Archive for November, 2011

Has there ever been a month in the long history of Man’s wars that was as decisive as that of the thirty days of November, 1942? It was during this month that, in every theater in the Second World War, the tide turned decisively against the Axis.

The collection of “turning points” that are commonly offered when examining the Second World War in Europe, the Pacific, and on the Eastern Front, have the most familiar of rings to them. The Battle of Britain and the failure of the Luftwaffe in 1940 to subdue Fighter Command and set the conditions for SEELOWE. The failure of Army Group Center on the Eastern Front to take Moscow in the autumn of 1941. The carrier clash at Midway in June of 1942 which wrested the initiative from the Japanese in the Pacific. Without doubt, all these events were momentous. But it is only with hindsight certainty of all that followed that we might point to them and call them “turning points”.

The British, for example, would lose their Far East strongholds of Hong Kong and Singapore in the early months of 1942, and see her crude oil reserves drop to only 60 days’ supply during that summer as German U-Boats slowly strangled her Atlantic lifelines. The abortive Dieppe raid in August of that year did not portend well for regaining a foothold on the Continent of what would become Festung Europa.

In the East, the Wehrmacht shook off the disappointment of its failures before Moscow, and the effects of the brutal winter of 1941-42, to drive their forces ever more deeply into the Soviet Union, albeit against a Red Army that had saved its critical heavy industry with a miraculous evacuation from the so-called “Moscow-Gorky Space” into the safety of the Ural Mountains.

In the Pacific, the surrender of almost 13,000 US troops at Corregidor just a month before Midway, and the uncertain success of the Solomons offensive, meant that the initiative was not in firm possession of either the US or Japanese forces, instead up for grabs like a spinning football. Any significant setback for the thinly-stretched US Navy and Marine Corps might have had disastrous consequences.

In context, the Battle of Britain, Moscow, and Midway, represent not decision, but entry of each respective theater of war into a period of indecision. The course of the war to that point had gone almost entirely in the favor of the Axis, except for temporary and somewhat trifling Allied successes. With the above events, the war reached a juncture in which the needle of the compass stopped pointing toward the Axis, and was wandering. The great happenings around the world in the month of November 1942 would ensure that the needle settled in the Allies’ direction, never to spin back to its original heading. The war, which had to this point gone almost universally badly, turned decisively for the Allies.

By November of 1942, The United States had been at war with the Axis for eleven months; the Soviet Union, for sixteen months; Britain, for more than three years during which she had stood alone (and suffered alone) for an entire year. What occurred during those thirty days of November in 1942 constitutes one of the most remarkable months in all of Western military history.

During the last week of October, 1942, in the Western Desert of North Africa, the savage Second Battle of Alamein raged between the German and Italian forces of Deutsches-Italienische Panzerarmee and Montgomery’s 8th Army. On 2 November, Montgomery’s armor slashed its way through the German-Italian defenses (at heavy cost to both sides) and turned Alamein into a rout and a decisive Allied victory. Though Rommel made good his escape (returning from illness to re-assume command on 25 October), the forces at his disposal were no longer combat effective.

Also during that last week of October 1942, an Allied invasion force gathered for the purposes of putting 65,000 American and British troops ashore on the northwest coast of Africa. The purpose of Operation TORCH was to engage the Germans wherever practical and theoretically relieve the hard-pressed Soviets in the East. On 8 November, 1942, those forces landed and overcame Vichy resistance. This would be the first instance in which US industrial and manpower would be brought to bear directly against the Germans. While the green Americans learned a great many costly and difficult tactical lessons against the veteran German formations, the invasion was there to stay, and the clock was ticking on the remaining life of Rommel’s once-magnificent Panzerarmee Afrika.

In the Solomons, the US effort to seize the initiative from the Japanese, to decide whether Midway was a temporary or permanent halt to Imperial momentum, hung in the balance through the summer and autumn of 1942. When at last the Japanese made their most serious effort to eject the Marines from Guadalcanal and the US Navy from the adjacent waters, a number of savage naval engagements sometimes collectively known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, were fought over the days and nights of 12-15 November. These battles were bloody and costly affairs for both sides, but they resulted in the destruction of the relief force from the 17th Army and the blunting of the IJN, and ultimately, the Japanese decision to evacuate Guadalcanal.

