Lessons From the Hanoi HiltonReview by CAPT Richard A. Stratton, USN

It is almost as if the authors were there beside Jim Stockdale while he was in the Maison Centrale (Hanoi Hilton). There are a few figures in each generation that rise above the norm to show the way by word and deed – who walk the walk as well as talk the talk. CAG (Carrier Air Group Commander) Stockdale was one of the rare few you would see at Thermopylae, Rorke’s Drift, Omaha Beach or Amarageddon leading the charge or holding the line.

This work would have been enriched by including as an appendix CAG’s remarks to his Air Wing prior to his shoot-down:

“Commander Jim Stockdale was the archetypal air wing commander. He commanded Carrier Air Wing 16 during the 1965 cruise, and set the stage for the air wing’s accomplishments during Rolling Thunder. Stockdale took command of the air wing in April 1965, after commanding VF-51, a fighter squadron on the USS Ticonderoga. As the Ticonderoga was already on station in the Tonkin Gulf, Stockdale had a wealth of experience concerning operations in Vietnam. He had been airborne as the on-scene-commander during the Tonkin Gulf Incident. He also took part in several of the reprisal raids in the rapidly escalating air war. These experiences made him uniquely suited for command of the Oriskany’s air wing as she departed for her first Vietnam War cruise.

“As the Oriskany sailed west across the Pacific Ocean, Stockdale overheard pilots of his squadrons talking about their role in what was already being recognized as a war of limited aim. He called for a mandatory meeting of all his pilots. While there, Stockdale delivered a two hour speech that included the following guidance concerning the officer’s obligations:

“. . . I think I owe you in addition a straight from the shoulder discussion of pilots’ mentalattitudes and orientation in “limited war” circumstances. . . .I want to level with you right now, so you can think it over here in mid-Pacific and not kid yourself into imagining “stark realizations” in the Gulf of Tonkin. Once you go “feet dry” over the beach, there can be nothing limited about your commitment.
“Limited war” means to us that our target list has limits, our ordnance loadout has limits, our rules of engagement have limits, but that does not mean that there is anything “limited” about our personal obligations as fighting men to carry out assigned missions with all we’ve got. If you think it is possible for a man, in the heat of battle, to apply something less than total personal commitment–equated perhaps to your idea of the proportion of national potential being applied, you are wrong. It’s contrary to human nature. So also is the idea I was alarmed to find suggested to me by a military friend in a letter recently: that the prisoner of war’s Code of Conduct is some sort of “total war” document. You can’t go half way on that either. The Code of Conduct was not written for “total wars” or “limited wars,” it was written for all wars, and let it be understood that it applies with full force to this Air Wing–in this war.

“What I am saying is that national commitment and personal commitment are two different things. . . . We are all at a fork in the road this week. Think it over. If you find yourself rationalizing about moving your bomb release altitude up a thousand feet from where your strike leader briefs it, or adding a few hundred pounds fuel to your over target bingo because “the Navy needs you for greater things,” or you must save the airplane for some “great war” of the future, you’re in the wrong outfit. . . .Let us all face our prospects squarely. We’ve got to be prepared to obey the rules and contribute without reservation. If political or religious conviction helps you do this, so much the better, but you’re still going to be expected to press on with or without these comforting thoughts, simply because this uniform commits us to a military ethic–the ethic of personal pride and excellence that alone has supported some of the greatest fighting men in history. Don’t require Hollywood answers to `What are we fighting for’? We’re here to fight because it’s in the interest of the United States that we do so. This may not be the most dramatic way to explain it, but it has the advantage of being absolutely” correct. [U. S. Grant Sharp, "Strategy for Defeat" (California: Presidio Press, 1978), 97-99.]

“Stockdale gave this speech in April 1965, before the Americanization of the war began in earnest, and yet he knew enough about Vietnam, and the salient issues, including America’s limited commitment, that he knew the war would eventually cause great debate amongst Americans. His caution to his men before they entered combat showed a greater understanding of the realities facing them and the United States than many of his superiors, including the politicians running the war from Washington. The strength of this speech is evidenced by Stockdale’s emphasis on professionalism. He never calls for blind followership, but instead tells his pilots that as military men, they must accept the limited goals already set forth by the Johnson administration.

“By stressing to his pilots the importance of their obligations and loyalties, Stockdale set the tone for his air wing and their future performance. His pilots would continue giving their all despite growing frustrations with the war and the Johnson administration’s restrictions and unwillingness to employ them appropriately. Stockdale’s emphasis on the importance of the Prisoner-of-War (POW) Code of Conduct was prophetic given his future role as the leader of American POWs in North Vietnam–a role that earned him the Medal of Honor. Stockdale’s ability as a leader is evidenced by the fact that the issues he covered in this speech affected and impacted Air Wing 16 throughout Rolling Thunder, long after he had been shot down”

[THE EFFECTS OF LEADERSHIP ON CARRIER AIR WING SIXTEEN'S LOSS RATES DURING OPERATION ROLLING THUNDER, 1965-1968 A thesis presented to the Faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree MASTER OF MILITARY ART AND SCIENCE Military History by PETER FEY, LCDR, USN B.A., University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, 1995]

Jim Stockdale is a man for all seasons. Hanoi did not make the man; Hanoi provided the stage for him to play his finest role.

