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Coronado Exhibit Covers The History Of POW Wives Who Created A National Movement

Sybil Stockdale, widow of Adm. James B. Stockdale, cuts a cake during a cerem...

Credit: Department of Defense

Above: Sybil Stockdale, widow of Adm. James B. Stockdale, cuts a cake during a ceremony to commemorate POW/MIA Day at Naval Base San Diego in front of the guided-missile destroyer USS Stockdale, September, 2011.

A new exhibit at Coronado Museum of History and Art looks at the founding of the National League of Families of POW/MIAs, which started during the Vietnam War with a group of military wives in San Diego and grew into a national movement.

Sid Stockdale was 11 years old when his father, James Stockdale, became one of the first American pilots shot down over North Vietnam. The expandable family table from their home on Coronado is the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the museum.

“It actually came with the house,” he said.

His father was 40 when he was shot down and taken prisoner during the Vietnam War. As the wife of the highest-ranking officer, his mother, Sybil Stockdale, took it upon herself to begin organizing the growing number of wives who were in her situation.

“They began asking each other what they should do, and over time that evolved into regular gatherings at our family house, of this group of women,” he said.

The meetings gave birth to the League of Families of POW/MIA of Southeast Asia, which became a nationwide movement, he said.

The movement sprung up organically at bases around the country.

Karen Olson Butler was at Naval Air Station Lemoore, near Fresno, when her husband was shot down in 1965.

“He was considered missing in action, but there was an inference that he was probably killed in action,” Butler said. “I found out he was alive five weeks later, on the Today show. A friend called me and said they just announced that he was a prisoner of war. This was before the Navy had the opportunity to know, or even inform me.”

The group may be best known for eventually creating the black and white POW/MIA flag that would become possibly the most enduring symbol of the Vietnam War. The flag didn’t debut until 1972. For the group’s first several years, the wives were told to keep quiet, says author Heath Lee.

“This was a situation where the government wanted wives and families to say little to nothing about, except for close family members,” Lee said. “There was some merit to that in previous wars when the prisoners weren’t held that long. People feared it would derail negotiations. But in Vietnam prisoners were held up to eight years and this was a totally different type of war.”

Lee curated the original exhibit which is now at the Coronado museum. It’s based on her book, “League of Wives.” The book chronicles the growth of the National League of POW/MIA Families, from small gatherings into a national movement. Sybil Stockdale was the first wife to go public about the treatment of prisoners in an article in The San Diego Union in 1968. At first, the response was muted, but they kept finding ways to get themselves into the headlines, Lee said.

“John McCain, who I interviewed in 2016, says it was like a light switch going off in 1969,” Lee said. “And he said the torture stopped. He was moved to a room with 25 other prisoners.”

The change might have been tied to the death of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh 1969, but the publicity generated by the wives of the POWs created a groundswell of international attention, Lee said.

Their story is part spy novel: Early on, the Navy showed the wives how to write letters to their husbands in code. Later, the exhibit chronicles the growth of a national movement, highlighting a rare moment of unity in a divisive war, driven largely by the wives of downed pilots.

After seven years as a prisoner of war, James Stockdale won the Medal of Honor and retired as a vice admiral. In 1993, he became the vice presidential candidate for Ross Perot, the independent presidential candidate. The San Diego-based Destroyer USS Stockdale is named after him. He died in 2005. He and Sybil Stockdale lived in Coronado until their deaths. She died in 2015.

Walking through the exhibit, Sid Stockdale was struck by a cluster of bracelets with the names of a POW, which was part of a campaign to connect with the public.

“Everyone mailed their bracelet with a returned a note,” Sid Stockdale said. “It was just amazing. When we went into my mother’s attic. We found a cardboard box that was just full of all these bracelets.”

Author Lee originally curated the exhibit for the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics in Kansas. Since 2017, it has been traveling the country. The exhibit was reimagined for the Coronado Museum of History and Art to emphasize the local history. It is now open to the public.

Listen to this story by Steve Walsh.

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