Dr. William Sledge would walk outside his office just before his next appointment to watch his patients come down the hall. He wanted to size them up from afar before he interviewed them. He could always pick out the fighter jocks. They had a certain bearing—a swagger, really—that was distinctive. Their uniforms were never exactly perfect—almost intentionally so. They often arrived late for their appointments with him. The bomber pilots, in contrast, were always precisely on time, and their uniforms were perfectly regulation. An Air Force psychiatrist, Sledge was tasked with evaluating the pilots’ mental health.
Other pilots’ walks told a different story. It had been more than a year since the POWs from the Vietnam War were released from captivity in what came to be known as the Hanoi Hilton. While the war was almost over, these men were still serving on active duty in the Air Force, and some were trying to return to the cockpit after a long absence and a traumatic experience. The Air Force wanted to evaluate them closely for fitness, both physical and mental. Sledge was one of the doctors assigned to conduct the evaluations. “I was too unaware to be intimidated,” he recalled—unaware of the extent of the ordeal the men he was about to see had endured for years.1
He had been told they were a “mixed bag”—some damaged by the experience, some faring much better. He had access to the classified debriefings the men had received immediately upon their release and was stunned by the first-person accounts of the brutality of their incarceration. With this knowledge, he was unsure what to expect when they arrived for their individual evaluations with him. Unlike the other pilots, watching the POWs walk down the hall to their appointments, he immediately noticed less of a swagger and maybe a bit more grace. They seemed more humble and grateful to him. An outsider probably wouldn’t have noticed the subtle difference, but Sledge did.
Dr. Sledge’s Epiphany
One by one, he asked them questions about how they were adjusting to freedom, to being back on active duty, and to reunification with their families. From their responses, an unusual pattern emerged. Most of them revealed a series of tangible and intangible benefits from their POW experience: improved personal relationships and altered values with regard to their careers, for example. They also talked extensively about the close bonds they had formed in prison. Several said they had never had such intense relationships as they had with their roommates and fellow prisoners in the Hanoi Hilton. One patient seemed almost wistful to Sledge when he admitted that he missed prison.
After nearly eighty of these interviews, during which Sledge heard some of the same sentiments over and over, the doctor knew he had stumbled on a phenomenon. The men described their lives as improved as a result of their POW experience. Sledge decided to explore this theory and see if statistics validated it. He convinced the Air Force to pay for a more comprehensive study of the POWs, including a control group of similar Vietnam-era military aviators.
The results of the study supported Sledge’s hypothesis: The POWs reported more benefits from their wartime experience than did the control group. Sixty-one percent of the POWs who answered his questionnaire indicated “favorable significant mental changes,” while only 32 percent of the control group felt the same benefits.2 The examples cited in clinical evaluations of these changes included more self-awareness, increased optimism, a reprioritization of the relative importance of family and career, and renewed political or religious values.
The POW experience seemed to bring these men more clarity and perspective to their lives. Even more interesting, the Vietnam POWs reported more subjective benefits of their experience than those from the Korean War: 61 percent of Vietnam respondents perceived benefits, whereas only 21 percent of the Korean War respondents did.3
Sledge’s study was published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 1980, seven years after the POWs had returned home and long before the term “resiliency” was coined and used in reference to combat veterans. It was the first study to identify the surprisingly positive outcomes that pervaded this group of men, the longest-held POWs in our nation’s history and who remained unified and strong throughout years of torturous captivity. What it didn’t address was why the men fared so well. What about this POW experience made more of the Vietnam War POWs—as compared with their Korean War POW counterparts—report that, on balance, they benefited from their captivity experience? Why were they so successful both as a group and as individuals?
Beating the Odds
Using just their brains and tin cups, these Americans created their own high-performance society, communicating with each other through prison walls by tapping on them—employing a type of Morse Code as their language. They built a civilized culture against all odds, including extreme torture and extended isolation. For the longest-held of the POWs, this duress lasted more than eight years.
What they accomplished also stands alone in the annals of U.S. military history. They defied what game theorists call “the prisoner’s dilemma,” which in previous POW environments often became a reality. It was not uncommon for military personnel—even general officers—to sell out their fellow prisoners in hopes of bettering their own chances of survival. Undersanding that their North Vietnamese captors would be looking for ways to get the POWs to turn on each other, the senior ranking naval officer in the Hanoi Hilton and the organization’s de facto leader, Commander James Stockdale made it his mission to keep that from happening.
The Leader Sets the Pace
Texas Representative Sam Johnson recalled one hot summer night in 1967 when he was a cellmate with Stockdale. They were trying to communicate with recent “shoot-downs,” other aviators who had just been captured; many of whom were still recovering from their aircraft ejection injuries. As Johnson described it, “They were scared, for good reason. We wanted to talk to them and make them know that there were other Americans around.”
The tap code communication system was the POWs’ lifeblood, but the risks for using it were high. Punishment by the camp guards for communicating with each other was harsh. When possible, the POWs assigned at least one man the task of “clearing,” or alerting the others of a guard’s impending approach. This required lying on the filthy prison cell floor and peering through the crack under the prison door. The alternative was balancing on their toilet buckets to look over the top of the cell door for moving shadows along the hallway.
“Stockdale had a broken leg, and I had a busted arm. The bunks were, you know, about that high and concrete,” Johnson explained, as he held his hand up to his knees. A tall man, the height of the concrete slab allowed Johnson to peer out the high cell windows.
“Jim would get on the floor and ‘clear’ and I’d get up on the concrete bunk and talk to [a new guy] down the back side out of the window. We happened to be on the back of the jail. We would tell him essentially how the cow eats the cabbage [how the things worked in the prison system] and, that ‘you’re going to be all right.’”
