Some people may only remember Vice Adm. James Stockdale as independent presidential candidate Ross Perot's running mate in 1992. His opening statement of a disastrous performance during the vice presidential debate — "Who am I? Why am I here?" — made him a punchline on late night TV.
But Stockdale's legacy far surpasses any failed political endeavors. In 1965, his plane was shot down over North Vietnam and he was taken as a prisoner of war at Hoa Lo. He would be a POW for nearly eight years.
About five years after Stockdale was captured, his teenage son, Jim, sought out a counselor's advice.
"You may be better off just considering your father dead and gone," Jim Stockdale recalls the counselor telling him. He says the advice made pretty good sense at the time, after so many years living without his dad.
Those lost years, however, were not without some communication from Vice Adm. Stockdale, who's noted as the highest ranking naval officer to be held as a POW in Vietnam. During his nearly eight years as a prisoner, Stockdale sent letters to his wife, Sybil, who realized that they were coded. She coordinated with the CIA to continue communication while he was held captive in Vietnam, and his correspondence reported prison conditions, described brutal torture at the hands of the enemy and provided a list of the American POWs in Hanoi.
James Stockdale was released and returned to the U.S. in 1973 during Operation Homecoming. His heroic efforts in Vietnam as a leader of resistance, and even maiming his own face to avoid being used in propaganda, helped earn him the prestigious Medal of Honor — the nation's highest military honor — on March 4, 1976.
During a recent StoryCorps visit, Stockdale's son, Jim, recalls his father's valiant fight as a POW and shares how the family — he, his mom, Sybil, and brothers Sid, Stanford and Taylor — spent those years waiting for his dad.
"At one point while Dad was gone, Mom decided that we would not take any family pictures," Jim recounts. "She just said it one night at supper and we nodded knowingly as if that made sense. And she decided that she would buy no new clothes until Dad came home. There was also a point at which she decided that we should always have a small bowl of rice for supper and that's all, to sort of share Dad's meager existence."
These seemingly strange emotional behaviors were not the only way the family coped with their father's absence. Sybil Stockdale became a fierce advocate for the families of POWs and MIAs, and she founded the National League of Families of American Prisoners Missing in Southeast Asia, which is still active today.
In 1979, she was given the Navy Distinguished Public Service Award, the highest award that can be given to a civilian not employed by the Department of the Navy. Sybil is the only wife of an active duty naval officer to receive this honor.
Jim says the things his mom decided the family should forgo during his father's imprisonment may sound strange but they were "emotional kinds of things that really indicated how desperate we were to do something." It was how they could live their lives in waiting.
Their waiting ended on Thurs., Feb. 15, 1973.
"The day that dad came home — we had been forewarned about Dad's injuries — but standing there on the tarmac, when he came down the steps, I remember just holding his featherweight frame in my arms. We were just sort of stumbling over our love for one another," Jim says.
Yet, says Jim, "I remember the third night he was actually at home he wanted to go and call the wife of one of the men who had died in prison. And, ah, we had about one of those to do a night for a couple of weeks. He felt it was his obligation to report what he knew about the nobility of men who had suffered greatly and had died of injury or infection or, in a couple of cases, just a broken heart as he described it."
Having his dad back home made the family realize how close they had come to losing him. And from there on, says Jim, they maintained "a fierce, loving allegiance to one another through to the very end."
The vice admiral died from Alzheimer's disease in 2005 and was buried at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Sybil Stockdale died last October of Parkinson's disease and is buried next to her husband.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Alletta Cooper with Andrés Caballero.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org. Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.