New Statue Will Pay Tribute to Vietnam-Era Military Wives Who Took on the US Government

March 2, 2023Natalie Gross
league of wives memorial

Nancy C. Schrum, front left, and Pat Mearns, center, celebrate with others after the Coronado city council approved the construction of the League of Wives Memorial in 2022. Photo courtesy of the League of Wives Memorial Project.

The main gate at Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, California, is named after US Navy Vice Adm. James Stockdale, the most senior Naval officer imprisoned at the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War.

A missile destroyer, Navy leadership award, and a center at the United States Naval Academy also bear his name.

Now, Stockdale’s wife — who rallied press and public support and earned the ear of presidents and other world leaders to fight for the fair treatment of American prisoners of war and their eventual release in 1973 — will get her due.

The city of Coronado recently approved the construction of a life-size memorial to Sybil Stockdale and the women who advocated alongside her — a group of military wives whose husbands were also prisoners of war or missing in action in Vietnam. The League of Wives Memorial will be the first public memorial in the country to recognize military spouses, its planners say

Sybil Stockdale poses with a vase of roses. When Sybil Stockdale began working with Naval intelligence to send coded letters to her husband imprisoned at the Hanoi Hilton, Jim Stockdale knew there was a code if Sybil included a picture of herself with roses. Photo courtesy of Stockdale family via Heath Lee.

“The reaction has been, unanimously, ‘Well, it’s about time,’” said Nancy C. Schrum, a Navy spouse of 20 years who is helping to plan the memorial. “It’s been very encouraging.”

Historian Heath Lee, author of The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the U.S. Government to Bring Their Husbands Home, describes Sybil and her fellow advocates as “the SEAL Team Six in heels and pearls.”

A Club No One Wanted To Join

Before their advocacy efforts on behalf of their husbands made international headlines, the League of Wives started as an unofficial support group for grieving women. They shared stories and tears over coffee or wine while their kids played together in the yard. 

“I was living in Japan at the time of my husband’s shoot down, and when I came home, I came home to a very divided United States of America, and I needed, as a young woman — a very young woman, very naive — I needed help from other women. I needed to know how they were doing with what was happening,” Pat Mearns, 90, said. Her husband, Air Force fighter pilot Col. Arthur Stewart Mearns, was declared missing in action in November 1966.

Navy Lt. Commander Mike Estocin went missing in action in Vietnam in 1967. He was posthumously promoted to captain and awarded the Medal of Honor. Photo courtesy of Marie Estocin.

Outside of the league, “nobody even cared about us,” Mearns said. “We were collateral damage.”

“We were young women and our men were gone. It was a tough, tough time,” said Marie Estocin, 85, whose husband, Navy Capt. Michael Estocin, went missing in action in April 1967. “If we hadn't all had each other, we probably all would’ve become totally, totally depressed. But we had each other.”

“This was not a club that any of these ladies wanted to join,” Schrum said. “And yet, this was much needed to have somebody else in their boots — in their shoes. … Nobody else had an idea what they were going through. Nobody.”

Advocacy Gets Underway

In October 1966, Sybil Stockdale and some of the other women started working with Naval intelligence to send coded letters to their husbands at Hanoi Hilton, though that didn’t come to light until after the war, according to Lee. In her first letter from Jim, Sybil Stockdale learned he was being tortured and held in leg irons.

It wasn’t long before the women wanted answers. Support gatherings at the Stockdales’ home turned into letter-writing sessions to military and government leaders.

Retired Navy Vice Adm. James Stockdale and Sybil Stockdale in Wisconsin in 1985. Department of Defense photo.

“They just told us to be quiet. That’s what they were telling us: ‘Be quiet. Don’t talk about this,’” Estocin said. “And that’s how we started writing letters to the government and telling them, ‘We want information. We want it to be public. We want the world to know — or at least the United States to know — what was happening with our loved ones.’”

Sybil Stockdale, whom Estocin described as a beloved mother figure, was their spokesperson. She would later write in a 1984 book co-authored with her husband, In Love and War, that she initially “felt sure the government had good reason to insist on this ‘keep quiet’ policy.” But as time went on, “I felt more and more inclined to tell the truth publicly. All my reading about Communist treatment of prisoners throughout the world led me to believe that telling the truth about Hanoi's treatment of American prisoners might be our only hope.”

In October 1968, two years after the wives had begun meeting in Sybil Stockdale’s home, she made her Naval intelligence contact aware that she was going to the press.  

“She goes to the San Diego Union newspaper, and that is the first time she goes public with her personal story about Jim Stockdale,” Lee said, noting that Sybil intentionally kept the details of his treatment vague. “That kind of opens the floodgates for everybody else to start talking.”