On this particular night, they were finally caught. “The guard and an officer came charging down the hall. Jim barely got up before the door opened. I’m standing there and the door pops open and here’s this little North Vietnamese guy wearing Air Force second lieutenant bars. Turns out he was a camp commander. He wasn’t a lieutenant—he was masquerading as one. Jim hauled off and decked him right there. Just knocked him down. And, I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re in deep serious now.’ And we were.”
Punishment was immediate and harsh. Johnson spent 72 days in leg stocks in a small cell with the windows boarded up. Johnson quietly noted, “Jim got the worst punishment.”
The Leader Models the Mission
Why did Stockdale intentionally assault the camp commander by punching him in the face? An irrational outburst of anger or violence was completely out of character for this Stanford-educated philosopher. He was noted around the camp for his towering intellect, not his emotional volatility.
Johnson paused for a long moment before answering that question, choosing his words deliberately. “Frankly, I think he was protecting me. You know, that’s a characteristic of leadership.”
Stockdale exhibited several noteworthy characteristics of a great leader that day. He stayed focused on the POWs’ agreed-upon mission, he chose his battle carefully, and without fear of personal consequences he sacrificed himself to protect those under him. He asked nothing of his followers that he would not first deliver himself. When pain was on the agenda, Stockdale didn’t delegate. He led.
Stockdale’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the mission demonstrated the first of six characteristics of high-performance teams found in the POW organizational culture. Stockdale knew the mission was more important than the leader. He consciously created a mission-centric organization instead of a leader-centric organization. The mission led, even when the leader was gone. Stockdale was often out of communication range during his captivity; the North Vietnamese routinely tortured Stockdale and placed him in solitary confinement in hopes of diffusing the POW culture. However, the organization continued to thrive with its mission intact. In fact, the culture was often energized by the knowledge that its leader was paying a higher price than those left to the daily execution of its tactics.
Thrust into a crucible unlike anything else in history, these POWs formed a high-performance team that reached its goal of returning home with honor and with reputations intact. Held between 1964 and 1973 at the infamous Hanoi Hilton—the nickname for Hoa Lo, former French prison; they remained unified in their resistance to the enemy and in their loyalty to their country for nearly nine years in captivity. Even more remarkably, they managed to keep alive the sense of purpose and meaning they created from their experience. The lessons gleaned from their time in North Vietnam are aiding later generations of military men and women, as well as businesses, governments, and communities. Their legacy and success will outlive them.
Reflections of a POW'S SON
By Dr. James B. Stockdale II
There was never a more heart-pounding Valentine’s Day than the one many military families experienced in 1973. By then, a first group of prisoners had been released from Hanoi, flown stateside, and were briefly assigned to stay in military hospitals close to their families. I was to spend the next three and one-half months with Dad, from homecoming through June. In the 40 years since, I have come to cherish those days and reflect often on how seminal and formative they were.
When he moved home, I gradually (with neither pretext nor plan) became Dad’s helper and confidante—something of a glorified aide and driver, taking him to and from the hospital each day. I would stay there with him in the wings if needed. An unanticipated benefit of the assignment was ready access to Balboa Hospital’s hallways and the freedom to visit with an extraordinary group of men.
That upon return from their perdition these men found “more clarity and perspective in their lives” and “favorable significant mental changes” as described in a rigorous research study surprises none of us who were with them in those first days home. Some understandable initial shakeouts aside, they were calm, relaxed, and sure of themselves; they were completely comfortable in their own skin. Their easygoing, hand-in-glove return to the rhythms of family and professional life was somewhat perplexing to the medical and psychological teams treating them.
While in prison, these men had experienced an indecipherable intensity of conscience, commitment, adrenalin, and courage inherent in the unification of an elite unit. Using deplorable circumstance to their best advantage, they not only fought back, but they prevailed in their quiet war against a system devoted to breaking their collective will. Their steely (if silent) rage in reply to beatings and systematic torture resulted in raw, chemical changes among the group, a chemistry that led to ever-deeper emotional commitments to one another and to their duty.
Like many of his fellow prisoners, Dad was called upon to speak at civic events shortly after repatriation. At the first of these, Mom and I sat together in the large audience. During the Q & A that followed, Dad was asked if he resented or was otherwise angry at having spent so much time in prison. He answered, “No,” and after a pause went a little off-script saying, “Not at all. I felt as though I was exactly where I belonged.” Mom’s hand was resting on my forearm and I felt her grip tighten and her fingernails dig in a bit. There was a later conversation about how that reply resonated, but its sincerity was unassailable.
In an interview later, Dad would emphasize that he was only one of many brave souls who served his country under what they would later call, “less than ideal circumstances.” He went on to say, “I never wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail, but I would prevail by turning prison into the defining event of my life and that it would make me a stronger and better person.” Judging from the remarkable accomplishments of those with whom Dad served, he spoke for many.
In an era of much focus on symptoms of post-trauma stress, the subjects of this article are remarkable examples of post-traumatic growth. What we learn from their lives and example matters much to us now, and it will matter more to men and women in the future who will inevitably be called upon to rise above themselves in service to their country.
1. The description of Dr. William H. Sledge’s meetings with returning POWs from the Hanoi Hilton is based on the authors’ phone interview with the doctor on 12 April 2012.
2. William H. Sledge, James A. Boydstun, and Alton J. Rabe, “Self-Concept Changes Related to War Captivity,” Archives of General Psychiatry 37, no. 4, (April 1980): 443.