Vice Admiral Stockdale: “Hanoi Hilton” Beats His Face With a Stool, Cuts His Scalp And Wrists to Stop North Vietnamese Propaganda Attempts

He was a POW for years, and instead of beating up his captors, chose to beat himself up, instead. His reward? To be laughed at by the American public. Wait. It gets better, because his name was Bond. James Bond.

James Bond Stockdale, to be precise. Born on December 23, 1923, in Abingdon, Illinois, Stockdale attended the US Naval Academy in Maryland and ranked 130th among 821 graduates in 1947.

He started out as an assistant gunnery officer aboard the USS Carmick, before moving on to take up flight training. By 1950, he was a Naval Aviator, and by 1959, he completed his master’s degree in International Relations and Comparative Marxist Thought at Stanford University.

Stockdale claimed it was his understanding of Stoic philosophy which helped him endure the darkest period of his life. The countdown to that period started on August 2, 1964, when the North Vietnamese Navy allegedly attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Stockdale was commander of Fighter Squadron 51 and took off from the USS Oriskany to fight back. Two days later, the North Vietnamese again engaged the US Navy – which surprised Stockdale.

According to his 1984 biography, A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection, Stockdale claimed that “[I] had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets – there were no PT boats there… There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.”

USS Oriskany (CVA-34)
USS Oriskany (CVA-34)

So he was even more surprised the following morning when President Lyndon Baines Johnson ordered retaliatory bombing raids on North Vietnam. His first thought was, “Retaliation for what?” His second, “Great, now the North Vietnamese know we’re coming.”

He was doing just that on September 9, 1965, aboard his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk when he was hit, forcing him to bail out. As he did, he broke a bone in his back, but his nightmare had just begun.

He parachuted into a village filled with people upset at the indiscriminate bombing they’d had to endure. And despite fracturing his leg upon landing, the villagers weren’t shy about venting their rage on one of the men responsible for their suffering. Only when they were finished did they call the authorities in.

A U.S. Navy A-4E Skyhawk taking off from the USS Oriskany to engage in bombing raids over North Vietnam in November 1967 Image Source: By LT JG Nelson / Public Domain
A U.S. Navy A-4E Skyhawk taking off from the USS Oriskany to engage in bombing raids over North Vietnam in November 1967

Stockdale was taken to the Hoa Lo prison – the “Hanoi Hilton.” There the authorities expressed their own anger at him and at the other American POWs they had shot down.

The Stanford graduate spent the next 7½ years as a POW – four of which were in solitary confinement where he had ample time to ponder Stoicism. Fortunately for the other prisoners, he was no reclusive academic.

As the senior ranking naval officer, he imposed strict military discipline on the others. Using secret codes, he and ten others created official (albeit false) stories and events that the men could give under torture so as not to give away military secrets, organized aid in the form of meager rations to those in desperate need, and helped to keep up morale.

Senator John Sidney McCain III was among those who credited Stockdale for his survival at the camp. It didn’t take the North Vietnamese long to realize that the key to breaking the others lay in breaking the Stoic.

Stockdale in 1965, weeks before his capture Image Source: Wikipedia
Stockdale in 1965, weeks before his capture.

As a result, Stockdale suffered more than his fair share of torture. Despite the Geneva Convention, he was denied medical treatment for his leg throughout his stay – something he never recovered from.

Frustrated by his lack of cooperation, the authorities decided to use him for a publicity stunt. North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh died on September 2, 1969. With him gone, the authorities became more lax and wanted to show the world that they respected human rights.

Given his rank, Stockdale was chosen to be the compassionate face of the regime, so they gave him more food to fatten him up. But when he found out that he was to be put on show before an international crew of reporters, he slit his scalp with a razor.

Hoa Lo Prison as taken by aerial reconnaissance in 1970 Image Source: Wikipedia
Hoa Lo Prison as taken by aerial reconnaissance in 1970.

So they treated the cut and stuffed a hat on his head. In response, he grabbed a stool and beat himself on the face till he was a mess. Not quite the Kodak moment the North Vietnamese wanted, so they kept him hidden and got another POW to flout.

But they weren’t through with the philosopher, yet. After his face had returned to normal, they threatened to torture another prisoner unless he confessed his crimes on TV – said crimes being that America’s war on Vietnam was immoral, illegal, and that he agreed it was so.

That broke him. It wasn’t just that he’d be responsible for the suffering of another POW. It was that he’d long harbored doubts about America’s involvement in Vietnam over the alleged second attack at Tonkin.

Stockdale receiving his Medal of Honor from President Gerald R. Ford on March 4, 1976 Image Source:
Stockdale receiving his Medal of Honor from President Gerald R. Ford on March 4, 1976. U.S. Navy photo

So he slit his wrists. That caused panic. North Vietnam had promised to release several POWs, and given Stockdale’s standing, the POWs would talk. From that point on, they eased up on the torture – not just on Stockdale, but on the others, as well.

Stockdale was released on February 12, 1973, and received the Medal of Honor on March 4, 1976. Then he filed charges against two POWs for allegedly aiding and abetting the enemy.

Permanently debilitated by his years of torture and mistreatment, Stockdale eventually returned to Stanford to teach and write. To honor his service, however, he was kept on active duty and was promoted to vice-admiral.

Stockdale in 1979 as president of the Naval War College Image Source:
Stockdale in 1979 as president of the Naval War College. U.S. Navy photo

Then in 1992, Henry Ross Perot chose him to be his running mate for the presidential race. It was a disaster. Perot later quit, only to reenter – so when Stockdale spoke at the televised vice-presidential debate on October 13, he was completely unprepared.

Worse, his hearing aid malfunctioned, so he came across as pathetic and incoherent. Saturday Night Live did a skit, shortly after – sealing Stockdale’s reputation as a simpleton.

The man who served his country despite his own misgivings, who earned a master’s degree, and wrote several books on philosophy and politics, ended up becoming a laughing stock for the people he had suffered for.

Stockdale's funerary service on July 23, 2005 in Annapolis, Maryland Image Source:
Stockdale’s funerary service on July 23, 2005, in Annapolis, Maryland. U.S.Navy photo


Shahan Russell

Shahan Russell is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE