confinement for four.

As recounted in the citation for his Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor, he mutilated himself to stay out of propaganda photographs. Later, he managed to slash his wrists, coming close enough to death to convince his captors that he would not give in. The Navy said the torture of other prisoners then abated.

In prison, Adm. Stockdale recalled these words of Epictetus: "Lameness is an impediment to the leg but not to the will."

Secretary of the Navy Gordon R. England said in a statement last night that Adm. Stockdale's "courage and life stand as timeless examples of the power of faith and the strength of the human spirit."

Adm. Stockdale was born Dec. 23, 1923, in Abingdon, Ill. He graduated from the Naval Academy in the Class of 1947.

During a long career as a carrier pilot, he led the first air attack on North Vietnamese targets after the Tonkin Gulf incident, flew scores of other missions and received 26 combat decorations.

At various times he was a test pilot, head of the Naval War College and the Citadel and a fellow of the Hoover Institution. He retired from the Navy in 1979. He and his wife, Sybil, wrote a book, "In Love and War." It was made into a television movie.

He is survived by his wife, four sons and eight grandchildren.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company