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Sybil Stockdale on Being the Wife of a POW

In their book, In Love and War,Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale and his wife Sybil wrote about their lives during the eight years Jim was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Below are excerpts from Sybil's chapters, in which she speaks of the struggle by POW families to get the U.S. government to publicly speak out against the inhumane treatment of American POWs and to pressure North Vietnam to treat POWs humanely, as prescribed by the Geneva Conventions.

James and Sybill Stockdale

Sybil decides how to react after learning of Jim's capture
Soon after [hearing the news of Jim's disappearance], the phone started to ring with official Navy messages and friends offering sympathy and support. I still felt only a numb, sleepwalking sensation. The frightening possibility that the news media might descend upon me at any time was an overriding concern in my mind. I felt somewhat reassured by remembering that in the briefing about guidelines if your husband was taken prisoner, the commander had said our government believed the men being held were well treated. If I kept quiet, the Navy felt the Communists would continue to treat the men in a humane and civilized way. I felt sure the government had good reason to insist on this 'keep quiet' policy.

Sybil realizes she must speak out about the treatment of POWs
As that summer [of 1968] progressed, I felt overwhelmed by an avalanche of trouble. I received a letter from the writer Felix Greene, who had recently returned from Hanoi.

'I am very surprised that your husband has indicated that he is in solitary confinement. I wonder in fact if you are correct in assuming this. From what I have seen and from what most other reporters from Europe have observed, the usual practice is to allow a number of U.S. prisoners to be housed together. For what comfort it might be to you, I might say that those of us who have been able to see prisoners in North Vietnam have concluded that their treatment has been good.'

As he and others broadcast this sort of misinformation, I felt more and more inclined to tell the truth publicly. All my reading about Communist treatment of prisoners throughout the world led me to believe that telling the truth about Hanoi's treatment of American prisoners might be our only hope.

Sybil helps organize the national POW families organization
While I was in the middle of packing to go east that summer, Karen Butler [another wife in the San Diego POW/MIA group] telephoned to say a West Coast editor of Look magazine would see us in Los Angeles on Friday, June 20. She and I flew to Los Angeles that morning and spent more than an hour pleading with him to publish a story about our husbands. He said he'd tell the New York editor but doubted they'd be interested. Sitting there in that plush office looking out over Los Angeles, I thought to myself, I'm crazy to try to tell the world the truth about all this. These people don't care and I'm never going to be able to get through to them.

As we got up to leave, we asked him to contact our League of Wives secretary if he had a change of heart.

"You have an organization?" he asked, suddenly perking up.

We answered his many questions about the League, pleased to have him interested in us in some way.

"We might be interested in doing an article about your organization," he said as we said farewell.

On our way home, Karen and I reviewed our visit. "You know, Karen," I said, "his only interest was in our organization. What we need is a nationalorganization to attract national publicity. We already have a national group with our people all over the country writing to editorial writers and sending telegrams to the North Vietnamese. Why don't we call ourselves the National League of Families of American Prisoners in Southeast Asia? I'll offer to be national coordinator, and I'll call some of the others to get their okay. We could get a post-office box and have stationery printed and we'd be in business. Maybe the fact that we had a countrywide national organization would help get more publicity for our men."

During the spring, while organizing our efforts to contact editorial writers, I'd talked to a few wives in other parts of the country who had started local groups. I'd talked to Mary Winn [wife of POW Colonel David Winn] frequently, and when I got home from Los Angeles I called several others: Louise Mulligan in Virginia Beach, Bonnie Singleton in Texas, Emma Hagarmann in Washington State, and Jill Lockhart in Louisiana. I'd never met them, but we shared the same goal. They all agreed it might be helpful to give our national effort a name and that I should act as national coordinator. By July we were going strong, with 350 on our mailing list and twenty-four area coordinators all over the country . . . Never was a national organization launched more efficiently.

The POW families organization influences U.S. policy
Toward the end of July [1969], I, along with several other wives and parents of MIAs and POWs, was invited to attend a meeting in Secretary of Defense (Melvin) Laird's office in Washington. ...

As I sat there in the secretary's handsomely decorated, spacious dining room, I felt we were beginning to make some progress. This was the first time I'd heard any talk about specific plans for the end of the war. There'd been no indication in the press that the end was anywhere near, but the secretary of defense certainly knew far more than the rest of us, and it was good to hear that detailed plans were on the drawing boards. I had to conclude that this "Vietnamization" I was hearing about for the first time was President Nixon's secret plan to end the war. I thought it was a pretty weak plan, myself, but I couldn't help liking Secretary Laird. He'd ended the "keep quiet" policy and had the guts to talk about the truth of the prisoners' treatment in public. I secretly felt that the organizational efforts of us wives and families on a national level had been influential in forcing our government to join us in speaking out publicly. One official in the Defense Department told me they knew they'd better join us or we were going to mop up the floor with them. That was exactly how I wanted them to feel.

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