A World Apart: Growing Up Stockdale During Vietnam

My memoir traces the events of my early life from 1962 to 1974 when my family found itself in the epicenter of the Vietnam War. When I was eleven years old my father, then Commander James Stockdale, was shot down and declared “missing in action” in September 1965. The emotional impact of that news devastated me, my mother Sybil Stockdale, and my three brothers, but we struggled to carry on somewhat normal lives. After seven months, in April 1966, two letters arrived in our Coronado mailbox from Dad, he was alive and a POW in Hao Lo prison, the “Hanoi Hilton”. My joy at the news of his survival was that of a young boy who didn’t recognize the innuendos in his letters that made clear to my mother and US intelligence he was suffering in a brutal extortionist prison system where torture was frequent. My memoir describes my emotional strugglesas I wrestle with these new realities and at the same time presents the ‘before and after’ story using my parent’s book, In Love and War (1984), The League of Wives by Heath Lee (2019), and my mother’s diary that I first received in 2016, one year after she passed away.

In September, 1966, my older brother left to attend boarding school and I assumed the role of supporting my mother by helping care for my younger brothers, age 7 and 4. During the first four years of the war the government told wives and families of POW’s to “keep quiet” about their circumstances, not speak to anyone and especially not the press. In Oct. 1966 my mother’s frustration with this policy and the need for these POW wives to find solice with others in the same circumstance, inspired Mom to defy the “keep quiet policy” and gather a group of local POW wives in our home. Thus, was born The National League of Wives of POW’s in Southeast Asia. As her organization grew in size and influence she became more and more overwhelmed, exhausted and I became more and more a care giver for my brothers and watched her move closer and closer to breakdown. I was an athletic boy and first misdiagnosed with bone cancer but then experienced months of casts on both legs to correct severe Osgood-Slaughters disease. My freshman year of public high school was disastrous, and my mother wisely recommended I attend South Kent School in Connecticut where I found peace with my circumstances and faculty mentors and friends who made me whole again. I can’t imagine the direction my life might have taken had I not been at South Kent during those years.

My story of the seven and one-half years when my father was a POW is set at our early home in Los Altos Hills, CA, our home in Coronado, CA, Sunset Beach, CT, on Long Island Sound where we spent summers near my mother’s parents, and South Kent School, CT. The story concludes when I am getting to know my father again, for the first time.

Major themes include: dealing with the loss of my father emotionally and the long term uncertainty with him a POW; coping with my mother’s physical and emotional exhaustion and eventually her severe depression; coping with my brother Stan’s emotional blindness and its impact on my mother; coming to know the “me” that emerged at boarding school surrounded by a healthy and safe culture; the joy of my father’s release and return; the beauty of getting to know my father and witnessing the strength, courage, and determination of both my parents. They were an exceptional couple.

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