In this 2011 photo, Sybil 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, named after her husband, Adm. James Stockdale. US Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Joe Kane.

A group of Virginia Beach-based wives whose husbands were also prisoners of war or missing in action had also started organizing — writing letters, meeting with government officials, and speaking to civic groups about their husbands’ plight. Together, these and other groups of military spouses from around the country, led by Sybil Stockdale, formed the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

As a coalition, the wives managed to influence US policy and garner the support of then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon. They traveled to Washington and beyond, sharing their stories with any world leader who would listen.

“They literally go to the [North Vietnamese consulate in Paris] and confront the diplomats,” Lee said. “It becomes a big story. It’s all over the news really in all countries — the ones that aren’t censoring it.”

On a particular trip over Christmas in 1969, some of the wives involved in the movement took their children with them to Paris to try to meet with the North Vietnamese diplomats and protest the treatment of the prisoners. Though not a calculated move, the optics of these distraught wives and children generated international sympathy for their cause and embarrassed the North Vietnamese in the court of world opinion, Lee said.

These repeated trips to elevate the cause “worked big time to help bring the North Vietnamese into some kind of compliance to the Geneva Conventions of War,” Lee said. “Their efforts added to the death of Ho Chi Minh in September of 1969, helped stop the torture of the POWs, and saved lives.”

From left, POW/MIA wives Carole Hanson, Louise Mulligan, Sybil Stockdale, Andrea Rander, and Pat Mearns meet with President Richard Nixon in 1969. Photo courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum via Heath Lee.

Unlikely activists

While their focus remained on advocating for their husbands, Mearns said it wasn’t lost on them that they were making inroads for women in the face of sexism.

It wasn’t just the military telling them to be quiet, she said. “That was that way with women — period. The attitude of our whole culture at that time was, ‘Ladies, you belong in the kitchen.’” 

When she came back to the US from Japan with her two young daughters after her husband went missing, Mearns recalls that she wasn’t allowed to get a credit card in her name.

It was the time when “each branch of the service put officers’ wives through their own kind of basic training, advising the young women who married into the military on everything from their wedding-night lingerie to ‘Conversational Taboos at Social Gatherings,’” Lee writes in her book, which is also the basis for a traveling “League of Wives” exhibition currently at the Naval Academy. The book also caught the attention of actress Reese Witherspoon’s production company, who considered turning it into a film, though it was never made.

The League’s advocacy paralleled the feminist movement in a big way, Lee said. The women also engaged in protests and sit-ins, tactics reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement.

“The twist is these are conservative military wives who are not feminists and don’t want to be feminists because feminists are associated with communism and the left wing,” Lee said. “Their cause is not their own empowerment but their own husbands’ emancipation, essentially. But in the process they become very empowered.”

A memorial that transcends time

For her advocacy, Sybil Stockdale was awarded the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award. The Navy also created the Mrs. Sybil Stockdale Ombudsman of the Year Award in her honor, noting she “set an unflagging example for her support to families of other POWs.”

Sybil Stockdale died from Parkinson’s Disease in 2015 at age 90. And until then, many of the original members of the League of Wives continued to meet monthly at her home, including Estocin, who stayed connected to her friends even though her husband never came home. (Capt. Estocin’s remains have still not been recovered.)

The statue, still in the fundraising stage, will eventually go up in Star Park, where Coronado holds its annual Memorial Day services and other military-related tributes. A bronze Sybil Stockdale and three other female figures — intentionally left unnamed to represent all of the wives — will look out over the Pacific Ocean, as if waiting for their husbands to return.

Nancy C. Schrum, right, and Pat Mearns, center, celebrate with others after the Coronado city council approved the construction of the League of Wives Memorial in 2022. Photo courtesy of the League of Wives Memorial Project.

According to Schrum, the League of Wives Memorial is more than just a tribute to Sybil Stockdale and the women who worked alongside her. It’s a representation of all the deployments, transitions, and hard times when military spouses turn to each other for support. 

“There’s space in the circle [of the memorial] that as you step up you become the fifth person in this ring of figures,” Schrum said. “Boy, I get goosebumps when I think about that. That’s really where the design brings this all the way from the ’60s all the way up to the present day and beyond because you become part of that fellowship. It’s kind of like, ‘Boom, you’re in this, too. This is about you.’” 

Mearns also sees it as a tribute to women more broadly.

“This statue is a memory to people that there was another time when the women had to stand up and say something,” she said. 

“And we did.”

Read Next: National POW/MIA Recognition Day: The Search Continues for America’s Vietnam War Missing

Natalie Gross
Natalie Gross
Natalie Gross is a multimedia freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. She previously covered veterans’ issues for Military Times and has also worked as a local news reporter in New Mexico and Texas. Her stories have appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Georgetown University.
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