Sybil Stockdale, forceful advocate for POWs, dies at 90

By David Larter, Staff writer

Sybil Stockdale, a forceful advocate who fought to end official silence over the mistreatment of American POWs in Vietnam while her husband led the resistance of prisoners tortured by Vietnamese captors inside the notorious Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton, died Saturday. She was 90.

Stockdale co-founded the National League of Families, the organization known for its once-ubiquitous black POW/MIA flag, and was a tireless advocate for prisoners held by the North Vietnamese at the height of the conflict. Her husband, then-Cmdr. James Stockdale, was captured in 1965 after ejecting from his jet over North Vietnam and prompted her to step forward to organize other spouses.

“[Sybil] was an incredible leader, staunch advocate and principal founder of the National League of POW/MIA Families,” said Ann Mills-Griffiths, head of the organization, in a statement. “We are confident she is at peace with the thought of reuniting with her beloved husband, VADM James Stockdale, a leader among the returned POW community.”

Stockdale formed the league from a group of spouses of POW and missing service members that met at the Stockdale home in Coronado, California, after her husband was shot down and captured.

The policy of the government at the time was to turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of American POWs. Once it became apparent to the spouses that their husbands were being mistreated and tortured, Stockdale lobbied tirelessly to get the government to acknowledge the mistreatment and to pressure the North Vietnamese to abide by the Geneva Convention.

Stockdale also traveled to the Paris peace talks in 1972 to confront the Vietnamese delegates about the mistreatment of POWs in Vietnam. She was reunited with her husband in February 1973. For her advocacy, she was awarded the U.S. Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award.

Sen. John McCain, a naval aviator and fellow POW in the Hanoi Hilton with Stockdale’s husband, praised her life of service to the POW community in a statement to Navy Times.

“Sybil Stockdale dedicated her life to advocating for American soldiers missing in action, or held as prisoners of war, including her loving husband and my dear friend Jim, who spent more than seven years as a POW during the Vietnam War,” McCain said. “With steadfast commitment and resolve, Sybil worked tirelessly on behalf our POWs while inspiring hope of their safe return among military families.

“Sybil’s selfless service and sacrifice fighting for American prisoners of war, those missing in action, and many who are still unaccounted for has left an indelible mark on this nation that will never be forgotten.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson noted Stockdale’s commitment to Navy families during her life.

“Dana and I first met [Vice Admiral] and Mrs. Stockdale in 2001 when I was awarded the Stockdale Award,” Richardson said in a statement. “What a privilege to be in their company and to know them. They were the quintessential military couple –full partners in service to our nation.

“Mrs. Stockdale has been a role model and leader for our Navy families for decades. The time she spent mentoring Navy spouses and advancing family issues made our Navy and our nation stronger. As the Stockdale family navigates this difficult time, the Navy’s thoughts and prayers are with them.”

James Stockdale was tortured by his captors and, as the senior Navy officer, led the resistance. He disfigured himself and even slit his wrists in order to prevent the Vietnamese from using him in propaganda films, an action for which he received the Medal of Honor in 1976.

Sybil Stockdale is survived by her sons Jim, Sid and Taylor, and eight grandchildren.

The family is planning a memorial in Coronado, California, and her remains will be transported to Annapolis, Maryland, where she will be interred alongside her husband on the grounds of the Naval Academy, where midshipmen learn ethical leadership at the center named for her late husband.

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