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Sybil Stockdale dies at 90; outspoken leader of Vietnam POW wives

Sybil Stockdale, second from left, and other National League of Families representatives meet with President Nixon in 1972.
(John Duricka / Associated Press)

Sybil Stockdale, who organized the wives of American prisoners during the Vietnam War and brought international attention to the torture of POWs by the North Vietnamese, has died after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. She was 90.

Stockdale’s husband, James, a Navy aviator, was shot down in 1965 and spent more than seven years as a prisoner, enduring repeated torture and long stretches in solitary confinement. At first, Sybil Stockdale conformed to the Navy’s admonition not to talk publicly about the prisoners of war.

But soon she realized that silence was not helpful.

She brought other POW wives together, gave media interviews and lobbied then-President Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger to demand that the North Vietnamese abide by the Geneva Convention. She was a co-founder of the National League of Families, which was established to work on behalf of the POWs and those missing in action.

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“She was our anchor, our leader, our mentor,” said Jenny Connell Robertson, 75, whose husband, Lt. Cmdr. James Connell, was shot down in 1966 and died five years later in captivity (a fact Robertson did not know until the surviving POWs were released in 1973).

Because of the work of Stockdale and her group, the treatment of the POWs became a major issue in the media, Congress, the White House and the Department of Defense. She even confronted a delegation from North Vietnam at the Paris peace talks.

In May 1969, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, at Stockdale’s urging, publicly accused the North Vietnamese of violating the Geneva Convention and called for the release of U.S. prisoners. The North Vietnamese rejected the call but the U.S. military says the treatment of POWs improved after Laird’s speech.

Despite the political rancor over the war at the time, the nearly 600 POWs released in 1973 were treated as heroes.

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“Sybil was just indomitable, tireless,” said Karen Butler, 77, whose husband, Lt. Phillip Butler, was shot down in 1965. “We accomplished so much and it all started around her dining room table in Coronado.”

In 1976, James Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery and defiance while imprisoned. He was promoted to vice admiral and retired from the Navy in 1979. In 1992 he was Ross Perot’s running mate in an independent bid for the presidency. He died in 2005.

Adm. John Richardson, chief of Naval Operations, said the Stockdales were “the quintessential military couple — full partners in service to our nation.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was a POW along with James Stockdale at the brutal prison that the Americans dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton,” said Sybil Stockdale’s work on behalf of prisoners inspired “hope of their safe return among military families” and left “an indelible mark on this nation that will never be forgotten.”

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Sybil and James Stockdale wrote a memoir, “In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam War,” which became a bestseller and was adapted into an NBC movie starring James Woods and Jane Alexander.

Sybil Elizabeth Bailey was born Nov. 25, 1924, in East Haven, Conn. She worked at the family dairy as a girl, and later graduated from Mount Holyoke College and taught at a girls’ school in Richmond, Va.

On a blind date, she met her future husband, then a young midshipman at the Naval Academy. They married in 1947 and she followed him to numerous duty stations.

While her husband was a POW and she was rallying other wives, she also taught at a school in San Ysidro. In the 1980s, when her husband was a research fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, she worked as a volunteer “pink lady” at the Stanford hospital. Her papers from the Vietnam era are kept at Stanford’s Hoover library.

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A group of POW wives continued to meet periodically at Stockdale’s home even after Parkinson’s disease robbed her of the ability to speak.

Still, Butler said, the women gathered strength just being near her. After the latest gathering, something happened for the first time.

“Her caregiver brought her outside,” Butler said. “Sybil picked up her arm and waved us goodbye.”

She died six days later — Oct. 10 — at a hospital in Coronado.

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She is survived by three sons, Jim Stockdale of Beaver, Pa., Sid Stockdale of Albuquerque and Taylor Stockdale of Claremont. A fourth son, Stanford Stockdale, died in 2014. Sybil Stockdale will be buried beside her husband at the Naval Academy.

anthonylee.perry@latimes.com


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