This Day in History: “Operation Homecoming,” James B. Stockdale, and the Medal of Honor

On this day in 1973, nearly 150 American POWs are released by the North Vietnamese. In the weeks that followed, 591 American prisoners—both military and civilian—would finally come home as a part of “Operation Homecoming.”

Some of these men and women had been prisoners of war for nearly a decade; they would be decorated for their perseverance, sacrifice, and bravery. But one of the men released on this day 45 years ago would also receive the Medal of Honor: James B. Stockdale was the most senior naval officer in captivity. He became a leader for our men as they were tortured behind the walls of the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

Stockdale established a tap code, which allowed the prisoners to communicate with each other behind the guards’ backs. He organized resistance against the torture. He motivated his fellow prisoners to maintain their honor, even in captivity. He sent coded letters to his wife at home, giving the CIA valuable information about the prison. Most of all, he led by example.

“He was probably the strongest, most exemplary leader of the whole North Vietnamese POW environment,” one fellow prisoner told The Seattle Times in 1992.

On one occasion, Stockdale learned that the Vietnamese planned to parade him downtown, displaying him as propaganda. The Vietnamese didn’t want anyone to know how badly the prisoners were being treated. But Stockdale simply refused to participate. Instead, he began a strategy of disfiguring himself.

“As soon as I could, I got my head wet and lathered up,” he later described, “and I started with that safety razor . . . . I was cutting a track down the top of my head that I judged would make it impractical for them to try to take me to downtown. . . . I didn’t realize that I was bleeding so bad.”

He’d done a pretty good job of cutting himself up, but the guards figured they could cover up his injuries with a hat! Stockdale realized he would have to disfigure himself even more. He found a mahogany stool, and he began beating himself with it. By the time he was done, he’d beaten himself up so badly that his eyes were swollen shut.

Needless to say, the Vietnamese could not use him for propaganda that day.

Another incident occurred after Ho Chi Minh’s death in September 1969. Stockdale had been left alone in a torture room, knowing what was coming next. “I’ve got to go on the offensive,” he later said of his mindset that day. He managed to break one of the windows in the room. He grabbed a big shard of glass and began hacking at his wrists. He cut himself nearly to death, eventually passing out in a pool of his own blood.

“I had run out of ideas,” he would conclude. But the Vietnamese received his message loud and clear: He would die rather than capitulate. They were in a bind, too. The death of such a senior officer would be hard to explain. Stockdale’s action forced change in the prison management, and the harsh treatment of Americans abated a bit. “And so from then on,” Stockdale later said, “the life was never the same. . . . I shut down that torture system.”

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale observed, when asked what kept him going for so many years. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end . . . .”

Which is exactly what he did, of course—along with many other prisoners who are celebrating the anniversary of their recovered freedom today.

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