In the titanic struggle in the East, throughout August, September, and October of 1942 the exhausted and gaunt survivors of Chuikov’s 62nd Army clung desperately to the remaining acres of rubble inside the city of Stalingrad. Their story is one of the great tales of heroism in any theater of that war. The consequence of their fanatical defense was the necessity to weaken the flanks of the German 6th Army by pouring additional formations into the city, leaving the northern and southern lines largely in the hands of poorly-led and ill-equipped Hungarian and Rumanian units. When Operation URANUS was launched by the Soviet Don Army Front on 19 November, the 5th Tank Army and 21st Army blasted into the Hungarians and Rumanians north of Stalingrad, shattering those units, and driving deep into the rear of the German 6th Army. A day later, the southern flank was smashed by 64th, 51st, and 57th Armies, and when the Soviet forces met at Kalach on 22 November, Stalingrad was encircled and the fate of more than 300,000 Axis troops was sealed. It was a blow from which the Wehrmacht would never quite recover.

In the waters of the Atlantic, November 1942 would seem to be an exception to the above events. Indeed, Allied shipping losses in vessels and tonnage reached a wartime high. But the factors that had caused those losses, the CVEs and escort vessels pulled from convoy duty for Operation TORCH in North Africa, and the changing of the U-Boat code machines, were rectified during November 1942. The CVEs and escorts, in ever-increasing numbers, closed the air gaps, and the capture of a cipher book in late-October 1942 allowed for Allied deciphering of U-Boat signal traffic to begin again in the last days of November. Newer SONAR and air-search radar technology began to be felt, as well. As a result, Allied losses dropped sharply, and soon U-Boat sinkings rose to unsustainable levels, the fuel oil and supply crisis in Britain came to an end.

As much as anything on the battlefields and oceans of the theaters of war, it was the industrial and manpower might of the Allies that came increasingly to bear in November of 1942. Merchant shipping construction would enter full swing during that month, as would aircraft, tank, and warship production. The crushing weight of Allied industry would increasingly dwarf German and Japanese efforts, and carry the war to the heart of the Axis.

The war had gone on for not yet half its ultimate duration. It would last for thirty more months in Europe, and thirty-three more in the Pacific. And the bloodiest campaigns were yet to come. The Soviet Union would call the year 1943 their “year of deep war”. In Occupied Europe, too, the long nightmare betrayed no end. Other than the abject failure at Dieppe, not a single Allied force had set foot in Western Europe since the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940. Across in the Pacific, the savage fight for the Pacific islands had barely begun, and the Kamikaze was as yet unknown to the US Navy. Yet, the victories across the globe in November 1942 began the inexorable Allied march to victory against Germany and Japan.

For the Allies everywhere, Churchill’s words after El Alamein are descriptive of the significance of those decisive thirty days that were November of 1942.

“Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

My ex-fiance got tired of hearing from me. I’d email her every morning (my afternoon) and say good morning to her. This would upset her on the weekends, as she didn’t have revellie at 0600 as I did. But, it was too tempting not to email her and have her blackberry wake her up, when I am sitting at my computer banging out 1650s.

It’s not that every service member is blessed as a Yeoman is with having email constantly available (EMCON permitting). But, the ability for service members while deployed to keep in contact with their family is exponentially greater than it ever has been in the annals of history. What you will hear from most people regarding this is how great of a thing it is–how families will not seem so distant, the little details of life known to the service member. But, those little details from home aren’t always great, and significant others don’t like being woken up early on the weekends (well, maybe at first. For the first couple of months. But, by month three or four–sleep is more important and the novelty of emails from Sea has worn off).

Subtly, this increase in communication has placed an additional burden on the service member. Once you’ve talked to someone back home for a while, and you’ve gotten through all the questions about the weather, and if you’re safe and how you’re liking it, the conversation turns to what life is REALLY like while deployed. It’s not fun–I mean it can be, it is an adventure and most of the people you’re deployed with are good people. But, there is a reason why less than 1% of the United States has served in uniform–It’s hard and you have to put up with a lot. In describing such a life, I think I have had to be the most careful with my Mom. There’s nothing wrong with this, nor am I saying that my Mom is one to over react, or over-worry about things. Rather, from my point of view, I don’t want to say anything to her that would make her worry more for her son. Of course, in talking to my Sister I feel much the same way and then to a lesser extent my Dad. Friends, meh, I’ll just tell them the funny things that happen, as that’s all they want to hear about anyway.

What makes it so difficult to describe the life we live is that outside of the context defined by the skin of a ship, it is hard to have the right perspective on what is actually going on. Regardless of how well I articulate that context, it tends to be something that one HAS to experience (what Ayn Rand calls an “ostensive definition”). Flying jets and helicopters off ships IS crazy. Sleeping in the Ship’s Office cause the 1MC doesn’t work in the berthing IS crazy. But, there is a method to the madness, and that method only makes sense given the circumstances in being deployed. In attempting to explain such circumstances to my Mom, or anyone back home borders on the impossible, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I’ve more or less had to figure this out on my own, as all service members do. This reality is one of those tacit understandings that we all have learned by being deployed. To date, this arrangement has worked alright. There has been no need for what can loosely be termed as ‘communications training’ for service members beyond OPSEC and INFOSEC, because the amount of time service members could possibly spend communicating with their families was very brief, and the odds of getting into things that could cause tumult ashore was small.

However, I think this may well have changed things.

My son and I emailed each other and I sent him some boxes – you know, care packages – and he called me once. Just once. We touched base and he mentioned that the heads still weren’t flushing. He expressed his frustration at the fact that things had been flushed or shoved into the system that shouldn’t have been. I still didn’t take the situation very seriously. I only thought about looking into the system. I mean, what can I do about that? It’s the Navy. I can’t do anything to influence the Navy!

That’s Mom. And, well, Mom got the CO to respond, at length. It’s a helluva situation, and I have to stop short of saying that a Sailor’s Mom was wrong for what she did. Things like this with Sailor’s families is not altogether rare, either. Being a Yeoman, you open much of the mail that comes to the Ship. Some of that mail is from the United States Congress asking about a letter or phone call they received from a Sailor or their family. Then, your Chain of Command scrambles to get the gist of a letter back to Congress down on paper, and YN2 goes ahead and Yeoman-izes it, with the hopes of returning Congressional correspondence in the mandated time.

There’s good reason why service members and their families can write their congressmen about things they think are wrong. There’s a story where Nimitz was riding back to his home one evening during the war. As they were driving, he had the driver pick up a Sailor who looked like he had one-too-many. That Sailor, too drunk to realize who he was talking to, went on-and-on about how lousy his command was. The next morning, Nimitz made a surprise visit to the command and got confirmation on everything the drunk Sailor had said and Nimitz had the the situation taken care of. But, in all honesty, those situations are the exception rather than the rule (which is why that story from Nimitz is even remembered).

Like I said, I’m not going to call-out Mom for devoting a Blog to the VCHT system aboard the BUSH. But, I will say that the burden is on the service member to ensure they don’t say something to their families that can then in turn, be taken out of context and cause needless headaches during a deployment.

I am well trained and versed in not violating OPSEC. But, the training for those things I could say, which may not directly cause harm to ship and crew, but could cause tumult or anguish back home, is not touched upon nearly enough during training. Our service members are going to be in a good amount of communication with home. Hell, they may even end up like me and get a gig blogging while they’re deployed. So, where is the training for that Sailor in terms of how to communicate with home while deployed?

Lastly, Ray, over at his place asks the following

Is the Navy simply “flattening the chain of command?” Are we simply observing the dynamics that comes with competing the hierarchical structure of the chain of command against the flattening of communications that has resulted from tools that allow greater accessibility? Is the Navy effectively balancing the flattening of and hierarchy of the chain of command?

Sailors posting across social media, writing blogs, and exhorting to the world all they feel is wrong with their command is not creating a flat command structure. A flat organization is created by more than just communication. It is created by actions. Communication as it has been done in this instance isn’t a sign that the Navy is flattening anything. In this humble deckplate-Sailor’s opinion, all the Navy has done here is respond to a blog which garnished media attention. In reading the post by the BUSH’s CO, they seemed to be tracking on the solution to the VCHT issues all along (has there ever been a ship without VCHT issues?). Going outside of your chain of command is the surest way to defeat ANY initiative to create a flat organization. Because, the sine qua non of a flat organization is harmony.


Suffolk (MA) University Law School professor Michael Avery tells us:

I think it is shameful that it is perceived as legitimate to solicit in an academic institution for support for men and women who have gone overseas to kill other human beings. I understand that there is a residual sympathy for service members, perhaps engendered by support for troops in World War II, or perhaps from when there was a draft and people with few resources to resist were involuntarily sent to battle. That sympathy is not particularly rational in today’s world, however.


