Monday, April 15, 2024

An Exhibition Chronicles the Lives of James and Sybil Stockdale Opens at Coronado Museum

Vice-Admiral James Bond Stockdale was an extraordinary man of uncommon valor in a time of civil discord and social angst in America.

An exhibition at the Coronado Museum tells the story of this Vietnam-era prisoner or war (POW) and his wife Sybil, who founded the League of American Families, an organization that worked for the release of those held captive as well as those missing in action (MIAs).

While on a bombing raid over North Vietnam, Stockdale’s plane was shot down and he was taken captive. He spent 7 1/2 years in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton.” A highly decorated aviator, Stockdale received the Medal of Honor for “valiant leadership and extraordinary courage,” in captivity.

All during her husbands captivity Sybil lived in a house on A Avenue in Coronado. She held the first meeting of the League of American Families there in 1966. After decades in public service in the military, in academia (The Citadel and the Hoover Institute) and at the White House under Ronald Reagan, Stockdale and his wife moved back to Coronado.

Sybil Stockdale

The family’s history in Coronado and Coronado’s history with the Navy made the city a natural choice premier the exhibition. There are plans to take it to other locations associated with Stockdale, including the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and the War Collage in Newport, Rhode Island. Stockdale graduated from the former and was president of the later.

Thursday night the museum held a VIP reception for 125 guests, that included six former POWs and the commander and two sailors from the USS Stockdale.

“It’s a wonderful ship, said Sean Grunwell, it’s commanding officer. Having it named for “a man who has done so much as given me the opportunity about Stockdale and the other POW’s about “what service means, what commitment means.”

Stockdale died in 2005. His sons, grandson and widow were at the reception along with Ross Perot. The billionaire businessman tapped Stockdale to run for vice-president on the Reform Party ticket in 1992.

Ross Perot talking to HM2 Andrea Braasch and GM2 Vincent Balla, who serve aboard the USS Stockdale

A Naval Academy graduate Perot was deeply involved in the POW/MIA cause. In 1960 he drew attention to the POWs plight in a failed attempt to transport supplies to the “Hanoi Hilton.” He was on the tarmac in San Francisco to greet the men when they came home. “It was the greatest moment of my life,” Perot said.

Speaking of his former running mate Perot said: “He was a great admiral and a great citizen. We are so proud of him.”

His fellow POWs remember Stockdale not only with pride, but with gratidude. “Thanks to your husband we came back with a different attitude in mind and body,” Everett “Ev” Alvarez, Jr. told Sybil Stockdale. “We owe our very lives to your family.”

Alvarez was imprisoned for 8 years, the second longest held after army pilot, Colonel James Thompson.

Everett Alvarez, Jr. talking to sailors from the USS Stockdale

This the first time the museum has devoted an exhibition to one person. “It was the families idea,” said Bruce Linder, Executive-Director of the Coronado Historical Association. “Sid [Stockdale] and I started talking about it a year ago.

The younger Stockdale said the idea began to germinate when an old classmate from South Kent Academy in Connecticut called out of the blue. “He said that he wanted to build an ice hockey arena and name it after my father,” Stockade said.

He realized that name probably wouldn’t mean much to the students. He asked artist Jamie Jett Walker to create panels depicting his and his father’s life.

He gave her access to family photographs and gave her a copy of his parent’s book. “In Love and War: the Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam War” that recounted her efforts along with her husband’s experience as a POW.

The first series of panels remain at South Kent Academy. Walker created a second series of panels that include not only the vice-admiral’s accomplishments but also his wife’s.

She not only ignited a movement, she upended the Nixon Administration’s “keep quite” policy by speaking out about the conditions they were held under, the torture they were subjected to and by demanding their return. For her efforts, she received the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award, the only wife of an active duty officer to receive the civilian commendation.

To give a deeper perspective to the Stockdales’ story, the Coronado Museum’s exhibition bookends the story of Medal of Honor recipient James Stockdale with that of recipient William S. Cronan who saved several shipmates after a boiler exploded aboard the USS Bennington in 1905. Like Stockdale Cronan was also long time Coronado resident with deep ties to the community.

“We wanted to show the history medal though two men who received it decades apart and place it in the context of Coronado’s long history with the Navy, in particular with naval aviation, a relationship that dates back to 1911,” said Linder.

Stockdale: Character, Community Leadership opened at the Coronado Museum and will be on display for eight months. Located at 1100 Orange Ave, the museum is open from 10 am to 5pm daily.

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Gloria Tierney
Gloria Tierney
A freelance writer in San Diego for more than 30 years. She has written for a number of national and international newspapers, including the Times of London, San Diego Tribune, Sierra Magazine, Reuters News Service and Patch.Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: [email protected]

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