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If you like James Stockdale's story, you might also like:
Tom Clancy,
David Halberstam,
Daniel Inouye,
William McRaven,
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Colin Powell,
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and Neil Sheehan

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James Stockdale
James Stockdale
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James Stockdale Interview (page: 6 / 9)

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  James Stockdale

We'd like to go all the way back now to the beginning of your childhood. You were raised in a very small town in Illinois. Could you share your recollections of that town?

James Stockdale Interview Photo
James Stockdale: My mother was born on a farm near this town, which we still own; it has been in the family since 1850. She was college educated, and had a master's degree and was a high school teacher. The biggest industry in the town was the Abingdon Pottery.

Dad didn't go to college, but he had lots of smarts and was a very well-liked guy and was soon the vice president of the pottery. They employed about 800 people. He went into the Navy voluntarily in 1917. He was in his 30s, and he was white collar by that time, but he went to his boss, Jim Simpson, and said, "Jim, I'd like to join the Navy." Jim said, "Go ahead. Your job will be waiting for you." That's when he became familiar with cities and the way people behave in them. It was a great asset to him, and he never forgot it. That's why I'm named Jim, because he made my dad's life full. He and my mother got married in 1919.

I was in the city schools, grade school and high school. I lettered in three sports -- football, basketball and track -- every year. My dad would always be present at football practice. That was part of my growing up. He and my mother were kind of at odds about my future. I was second in my class in high school and she wanted me to be a lawyer. He wanted me to go to Annapolis and go into the Navy. He won. I was on his side. I thought it was very good news. I didn't think he could have thought of a better thing to do.

James Stockdale Interview Photo
This isn't as important as it used to be, but Dad knew the congressman in our district and had negotiated a year when there would be an appointment vacancy. It turned out to be the year after I graduated, so I had a year to go to college first and was accepted at Carleton College, which is still one of the best small colleges in America. But Mother said, "You're going to be gone for the rest of my life. How about going to Monmouth College, which is about 25 miles away?" and I did. Two of my cousins had gone there. So I had a good year there. We were a good freshman football team. I've been back. There's a Stockdale building where they have all the meetings. It's kind of the student union, so I'm certainly part of their alumni. After that, everything went like clockwork and I got the paperwork to go to Annapolis. I was 19 years old by that time.

Dad had heard that the eye exams were very stiff there, so I remember him making carrot juice for me to drink. It seemed to work. I got along all right, and he went with me. I had seen my future classmates and they were saying, "You and your dad were staying over at the big hotel and the rest of us were in rooming houses." He really did it right.

We took a train to Chicago and then got on the Baltimore and Ohio to Annapolis. We were in the parlor car and I was sitting there listening to a three-star Admiral telling about his adventures up to that point. Just conversation, he wasn't giving a speech. This was 1943 so a lot of fighting had gone on and he was going back to be a Washington bureaucrat for a while and then back into the war. I thought that was kind of a good omen, listening to him.

As a kid, did you think you were destined to be a leader?

James Stockdale: Yes. I wasn't a bully, but I watched my dad for one. When he'd walk through that plant everybody had a good word for him, almost like a salute. He'd stop and joke. I fashioned my personality after his.

What was it about the Navy that attracted you?

James Stockdale Interview Photo
James Stockdale: I liked it because my dad liked it. That's part of it. I made him so proud that I just couldn't let him down. I worked as hard as I could and I stood in about the 15th percentile, starting from the top. I put in for destroyers, and I was joined by my best friend in the Naval Academy, Bill Crowe. We asked for the same destroyer after graduation. He lived in Oklahoma and I lived in Illinois. We met in San Francisco and went aboard the ship. It wasn't long before I got orders to another ship, the Thompson. I was always trying to get into a sideline of aviation. I put in for test pilot school at Patuxent River. I got it and we moved up there. Sybil was pregnant and had been told to walk. When we were driving the last leg, we would stop and let her off, and she would walk, and then I'd pick her up and we'd drive and then stop again and so forth.

What year did you go to test pilot school?

James Stockdale: 1954. I got my wings in '50 and then I got four years of many kinds of small ships and it was '54. And that was a real turning point in my life because there were only 17 in a class and it lasted six months of school. John Glenn was in the class and we became friends immediately, and I hadn't flown jets yet. And I said, "Listen John, I'll make you a deal. You don't know how to do algebra too well. I can help you with that but you're going to have to teach me to fly jets." And he said, "It's a deal." It was a very good friendship and we started making permanent friends. I graduated six months later and went to a test unit called Service Test. I was then called back to the test pilot school to be an instructor.

James Stockdale Interview Photo
I spent about two-and-a-half years as an instructor in test pilot school. I flew all kinds of airplanes because every six months a class passed on and there were only about five guys that were teaching. I was teaching aircraft performance and others would teach stability and control and a lot of things. I was commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 51, and I had the problem at first of getting air-to-ground equipment for my planes, because some of the hotshot fighter pilots had said, "We now have the plane that can outrun every other airplane in the military, so let's be sure and not put rocket rails and bomb racks on these planes, because that'll slow them down."

I could fly over South Vietnam the year before and see all the little skirmishes going on, including sometimes American soldiers and marines, and flying American airplanes, but they were really "noncombatants." I could see all of this thing. I said, "Listen, if we come over here, we're supposed to be up here looking for MIGs. They're not going to fly a MIG down here over South Vietnam, and it's just foolish because they don't have enough planes to do what you do if you wanted to get involved in one of these hassles." You could see three wars going on at almost any time below you. You would see lines of firing men firing at each other. You go 50 or 100 miles on and there's another one going on. South Vietnam was alive with ammunition expenditure.

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When was this, Admiral?

James Stockdale: 1963.

What was your feeling at that time about the U.S. involvement there?

James Stockdale: It never crossed our mind that anybody would think there was anything you could do but what we were doing.

Why? Because it was your duty?

James Stockdale: I just thought that that was the best thing that could happen to me, that I would be a hero in Vietnam. That was the only war in town. That's the only reason to fly, is to fight.

I turned that around and I arranged to have air-to-ground equipment, and we were the only F-8U squadron when we deployed that got good scores on our air-to-ground and air-to-air. That set the pace. Others started drawing them and I was the breakout guy because there were some hard heads that said what I said about speed.

James Stockdale Interview Photo
Anyway that was a very good cruise. It was '64. The first night of my command cruise. I was called to go down below and they had a message for me from the commander of Seventh Fleet, and it was to take the squadron at noon tomorrow to the USS Constellation, and the Kitty Hawk would also be there.

This was news that never got out. It was secret and stayed secret. All that action we were involved in there had to do with the movement of the Pathet Lao who were threatening to take over the Plain of Jars, which was quite a rich farming country. We were there for about 40 days and we were flying every day. Every time a plane went into Laos, you'd have to check and that all went back to Washington. Once in a while we'd get an assigned target. We would strafe and bomb this factory or whatever. We didn't realize how dangerous it was to get shot down over Laos.

In 1973, when I was waiting with a fort of other people in North Vietnam to get the American air transports to bring us out, a message came in to the American contingent and it said, "Save 300 seats for the Laos prisoners." When it all boiled down, nine guys showed up. That was all there was. I asked people, "What was it like? Why was it like that?" They said, "They weren't in a central government. It was like Indian tribes." They would see a couple of American soldiers, bring them in and they would have a campfire and they'd say, "What do we do? Do we cut off their heads or do we --" You never knew what was going to happen.

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