Liberty Station becomes home to Stockdale Museum, hero's tribute
by Sebastian Ruiz
Published - 10/26/07 - 10:33 AM | 3957 views | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Surviving the horrors of war is a memory many people might like to gloss over when thumbing through the pages of American history. But these stories of perseverance and heroism can also show new generations of Americans how sacrifices made by their elders can bring about the change needed to reunite soldiers, past and present, with their families waiting at home.

The true story of Vice Adm. James B. and Sybil Stockdale is one of a family which, like hundreds of others, had a husband or father taken as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. The Stockdales endured a

7-and-a-half-year test of strength, commitment, love and patriotism during James' and several other soldiers' imprisonment in Hoa Lo Prison.

Both Sybil and James were honored with the dedication of the Sybil Stockdale Rose Garden donated in Sybil's honor by the North Island Credit Union at Liberty Station on Oct. 8. Northrop Grumman Corporation and the county of San Diego, through county Supervisor Greg Cox, donated the Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale Board Room and the Stockdale Family Exhibit, respectively.

Sybil and three of her four sons, Sidney, Stan and Taylor, accepted the honor.

"We're very proud as a family," said Stan Stockdale. "Its really wonderful that so many people have dedicated so much time and energy to put this together and it will be here long after we're a part of it."

The Sybil Stockdale Rose Garden sits in front of the NTC Command Center while the Stockdale Family Exhibit displays personal effects and wartime memorabilia donated by the Stockdale family. The exhibit shows the story of how Sybil and James, with the help of the Navy, were able to secretly communicate important tactical information to each other while he was imprisoned in Vietnam.

During those years, according to the record, Sybil fought an uphill battle against the top tiers of the Navy and U.S. administrations as she worked to change the "keep quiet" policy the Navy imposed on the families of those who were either captured by the enemy or who disappeared. The couple's perseverance and dedication to each other is an example of a love-conquers-all story immortalized in the book, "In Love and War: The Story of a Family's Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years." What follows is a brief retelling of their story compiled from passages of their book and the Vice Admiral James B and Sybil Stockdale Exhibit.


Sybil was raised in Connecticut and graduated in 1946 from Holyoke College. She received her masters of arts in education from Stanford University in 1949.

Six months prior to giving birth to her third child, Sybil Bailey met James Stockdale on a blind date in 1946. They took to each other at once and married in June 1947.

The book "The Navy Wife" was a constant guide, and Sybil read it repeatedly. Early in James' career, the couple moved to Pensacola, Fla., in 1949 while Jim went to flight school.

They moved to Virginia before finally settling in California. There she worked as a wife, educator and mother. Her belief in American government and in the Navy never faltered, according to her biography on the exhibit.

Her love for her husband and commitment to her children were foremost in her mind. In 1965 she visited him in Japan. This personal and private time together she would hold onto for seven years as comfort during James' imprisonment while she embattled the government the Navy and the media to change the "keep quiet" policy in Washington.

When Sybil was given the news that her husband was missing.

"God knows where you are," she thought. She soon discovered that the term "missing" means a maze of regulation and red tape. Her first insight into the irregularity was when she did not receive her husband's Navy paycheck.

With four boys, Sybil could not be pushed aside. She demanded the paycheck. But as she struggled, the experience with the Navy system caused her to question other policies.

At that time, all wives were told that if their husbands were captured, the policy was to keep quiet, don't talk to strangers, don't tell anyone your husband was captured, don't comment on North Vietnamese tactics and in no way intercede on your husband's behalf. As Sybil continued to run up against the government's failed efforts to locate her husband, her trust in the Navy began to erode.

She realized that if change was to happen it would have to start with her.

She began to take a more dangerous role after receiving her first letter from her husband.

The letter was odd because he had inquired about friends she had not heard of previously. The names were the names of men thought to be dead or missing in action.

Sybil, along with the Navy, began an encoded letter campaign that lasted throughout James' captivity.

Roses in a photograph became the symbol they would use to communicate messages without alerting the Vietnamese captors. She sent him a letter with a picture of his mother that would contain odd phrases like taking a "dip in the water."

"But wait," James would later admit thinking, "What would James Bond do?"

That's when he soaked the photo in his own urine. There, hidden inside the water-soluble photograph, was carbon paper with a hidden message.

He was instructed to write back starting with the word "Darling" and ending with "Adoring Husband" to indicate that his letter also had hidden information.

One time he was almost caught, so they stopped using the carbon paper and instead used a code contained in the body of the letter.

Through their efforts, the Stockdales were able to communicate names of POWs and enemy strategies.

The messages contained information in phrases like the one dated Jan. 2, 1967, "experts in hand and leg torture, 16 hours a day, alive here are (names of missing men)."

The group of POWs James had been a part of were categorized as difficult by the North Vietnamese.

James and nine other men were sent to a prison they dubbed Alcatraz. It was made of concrete to discourage the soldiers from using a tapping code they had invented to communicate.

They improvised and translated the tapping to a finger code they could use through the holes in the cell.

Every morning when they dumped their urine bucket they would scratch and erase messages in the bamboo broom at the site, enabling them to communicate in isolation.

Through James' ordeal, he relied on the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Epictetus, which stressed personal choice and individualism.

"This is the paradox," he would later go on to write. "You must never confuse the faith that you will prevail in the end, which you can never afford to lose, with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be."

The information and effects of the letters between Sybil and James, which will be declassified between 2025 through 2032, are an example of a husband-and-wife team who, together, changed the way the nation conducted war in Vietnam and policy concerning POWs. The "keep quiet" policy was frustrating for her.

By 1967, Sybil had frequent gatherings of wives to offer each other moral support and share the feelings of unfairness they experienced.

The group went national when she formed the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. She accomplished all of this while raising four sons and keeping a full-time schedule.

As leader of her group, she met and worked with political heavyweights like Henry Kissinger and Pres. Richard M. Nixon.

In 1984, the Stockdales wrote "In Love and War," later developed into a movie. In 1979, Sybil was presented the U.S. Navy Department Distinguished Public Service award by the chief of naval operations. She is the only wife of a then-active-duty officer to be honored with this award.
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