A Distinctive Memory on Veterans Day


The distinction between Memorial Day and Veterans Day is succinctly expressed by the History Channel:

"Memorial Day, which took shape after the Civil War, is considered a day to honor those who were killed in or as a result of participating in battle. Veterans Day, which materialized at the end of World War I, is a day to honor all service men and women, but especially those who remain with us to share their experiences."

This excerpt from a speech given by Boyd T. Davis owner of Next Chapter Books in Canoga Park, is presented here to remind you of the great cost many U.S. Veterans have endured in their military service.

"The Medal of Honor  can only be earned by a member of the Armed Forces through a display of the most conspicuous gallantry and intrepidness above and beyond the call of duty in the presence of an armed enemy.  In World War Two, 433 Medals of Honor were awarded. In the Korean War, 131 Medals of Honor were awarded. During the long-drawn-out Vietnam War, 238 Medals of Honor were awarded. American military personnel who were captured and held as prisoners of war were a very special group of warriors who engaged the enemy from a very different perspective. Over 700 men spent up to eight-and-one-half years in the hands of the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese. From this large number of POWs, four of them earned their Medals of Honor for displaying a unique valor. They were cited for sustained bravery rather than for specific acts of gallantry. Overcoming unimaginable hardships, these heroic men repeatedly resisted the enemy. They demonstrated great courage in organizing their fellow captives against their captors. Their indomitable courage provided dramatic inspiration to the other POWs. 

Let me tell you a little of the story of Navy fighter pilot James Stockdale, who earned his Meal of Honor while fighting his North Vietnamese captors from the inside of a prison cell during his seven and a half years of imprisonment and torture.

When anti-aircraft fire blew his Skyhawk jet apart on September 5, 1965, ice-cold fear gripped Navy Commander Stockdale's stomach. It wasn't fear of capture that hit him - after all, as Navy fighter pilot on his two hundred and first mission over North Vietnam, Stockdale had learned to accept the risks of being shot down and captured.

It was far worse than that. "I had the most damaging information a North Vietnamese torturer could possibly extract from an American prisoner," he remembered. Stockdale knew the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin incidents.

Thirteen months earlier Stockdale had been the Commanding Officer of Fighter Squadron 51 abroad the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga.  On August 4th, 1964, Stockdale scrambled into the air in response to a call for help from the destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy. They reported an attack by North Vietnamese PT boats. 

  For two hours Stockdale flew his jet back and forth above the black waves. He fired his rockets where the destroyers fired.  He searched where the destroyers' radar said the enemy boats should be. Always his eyes, and his radar, told him the same thing: there was nothing there.

Upon returning to the carrier, he threw his helmet against the bulkhead in disgust and swore: "Nothing but a damn Chinese fire drill!!! Spooked operators and spooked equipment." 

In spite of what Stockdale reported, President Johnson ordered reprisal attacks against North Vietnam. A few days later Johson's Gulf of Tonkin Resolution sailed through Congress.  The U.S. was at war - an undeclared war, to be sure - but still a war.

If the North Vietnamese could pry that information from their new captive Stockdale, they would possess tremendous ammunition for their propaganda.

Stockdale was the senior Naval officer in captivity, and he carried out his leadership role by devising a communication system that the POW's would use to maintain loyalty within their group and encourage each other in resisting their captors.

According to Stockdale, the North Vietnamese applied fear, guilt, pain, solitude, and degradation to turn prisoners against each other and to pry loose military information. Whenever they caught a prisoner in any act considered a violation of the Hanoi Hilton's many petty rules, the guards cruelly tortured the offender. The worse crime was to cause other prisoners to oppose the camp authority.

Almost as soon as his imprisonment began Stockdale was recognized as a leader of the resistance. Twice the guards identified him as the organizer of elaborate secret resistance groups. Each time a dreadful purge followed. Stockdale and the other leaders were horribly tortured, then cast into solitary (confinement). The other prisoners suffered as well. At least one died during the purges.

Stockdale recalled,  "In September 1969 I had been caught in a third prison bust. I was at the end of my string.  I had been through thirteen different torture sessions.  I didn't want any more men to suffer as a result of my actions."

Stockdale feared he would reveal the names of his fellow conspirators. He took a drastic step to prevent that. When left alone in the small room used for torture sessions Stockdale crawled to its tiny window. Hampered by the leg irons cutting deep into his flesh, Stockdale somehow managed to break the glass, and slash his wrists with the shards. 

"It was clear to me I had to stop the interrogation. If it cost my life, it cost it." he said matter-of-factly.

The North Vietnamese found him before he bled to death. Stockdales' willingness to sacrifice his own life deeply impressed his captors. And the publicity-conscious North Vietnamese could not afford to have the world learn of the senior POW's suicide.

They turned off the torture machine. While Stockdale's ordeal would not completely end until his release on February 12, 1973, the North Vietnamese did treat him with considerably more respect after this incident.

These men and women of our military who have sacrificed everything, or nearly so, are the reason we are gathered to honor and commemorate their efforts to maintain our liberty and the American way of life. It is best summed up in the words of Abraham Lincoln who said, "....the mystic chords of memor, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart, should swell into a mighty chorus of remembrance, gratitude, and rededication on this solemn occasion."

Mr. Davis, who serve three years active duty during the last years of the Vietnam War, and 17 more years in the reserve program at Naval Air Station Pt. Mugu, CA as navigator on the P-3 Orion patrol plane.   

He concluded his speech by saying  "Much of James Stockdale's story was taken from Edward F. Murphy's Vietnam Medal of Honor Heroes, Ballantine Books, (C) 1987 by Edward F. Murphy Pages 196-199 "

NOTE: In 2019 the National POW/MIA Flag Act was signed into law, requiring the POW/MIA flag to be flown on certain federal properties, including the U.S. Capitol Building, on all days the U.S. flag is flown.

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