American Heroes: Admiral Stockdale Cut his Scalp Open to Avoid Treason

Toni Koraza
Photo By: Dave Wilson, Navy
American Douglas A-4 Skyhawk crashed over North Vietnam on the Eve of September 9, 1965.
The pilot punched out in time, landing in a tiny village behind enemy lines. Locals stormed the intruder, stomping and beating him unconscious. The man under their feet was Admiral James Bond Stockdale, the most senior naval officer ever to be captured in the Vietnam War.

As a philosophy student, Stockdale knew he was about to leave the world of technology and enter his most challenging period in life. Police soon dragged Stockdale to Hoa Lo Prison — sarcastically known as “Hanoi Hilton.”

The invincible hero

Stockdale survived the crash, but it wasn’t a reason to celebrate. The Admiral had a broken bone in his back, a broken leg, and a paralyzed arm when he reached the Hilton. Death was mercy for prisoners of war at the time.

Prison officials denied Stockdale of any medical treatment, hindering his recovery. He lost the ability to walk without help. Stockdale used his broken bones as an opportunity to communicate with others. Inmates soon started recognizing his limp and leaving him hidden messages.

“Dave Hatcher knew I was back because I walked under his window, and though he could not peek out, he could listen, and over the years, he had attuned his ear to my walking signature, my limping gait.”

North Vietnam mastered mental warfare

North Vietnamese couldn’t fight American forces head-on, so they terrorized American morale.

Loudspeakers blasted propaganda to entrenched American soldiers announcing, “… there is no Jersey coffee in town on Washington Street where you can sit around the counter eating hamburgers and sipping coffee without having to fend off a bomb…”

The guards tortured POWs into publically denouncing and condemning American involvement in the war, often citing bombing Vietnamese children with napalm.

Stockdale was a prime target. He was the highest-ranking official and a treat for the Vietnamese propaganda machine.

But Stockdale had different plans. Severely scarred and physically exhausted, he would not let the pain take over his mind. Hao Lo’s guards did everything in their power to break his spirit.

Guards would tie his arms behind his back, place him down, extending his legs straight, and push against his back until his face smashed the floor. He would face similar torture twice a week on average.

Stockdale never gave up. The man controlled what he could and submitted to the rest. Torture could break his body but not his spirit. He slid both of his wrists to avoid being tortured into spilling out time-sensitive military secrets.

Escaping the propaganda

North Vietnamese paraded prisoners of war (POWs) in the streets of Hanoi to demonstrate public outcry over American bombing campaigns.

POWs had to be clean, without any visible injury on their faces and necks. Vietnamese wanted to march Stockdale in the Summer of 1969, four years into his captivity. Guards pulled him into the washroom, giving him a razor and soap so he could shower and shave. Stockdale took the blade and cut his scalp open to avoid becoming a poster boy of Vietnamese propaganda.

The guards yanked him out of the washroom. One man grabbed a hat and placed it over Stockdale’s head, hiding the wound because a bleeding POW wouldn’t be much of propaganda material. But Stockdale was not done yet. As soon as his hands were free, he grabbed a stool, and he repeatedly smashed his face until it swelled beyond recognition.

Vietnamese couldn’t fight Stockdale’s resolve. He was soon relocated into solitary confinement, where he spent the rest of the captivity. The war couldn’t defeat the man. He stood strong until America pulled from the direct conflict in 1973 and negotiated the release of 591 American prisoners under Operation Homecoming. Stockdale returned home to his wife that Spring after almost eight years of unimaginable torture.

The Stockdale Paradox

Jim Collins coined the term Stockdale Paradox after chatting to the Admiral about who didn’t survive the prison and why.

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas. ‘ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go.” — Stockdale shared, stressing that survivors believed they were getting out eventually but without placing a mental deadline.

Stockdale controlled what he could. He could prop his resistance, not the time of release. The prison, torture, and solitary confinement couldn’t hinder Stockdale’s resolve. He returned in high spirit, never mentioning revenge.

Vietnam war officially ended in 1975, signing off a dark era in history.

In Stockdale’s honor, the Navy has a leadership award named after him. He was awarded the title of Laureate of Abraham Lincon Academy and was forever enshrined in the Carrier Aviation Hall of Fame. His teachings and honorable mentions could be found across several other museums in the U.S.

Stockdale ran as a Vice-president on Ross Perot’s independent ticket, which, despite being a blunder, gained the highest number of votes compared to any independent campaign to date.

Comedian Dennis Miller commented on the campaign. “He teaches philosophy at Stanford University, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, courageous man. And yet he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television.”

Touche. Stockdale was good at everything but sensationalism.

Admiral James Bond Stockdale succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease and died on the eve of July 5, 2005. He carved a path for future leaders and forever changed Stoic philosophy.

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