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If you like James Stockdale's story, you might also like:
Tom Clancy,
David Halberstam,
Daniel Inouye,
Colin Powell,
Fred Smith,
Michael Thornton,
Norman Schwarzkopf
and Neil Sheehan

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The Vietnam War

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James Stockdale
 
James Stockdale
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James Stockdale Interview (page: 2 / 9)

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  James Stockdale

Admiral, I've read that when you were coming down you had a sense that you were going to be down for at least five years?

James Stockdale: Yes. I had been on the ship when we would have unofficial exchange programs between the A-4 pilots and the army people on the ground. They would arrange for pick-ups in helicopters and there would be conversations around the ship and you could sit down and listen to any of them. I remember one man said, "They own the world at night." There wasn't any motion going in our activities. We were stalemating ourselves. We heard the B-52s when we were in prison and that was a morale booster.


Here I was, crippled. They lugged me out to a -- literally lugged because they didn't have a stretcher or anything -- I was in the grass and I'd passed out. Then I was lugged through the underbrush in kind of a seated position with guys on either side of me. Here was a whole caravan of transport trucks lined up to go south with equipment for South Vietnam and they would take it over that An Wa bridge that I had started out that day to kill. It took three days and we came to a prison and I noticed interesting things. An old man and an old woman were driving in a junk truck that brought me into Hanoi. They didn't speak any English, of course. But at that time the commissar was rather youthful and rather glib and he spoke good English. And I said, "You speak like you've been to college. Where did you go to college?" He said, "The revolution is my college. My wife is a doctor. She's in South Vietnam and thank God I'll soon be moved down there to be near her." But I noticed his eyes were flittering around and he kept looking at my leg. That wasn't the dominant thing that was going on, but as I thought back over it this is what's behind it. The history books tell us that in the last two wars North Vietnam has fought, namely against the French and then the Americans, they have never repatriated a single prisoner with an amputated limb. I don't know what to do with that but that's in a lot of books. I think if he was thinking kindly of me, he (would have) said, "With this leg out here, I hope our doctor can get it to where he can walk or limp." He didn't say that -- maybe he'd just as soon have me gone.


James Stockdale Interview Photo

Did you receive any kind of medical attention after you were captured and transported?


I was out there on a card table --a ping pong table -- for about a month, and they would bring sloppy food and stuff but then a guy came in the night, a medical guy. You could tell -- he never -- didn't speak anything. He wanted to see the leg, and he had a pan and he jammed needles in here, sucked it out. I mean, it was over here, wherever that leg went, and pus and blood went in this pan, and then he went away, and then he came back three nights in a row. And then the fourth night he had a truck ready to take me to the hospital. The French would not allow Vietnamese natives to go to universities. They'd have to go to Japan or make some kind of arrangement. He went to the Sorbonne. None of them got medical training there [in Vietnam]. He'd read some American pamphlets or something and was too ambitious on the first one. He was going to try and remake the knee. I was out. Every time you take a shot in the Vietnam hospital they'd bring out a big, long needle. They'd put it in here, they squeeze it down and you're unconscious for six or eight hours, no matter what. But, then the second time he says, "I think I'm going to try to get it under you. I opened. I felt. There was nothing there but blood. No sign of a knee cap. I think we're going to have to satisfy ourselves with just getting it under you enough that you can walk with crutches." And, he effectively did that.


I had been on the ground say six weeks, and we didn't go in the front door. They went around in back and slid my stretcher in through the window because they didn't want any Vietnamese to know that they were treating Americans in there. Every time I left the room I would be on a stretcher cart all covered with blankets. I had a doctor, even though they hadn't gotten the doctors into the prison system yet. They made them cognizant later of all the rules and regulations we had to follow.

Admiral, did your captors know immediately that you were the commanding officer?

James Stockdale Interview Photo
James Stockdale: Yes, and I'll tell you how that came about. The American newshounds thought it would be in the spirit of better news for them, and for morale in the fighting forces, when anybody had had a great event -- say the wing commander -- they'd have plain language interviews. They talk about the target and they give their name and what their position is. I'd been down there two or three times to Saigon on such a case. So I'm on the roster. I'm CAG Stockdale, USS Oriskany. One of my other squadron commanders, Harry Jenkins, went down there one time. And the first thing they said to me was, "When do you think Jenkins will get shot down?" I said, "I don't expect him over here."

Could you tell us about Eisenhower's Code of Conduct for Prisoners of War and how that influenced you in prison?

James Stockdale: I thought it was magnificent. It was insane that they didn't have one before. When he did that, for the first time in history, everybody was obliged to conform to it: "If I'm junior, I will obey the officer in charge; if I am senior..." whatever it said. So it was the first time it ever was written into law that the war went on behind bars, there were no exemptions. For prisoners, it supplied the same code for everybody. There were some features of the code that got in my hair. You cannot accept a favor. After several years they established an amnesty program which was in cahoots with the American left wing. They would send these counterculture guys over to pick up the people that applied for the amnesty. Now I made it very clear, if you go, you're in trouble legally because you've violated the Code of Conduct. I don't think anything is more pointedly attributable to prisoners than that. You can wind it around but you're just looking for some way to use it. I never used it any other way. I didn't put it in my orders as such. My orders were always "tap." There were no written orders.

When you say "tap," tell us what you mean, and how you communicated with the other prisoners.

James Stockdale: We had some smart guys that were shot down ahead of me. Bob Shoemaker was one of them and Smitty Harris was another one. They both had prisoner experiences in survival schools and all. They said, "We've got to have a code." One day a man that was near them, Larry Gorrino, was taken away, and they didn't know where he was. So they said...


"We've got to get a code going." So what it came down to was a five-by-five matrix. A 25-letter alphabet. You throw "k" out because a "c" will make the same sense in a sentence. And then it's line and then -- well, rather than getting mixed up in the terminology, if I wanted to write -- if I wanted to say "C"-- start a letter with "C" I would go dom-dom-dom-dom. Line, top line, third letter over. Then you get so you know them all. "S" is dom-dom-dom-dom-dom-dom and so forth. So you get to know this code and then you had to have operating signals. You've got to go dum-da-da-dum-dum, made an American sound, and when the guy says "dum-dum" that means go. Everything is clear. Yes. Or if he just says one hit, "Danger. Stop. We're being sighted."


So if you had cells next to each other you did this on the wall?

James Stockdale: Yes, sometimes. And then at one point my ten guys were kicked out of the camp system and we went to Alcatraz. It was our nickname for this place. We were in the army headquarters. We were right across the walk from their Pentagon, but we were the only Americans in there and there were only 11 of us. We called it Alcatraz, ALCZ was the abbreviation. It's in all the books. But we were not in alignment there as well as we were in some of the other places, so you can do the same thing with your hand under the door.

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This page last revised on Feb 07, 2008 13:35 EDT