A towering presence

Statue of Navy pilot-hero dedicated at the academy

November 06, 2008|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,rona.marech@baltsun.com

Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale, a pilot who died in 2005 at age 81, is perhaps best known for his heroic turn as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Shot down while on a mission Sept. 9, 1965, he landed in a small coastal village, where he was beaten by a mob. He spent the next 7 1/2 years in the Hoa Lo Prison, where he was kept in solitary confinement for four years, tortured and denied medical care. Yet Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking naval officer at the prison, managed to organize a system of communication and help buoy the spirits of his fellow prisoners.

A towering bronze statue of Stockdale was dedicated last week at the Naval Academy, his alma mater, before scores of friends, family members and admirers.

"It would be difficult to imagine a better example of leadership, courage, and moral excellence," Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter said at the ceremony. "He not only had a profound impact on his contemporaries, but he left behind a legacy that will influence generations to come."

Sybil Stockdale, his wife, who was known for tirelessly advocating for POWs during the Vietnam War, had planned to attend the ceremony but was unable to make it when she was unexpectedly hospitalized. But the couple's four sons attended, and Texas businessman H. Ross Perot, a friend who donated the money for the sculpture, spoke at the event. Perot spent millions in the late 1960s to improve the conditions of POWs and grew close to Stockdale after his release 1973.

After the POWs returned home, fellow prisoners would point to Stockdale and say, "He's the reason I made it," Perot said before the dedication. "He was a scholar. He was really a genius. That's secondary to his very high moral and ethical standards. ... If the whole society functioned this way, we'd be a lot stronger."

Stockdale went on to serve as president of the Naval War College. He wrote a philosophical memoir about his prison experiences and, with his wife, penned the best-selling book In Love and War. For 15 years, he was a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he wrote about subjects including the Greek philosopher Epictetus, whose teachings Stockdale often said helped him survive his imprisonment. In 1992, he had a brief, unsuccessful brush with politics when he ran for vice president on independent candidate Perot's ticket.

The larger-than-life sculpture, based on a 1963 photograph of Stockdale striding across a flight deck, is one of two such Perot-funded memorials dedicated at the Naval Academy in October. The other one depicts William P. Lawrence, a Navy pilot and 1951 graduate of the school, who flew in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. He was held prisoner at Hao Lo Prison for 5 1/2 years, and after his release went on to become the superintendent of the Naval Academy.

Don Houck, who served in Vietnam with Stockdale, flew to Annapolis from Seattle to attend last week's ceremony. "You just remember people, and if they were good people, you get emotional about it," said Houck, 83, after snapping a photograph of the sculpture. "And he was good people."

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