I am alive and intact today thanks to James Bond Stockdale, his humanity and his wisdom.

This brief volume distills the essence of CAG. The authors are to be commended.




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  • Stormy

    I am currently reading, “Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot,” the collection of VADM Stockdale’s speeches. The speeches are, on the one hand, inspiring; on the other hand, very, very, distressing. Erase the dates, change the names, and he would be describing the current military-political scene. The very men who were JOs when Vietnam wrapped up were/are GOs/FOs as we headed into Afghanistan and Iraq. And yet, we used the same strategic playbook: A “Limited War”, undeclared by Congress, without participation and sacrifice of the population, with an expectation of building up a nation in our own image amongst a people who have utter no concept or our framework and society. When questioned, all of the hard and embarrassing questions were answered with, “…but you [Stockdale] don’t understand, that’s not how Washington works…” So, with the very same breath the nation applauds VADM Stockdale for his leadership, they won’t actually listen and take to heart anything he said and will dismiss him as irrelevant to the, “current time and political situation.” And then, those who are smarter than all the rest of us, the Gamesmen as he called them, come and do it all over again with the active or passive blessing of the very officers who saw the fallout first-hand in the early 70’s. It is all very distressing given just how dear a price was paid for that learned wisdom.

    • ProjectWhiteHorse

      “active or passive blessing of the very officers who saw the fallout in the early 70’s”

      “Stormy, your frustration is valid and indeed there is much to be distressed over, but there are errors in your path. Most if not all of the JOs who fought in Vietnam during Linebacker had been out of the service for several years before incursions in to Iraq and Afghanistan. Best of my knowledge Congressman Johnson (Col, USAF Ret and one of the Alcatraz POWs) is only one I know in the loop anywhere.

      The issue is not praising Stockdale then bypassing the lessons learned. The issue is the lessons were never learned to start with.

      How many folks do you think have read Stockdale’s “Thoughts…” much less the thesis on CAG 16 ops? In the mid 70s, everything possible was done to leave VN in the rearview mirror as quickly as emerging computer technology would take us. Most of us ancients from Linebacker days know with absolute certainty that the very best combat leaders we had, would have had the exploding bolts on their command stars activated immediately if not sooner in today’s environment.

      The ref to the CAG 16 leadership thesis is somewhat double edged. They lost more pilots/aircraft than any other airwing at any other time in the war. They were executers of the last of the WWII, Korea timeframe tactics and the mix of “no mission that can’t be done/I’m hit but rolling in anyway attitude combined with tactics that were unsuitable for the new SAM environment caused losses.

      The JOs that survived, learned the lessons and caused change by the time we went back up North in ’72. Right after I found that thesis, I had a very good conversation my squadron CO about how and why those changes occur.

      The problem today is how to keep good leaders so that lessons can be taught to the JOs. Frankly I think I’m glad I was around in the age of third generation fighter/attack a/c.

      The value of “Lessons..” is that after all this time, someone has approached the “return with honor” concept with real thought on how it really worked. Hardly anyone has ever noted that they executed a real war mission on a battlefield Ho Chi Minh chose and did it as a team…AND they won. They were never usable as a battlefield asset by NVN in the fight to win on the streets of Downtown USA.

      Lessons comes at a time when the six identified characteristics are really needed. They were needed for Katrina and they could have been used in the 2008-2009 financial crisis.
      In my opinion no officer today should be commissioned who hasn’t read this book, and the CNO and his service parallels should push the reading by all officers.

    • RightCowLeftCoast

      Is it possible that are present elected leaders do not give significant weight to the opinions of their military advisors, some of whose experience come hard-earned through the test of combat, because they have not served themselves? Additionally, are those same elected political leaders, more apt to turn to a military option because they have not served themselves, or fully understand the pros and cons of the military option?

  • Sealdoc

    “Failure to learn, failure to anticipate, failure to adapt, aggregate failure, catastrophic failure” … Military Misfortunes, The anatomy of failure in war, Eliot Cohen & John Gooch. Worth the read along with Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War.
    Why would an intelligent, moral, honest young man (or woman) enter a profession led by a Commander in Chief with the credentials, morality, or paucity of “real life experience” manifested by the current POTUS or the next most likely POTUS?
    God Bless America and God help America.
    “It’s the electorate stupid!” Or “Is it the stupid electorate”.

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