But wait, he has more to say:


Since Sept. 11 we have had perhaps the largest flag in New England hanging in our atrium. This is not a politically neutral act. Excessive patriotic zeal is a hallmark of national security states… Why do we continue to have this oversized flag in our lobby?


That kind of “civil-military divide” cannot be breached. Suffolk University Law School should consider carefully just whom they allow in the front of their classrooms. One has to wonder if Professor Avery could explain his views to a man such as this. I have my doubts.

The U.S. Naval Institute was a proud sponsor of the 2011 Ripley Race held November 6th in Annapolis, MD. Here are some highlights of the event, which raised more than 87K and had more than 1000 participants.


Ripley Race 2011 from Caitlin Kellagher on Vimeo.

More coverage about the race here and here.

Posted by admin in Marine Corps | 2 Comments

Sunday, November 13, 2011, 5pm (Eastern U.S.) Episode 96 The Journalist at War 11/13 by Midrats on Blog Talk Radio:

They share the hazards, smell the smells; all that is needed so that those at home may understand what their countrymen are doing in the far reaches of the world on their behalf.

The best know that to tell a story, you have to be in it. Sometimes, the story catches up with them.

Our guest for the full hour will be Kimberly Dozier, foreign correspondent for CBS News Radio specializing in the Middle East from the disputed territories of Israel to the war in Afghanistan and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

She reported on the war in Iraq from 2003 until she was injured by a car bomb in 2006. She recently returned to Afghanistan and Pakistan as an Intelligence/Counterterrorism correspondent for the Associated Press.

She is also the author of Breathing the Fire, the story of her recovery from her injuries in 2006.

Also you can listen on iTunes or BlogTalkRadio – Midrats or by downloading from either location.

Posted by Mark Tempest in Podcasts | No Comments

Two years ago, I had the tremendous pleasure of interviewing Mr. Elliot Billings, a pioneer in Marine Corps Aviation flying early biplane dive bombers. I just learned yesterday he recently passed away, a painful reminder that with the passing of each veteran we lose rich memories and invaluable experience. I have included Mr. Billings’s obituary to illustrate the full, wonderful life he lived (emphasis my own):
Read the rest of this entry »

Last night I spent the Marine Corps’ 236th birthday at the San Diego Yacht Club. It was an intimate black tie affair in a breezy, open, dark-wooden room overlooking a dazzling harbor attended by hero-Marines that bled on Saipan and Iwo Jima, fought through the Chosin, repelled Viet Cong during Tet, and sustained terrible wounds from violent skirmishes with the Taliban in Afghanistan’s RC South.


During the cocktail reception I sipped on a young Dewar’s and listened to old stories. And I marveled. Marines of all ages stood, soaring, like granite statues in black tuxedoes telling war stories and laughing and remembering. I tried to memorize each detail of the landscape. Each story, each handshake, each ‘Happy Birthday Marine’ was for me a nod from the great hoplites I have been reading about since I was a child.

The evening’s super narrative was elegant and palpable and it was this: here gathered to celebrate a birthday bigger than any one soul are but a few humble ambassadors of America’s finest tribe, Marines, who, after playing with the House’s money for all these years, pause to drink and dine and let their eyes and hearts swell.

I always revel in the unspoken, all-felt storyline…

Golden city lights poured through open glass doors into glasses of rocked-scotch and bounced from Silver Star to Silver Star to Silver Star worn on marvelous black tuxedos by silver haired warriors; this light instantly reflecting and refracting among dozens of Naval Academy rings and Eagle Globe and Anchor pins that swirled the light as hands waived and waived depicting stories of war days, past.

It’s hard to write this without sounding romantic; but Marines are romantic figures, and the Marine Corps a romantic service. Romantic in that the execution of each human action is deliberate and from the heart, transcendent.

Transcendent discipline. Transcendent violence. Transcendent sacrifice. Transcendent love.

On this Veteran’s Day I’m reminded by those Marines I drank with last night just how important they are to our country’s survival. I am humbled by their sacrifices, their courage, and their transcendence.

My generation has a great deal to learn from these men and women. From those who have spent all these years doing their best, playing with the House’s money.


Once a Marine…

November 2011


ALWAYS a Marine!

