Late on the morning of Sept. 9, 1965, Navy Cmdr. James Bond Stockdale took off in an A-4 Skyhawk from the deck of the carrier USS Oriskany, headed for North Vietnam.
It wasn’t long after that that his mission went awry. Struck by antiaircraft fire amid a treetop “flak trap,” Stockdale ejected, soon hearing the sound of bullets ripping through the canopy of his parachute. Below him, he could see 10 to 15 young — and angry — villagers running to meet him.
“Five years down there, at least,” he later recalled thinking to himself as he descended toward the ground.
At the time, Stockdale had no way to know how right he was. He would spend nearly eight years in captivity at the infamous Hanoi Hilton as the most senior naval officer held as a prisoner of war. He would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
Back at home in Coronado, California, his wife, Sybil Stockdale, was waiting. At the time, the US government had a “keep quiet” policy regarding its POWs and those missing in action, or MIAs, fearing that publicizing their plight would lead to worse treatment from their North Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian captors.
Seeing the government’s approach as unjustified, Sybil began organizing. What began as loosely affiliated groups of family members across the country later morphed into the National League of POW/MIA Families, with the mission of obtaining the release of all Vietnam War prisoners, accounting for the missing, and repatriating all recoverable remains of the lost.
Although often overlooked by the American public, the League’s work continues to this day. With only three full-time employees working out of a small office in Virginia, the organization works with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) and continues to search for the 1,586 Americans still listed as missing or otherwise unaccounted for from the war. These form part of the more than 81,900 Americans who remain missing, which also includes 72,579 from World War II and 7,578 from Korea (as of early September 2020).
“The League is very small,” explained Ann Mills-Griffiths, the League’s chairman of the board. “We don’t have our own teams at all. What we did was fight to build [what is now] the DPAA. They have over 600 full-time people, and can draw from active duty units if they need specific capabilities they need to draw from. The operational part is all done by the DPAA, assisted by the Defense Intelligence Agency’s special teams when it comes to the Vietnam War.”
The more than 1,500 service members who remain unaccounted for, Mills-Griffiths added, represent a cross-section of the American forces involved in the Vietnam War. In what was formerly North Vietnam, for example, most of the captured or missing were Air Force, Navy, or Marines aircrew, along with Army helicopter pilots and special operations personnel who operated behind enemy lines such as those who formed part of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam — Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG).
In what was South Vietnam, on the other hand, most of the missing were Army or Marines ground personnel.
“That’s by far the majority,” Mills-Griffiths said. “They were mostly classified as killed in action/body not recovered, not mostly POW/MIA. There were some, but not a lot.”
Looking forward, the League does not believe it will ultimately be able to account for approximately 700 to 800 of the over 1,500 missing for a variety of reasons, including distant losses at sea.
But each discovery, Mills-Griffiths is quick to point out, brings closure to an American family. She would know: Her own brother, US Naval Reserve Cmdr. James B. Mills was listed as MIA on Sept. 21, 1966, when the Navy F-4 Phantom on which he served as a radar intercept officer disappeared after taking off from the USS Coral Sea for a night mission over North Vietnam.
It wouldn’t be until August 2017 and what Mills-Griffiths calls “a freakish miracle” that the remains of her brother’s aircraft were discovered by Vietnamese fishermen. After repeated dive attempts, the remains of the pilot, Capt. James Bauder, were recovered and identified. Her brother’s remains were identified and recovered almost exactly a year later. Mills was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in June 2019.
“It gave a lot of the families hope,” Mills-Griffiths said. “None of us thought we’d ever get him. He disappeared off the USS Coral Sea going several hundred miles an hour, at night, fully loaded. He disappeared over radar. Did he go down over water? Over land? Nobody knew. No witnesses, nothing. We really honestly never thought we’d get anything. It gave a lot of people hope.”
To give more families hope, Mills-Griffiths has been busy. Over the years, she has led delegations to Southeast Asia and met with senior officials from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China, and Russia to try and get answers. Additionally, she’s appeared frequently before Congress and helped advise policymakers in deals and negotiations with those governments, as well as raised awareness among the public and worked with the DPAA and DIA on their recovery efforts.
But as the US marks National POW/MIA Recognition Day on Sept. 18, Mills-Griffiths is urging Americans to do their part, including through donations and educational partnerships, as well as by not forgetting the missing and — just as importantly — standing behind those serving today.
“The most important thing to me is that I think the American people and our nation stand behind the people that serve our country,” she said. “That means that if they’re captured or missing, our nation will make its best effort to bring them home and answer the uncertainty of the family.”
“The message is that it’s important to the American people. Attend a ceremony, fly a flag, wear a POW/MIA bracelet. Show commitment and show those serving today you’d be there for them,” Mills-Griffiths added. “That’s a powerful thing and it’s worth working for.”