Stuart I. Rochester, 63, Dies; Co-Wrote Influential Book on POWs

Stuart Rochester served in the Pentagon Historical Office for nearly 30 years, including as its chief.
Stuart Rochester served in the Pentagon Historical Office for nearly 30 years, including as its chief. (Family Photo)
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By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 1, 2009

Stuart I. Rochester, 63, chief historian of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the co-author of a book many consider the definitive account of American prisoners of war in Southeast Asia, died of melanoma on July 29 at his home in Burtonsville.

Based on 10 years of research, "Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973" (1998) was written with Frederick T. Kiley, a retired Air Force colonel and teacher at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

In harrowing detail, the 720-page volume tells the story of hundreds of American captives, among them future Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), former Alabama Republican senator Jeremiah Denton and Medal of Honor recipients George "Bud" Day and Humbert "Rocky" Versace.

The book helped make the case that led to the 2002 posthumous award of the Medal of Honor to Versace, who was executed by his North Vietnamese captors in 1965. The Medal of Honor is the military's highest award for valor.

Vice Adm. James Stockdale, who died in 2005 and was the highest-ranking naval officer held captive during the war, called "Honor Bound" "the definitive book on the POW experience" and described it as "a monumental achievement, not only in its depth and breadth of treatment but in its honesty and accuracy." Eugene V. Rostow, the late dean of Yale Law School who served as a senior State Department official during the Vietnam War, called the book "a masterpiece."

Dr. Rochester served with the Pentagon Historical Office for nearly 30 years, becoming its deputy historian in 1987 and chief historian in 2008.

Alfred Goldberg, his predecessor as the Pentagon's chief historian, called Dr. Rochester "first-rate" and said he was "the best writing government historian" he had encountered in more than half a century.

Dr. Rochester was equally valued as an editor. "Around here, he was called the 'editing closer,' like a pitcher coming out of the bullpen in the eighth or ninth inning, and winning the game," said Diane Putney, deputy historian for the office. "He could take dull prose and make it shine, and provide that perfect word or phrase."

At the time of his death, Dr. Rochester was helping edit his office's forthcoming history of Robert S. McNamara's latter years as secretary of defense in the 1960s. The book, like others edited or written by Dr. Rochester, is "very critical" of the Pentagon's leadership, Goldberg said.

"He had great respect for men and women and uniform but didn't allow it to bias his assessment of anything, whether it was the secretary of defense or a sergeant," said his twin brother, Marty Rochester, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri.

Stuart Irwin Rochester was born Nov. 24, 1945, in Baltimore, where his father was a pharmacist and his mother a schoolteacher. After graduating from Loyola College in Baltimore, he received a master's degree and doctorate in history from the University of Virginia, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He taught at Loyola in the 1970s.

In 1980, impressed by his writing skills, Goldberg hired Dr. Rochester to work for the Pentagon's office of history. Among his responsibilities was serving as chief editor of the Public Statements of the Secretary of Defense, creating oral histories of several defense secretaries, and overseeing various external research projects.

Dr. Rochester's books included "Takeoff at Mid-Century: Federal Civil Aviation Policy in the Eisenhower Years" (1976) and "American Liberal Disillusionment: In the Wake of World War I" (1977).

In addition to the historical perspective he brought to POW issues, Dr. Rochester was an authority on the comparative national defense policy of post-World War II presidential administrations.

Dr. Rochester also developed an expertise on zoning and land use in eastern Montgomery County, where he served as the chairman of the Fairland Master Plan Citizens Advisory Committee as well as on other county committees and task forces, weighing in frequently on issues such as the Intercounty Connector.

"Fighting for the community became his golf, his football and his fishing," said his wife of 25 years, Shelley Harris Rochester. In addition to his wife and brother, he is survived by a daughter, Molly Rochester of Burtonsville; a stepson, Jason Golomb of Herndon; and three grandchildren.

At the office, Dr. Rochester took delight in fashioning obscure trivia questions, often involving baseball statistics. Colleagues knew they were in for a rigorous quiz whenever the affable historian approached the lunch table carrying a piece of paper.

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