The CEO of GoDaddy, the man who brought us those Danica Patrick commercials for which some of us are eternally grateful, has a damned fine tribute to our beloved Corps.

Bob Parsons, Marine, 0311. Semper Fidelis, my infantry brethren.

Happy Birthday Marines!




Valor is stability, not of legs and arms, but of courage and the soul. ~ Michel de Montaigne

Sgt. Jason Pacheco, 23, scout sniper instructor, Division Schools, 1st Marine Division, from Las Vegas, N.M., uses his prosthetic leg as support for an M40 Sniper Rifle as an example for students on a firing range at Camp Pendleton Aug. 30, 2011. Pacheco suffered a severed leg after an improvised explosive device detonated beneath him during a patrol in Afghanistan August 2010. He has re-enlisted and said he hopes to continue training in preparation to return to full duty. (Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Timothy Lenzo)



No. 47 (Series 1921)


Washington, November 1, 1921


759. The following will be read to the command on the 10th of November, 1921, and hereafter on the

10 November of every year. Should the order not be received by the 10th of November, 1921, it

will be read upon receipt.


(1) On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was created by a resolution of Continental

Congress. Since that date many thousand men have borne the name “Marine”. In memory of them it is

fitting that we who are Marines should commemorate the birthday of our corps by calling to mind the

glories of its long and illustrious history.


(2) The record of our corps is one which will bear comparison with that of the most famous

military organizations in the world’s history. During 90 of the 146 years of its existence the

Marine Corps has been in action against the Nation’s foes. From the Battle of Trenton to the

Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and in the long eras of tranquility at home,

generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every

corner of the seven seas, that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.


(3) In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our corps, Marines have acquitted themselves

with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on each occasion until the term “Marine” has come

to signify all that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.


(4) This high name of distinction and soldierly repute we who are Marines today have received

from those who preceded us in the corps. With it we have also received from them the eternal spirit

which has animated our corps from generation to generation and has been the distinguishing mark of

the Marines in every age. So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal

to every emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of our Nation will

regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as “Soldiers of

the Sea” since the founding of the Corps.



Major General Commandant


Some from this blog -
The Ambassador of the Marine Corps

What I’ve Learned.


The Magellan Star: Pirate Takedown, Force Recon Style by Capt. Alexander Martin

Check out other posts/articles from our friends:
Top Ten Badass Marines from Leatherneck Magazine
December 7, 1941...September 11, 2001...November 10, 2011

For ten years now, our Corps has been engaged in continuous combat operations against those who threaten the security of America and our allies. We turned the tide in the Anbar province of Iraq and continue to see success today in southwest Afghanistan. While it has come at a cost … we have much to be proud of.

This past year in operations around the world including humanitarian disaster relief, counter-piracy, theater security cooperation, special operations, counter-insurgency and many more, you continued to solidify our place as America’s expeditionary force in readiness. Since the Continental Congress created two battalions of Marines 236 years ago, our legacy as an ever-ready, ever-capable, victory-producing organization remains intact.

Our rich heritage of selfless service and fidelity to Nation and to one another lives on in all who currently wear the eagle, globe and anchor—those who have answered the clarion call to duty with remarkable courage, dedication and unshakable resolve that Marines are so well known for. To all Marines—past and present—and especially to our families … I extend
my deep gratitude for all you have done and all you continue to do.

As we celebrate our 236th Birthday, let us look forward to future challenges—whatever they may be—and reaffirm our pledge to be America’s premier crisis response force; to be the
first to fight … always ready for the toughest and most challenging assignments.

Happy Birthday, Marines, and Semper Fidelis!

James F. Amos
General, U.S. Marine Corps
Commandant of the Marine Corps

Former Vietnam POW Orson Swindle tells the story of his first meeting with his legendary Senior Ranking Officer (SRO) in the Hanoi Hilton, then-Cdr. Jim Stockdale:

In the spring of 1967, I was in my fifth month as a POW and continuing to be kept in solitary confinement in a small cell. Our cellblock consisted of about eight cells with solid concrete, brick and plaster walls. We had no vision of anything other than the walls. We communicated with each other by tapping on walls or by lying on the filthy floor, peeking under the door to clear the area of guards and then whispering to one another along the passageway. These were very bad days testing our spirit, our will, and our physical and mental stamina.

The cellblock was occupied by about 18 junior officers, I being the newest POW. I was the only POW without a cellmate, so whispering when the guards weren’t around was uplifting to me. One evening there was activity, the familiar muffled sounds of guards moving a new POW into the cell block about three cells down from me at the dead end of the passage way.

The following day when the guards vacated the block, I was down on the floor whispering to “new guy” to identify himself and get into the communications stream. Then-Commander James Bond Stockdale identified himself. I was overwhelmed by his presence. We were aware he had been recently undergoing intense interrogations and physical punishment. Our admiration for him, the senior ranking American in North Vietnam, was incredible. In the days that followed, Jim was not communicating — he was recovering both physically and mentally from his most recent painful ordeal (sadly, there were to be many more for him).

One day we junior officers were having a “debate” over some issue and finding no resolution. I told the group, “Hang on for a minute, and let me ask “the Old Man” what we should do.” Commander Stockdale came up after a couple of calls, and responded with a wise answer to our problem.

Now fast forward to early February, 1973 — six years later. We have been told we are to be released. In the large court yard area of Ho Loa prison, the Vietnamese are allowing one or two rooms to mingle in the court yard or go over by the windows to the big cells (now uncovered) where we could talk to other POWs. Commander Stockdale limps over to my window, and says, “Hi, I’m Jim Stockdale, who are you?” We literally had never seen each other.

I replied, “Sir, I am Orson Swindle, and I want to thank you for all the leadership and inspiration you have given me which help me survive this past six years.” I continued, “I remember a day back in the Spring of 1967 when you moved in to my area of the cellblock, and recall how having your around reminded me of my duty and what was expected of me. You gave me confidence. I really respect you as a leader.”

Jim smiled and said, “Orson, I remember you and those difficult days so well. I was really depressed and down on myself. I want you to know that when you whispered, “Hang on for a minute, and let me ask the Old Man what we should do” — you reminded me of who I was and of my duty to each of you. Orson, you helped me survive, too.”

(Excerpt of a speech Orson Swindle gave in June 2005)

Stark Choices

As the senior ranking prisoner-of-war at the Ho Loa Camp in Hanoi, better known as the Hanoi Hilton, then-Commander Stockdale was trapped between an untested Military Code of Conduct devised after the POW failures of the Korean War and the fact that his North Vietnamese captors were willing to employ torture and deprivation to break him for propaganda purposes. Stockdale and his followers had to craft their own society and rules to survive. Knowing they would break under torture, they devised their own rules that allowed for failure in the moment without failure in the mission. Their strategies and tactics adhered to the Military Code of Conduct where they could, and yet they devised their own approach, when necessary, to achieve their group mission of “Return with Honor.”


Molding a High-Performance Team

Stockdale and other officers in leadership positions molded the POWs into what we now would call a high-performance team. Using a sports psychology model, Stockdale’s personal beliefs and leadership style created a culture in which the POWs:

  • Articulated and embraced a common mission (“Return with Honor”);
  • Developed a group credo (“I am my brother’s keeper”);
  • Created simple and clearly defined rules of the road (“BACK-US” – which was an acronym for “Don’t BOW in public; Stay off the AIR; Admit no CRIMES; Never KISS them goodbye; and “US” could be interpreted asUnited Statesor Unity over Self);
  • Stressed personal responsibility for how they behaved and reacted to their environment (a principle shared by Stoic philosophy and sports psychology);
  • Focused their energies on the things they could control (often, just their own reaction);
  • Refused to spend energy on what they could not control (much of their environment);
  • Turned their adversary’s offensive moves to their mission’s advantage whenever possible (“Isolate me and I will use the time to learn. Torture me and I will use it to torment you”);
  • Accepted failing, without accepting failure (“Get up, dust off, and learn from failing”);
  • Visualized and affirmed success, while competing with each other for even further success;
  • And united against a common adversary (in sports or business, we might use the terms opponent or competitor, but since the stakes were life-and-death, words such as adversary or enemy are more appropriate).

Like any high-performance team, they developed effective means to communicate critical information, avoided expending resources on non-critical issues, held each other to their collective standards, encouraged each other, competed with each other, embraced the moment in which they found themselves, and balanced realities that were often in tension.

Stockdale was a devotee of Epictetus, the Stoic Greek philosopher, whom he studied atStanfordUniversity, while he earned a master’s degree in International Relations and Marxist Theory. Epictetus’ Stoicism is the key to understanding Stockdale’s character, focus, and determination. Stoic teachings, the Greek Olympian tradition, and sports psychology all merged in the Hanoi Hilton and contributed to the POWs’ successful strategies and tactics to survive and thrive while in captivity.


Developing the Mission

In looking at what they accomplished, it must be acknowledged that the Hanoi Hilton POWs were an unusual and remarkable group of POWs – in stark contrast to the POW populations of previous wars. Almost all of them were college-educated (many with graduate degrees) and older than your averageVietnamsoldier or sailor (the POWs’ average age was 35). Most of them were seasoned military aviators, with survival training and professional experience making quick and good decisions in high-stress situations.

Stockdale developed many specific leadership philosophies while in captivity, but in an overarching sense he understood the need for several conditions if the POWs were to succeed. These lessons – honed in captivity – served the POWs well and provided the foundation for a highly productive organization. We would assert that the POWs also used these lessons in their subsequent careers:

  • Having A Cause To Die For: Unit cohesion had to be maintained, as did adherence to principles – with little or no visual or verbal contact. Military discipline and the Code of Conduct alone could not accomplish this. By carefully choosing a few simple principles that most POWs could embrace, Stockdale set the ground rules for an organization that could be self-guiding and self-perpetuating. He set goals that were in the men’s own self-interest as well as in that of everyone else. Communication strategies had to be developed to overcome the forced isolation. This leadership philosophy practiced diligently over many years by the majority of the POWs can serve as a model for managing and influencing dispersed or virtual teams.

Maintaining Strong Cultural Norms: By virtue of their military training, the POWs were already imbued with a strong culture. But, the physical conditions of captivity created unique challenges to maintain that organizational culture. They were a group of more than 700 men, separated by walls and spread across geographically dispersed prison camps. This unusual “organization” had to establish and maintain a strong culture for many years. Stockdale needed to create and aim for consistent goals that could be sustained for a long time – without much visual or verbal interaction (other than the tap code – their life blood). These goals had to be adopted by enough POWs to create cultural “norms.” They had to be infectious; by necessity, they had to spread on their own. He and the other POWs succeeded in maintaining these norms under severely restrictive conditions for five to eight years: unit cohesion, operational consistency, focus in the face of physical and organizational barriers. These can apply to business and organizational leadership almost anywhere.

Keeping The Faith: The POWs needed to keep their perspective amid isolation, deprivation, and torture. Attitude played a major role in improving morale and ensuring survival. Some of the most severely wounded prisoners healed; indeed, it was not the degree of injury that determined death or survival. On the contrary, the POWs maintain that attitude was the key factor. Humility and perspective were critical factors in providing the motivation for keeping the faith.

Daily tactics for fighting their war often boiled down to finding things they could control in an environment where their adversary held most of the cards. When their captors tried to isolated them to break their wills, the POWs used the tap code to encourage each other and make their isolation time productive, teaching each other subjects they knew intimately, including challenging materials that kept their minds occupied in isolation: higher math, foreign languages, and literary classics. When their captors broke up cell groups in an effort to disrupt unit cohesion, the POWs simply turned the tactic on their captors: “They cross-pollinated us,” said Orson Swindle. “We carried information with us to new cell blocks.”


The Servant Leader Lives the Credo

In a 1981 address to the graduating class of JohnCarrollUniversity, Stockdale encapsulated his POW leadership: “From this eight-year experience, I distilled one all-purpose idea. . . . it is a simple idea . . . an idea that naturally and spontaneously comes to men under pressure. . . . You are your brother’s keeper.”

Stockdale practiced “servant leadership,” the belief that leaders should prioritize the needs of followers, long before it was popularized in business circles. He wrote: “A leader must remember he is responsible for his charges. He must tend his flock, not only cracking the whip but ‘washing their feet’ when they are in need of help” (Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (Hoover Institution Press,StanfordUniversity, 1995). The servant approach frees followers to look out for each other and the greater good. It also models the credo the POWs adopted under Stockdale’s leadership: “I am my brother’s keeper.”

Footnote: This article is an excerpt of a forthcoming book, Leadership Lessons of the Hanoi Hilton, by Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland, with contributions by Dr. Jack London, chairman of CACI International, Inc. This book will be published by Naval Institute Press in 2012.

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