“How does an eleven-year-old boy understand and process that his beloved father has been shot down and is missing?” asked Sidney Bailey Stockdale, the second of four sons of Medal of Honor recipient Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, in his recently released memoir, A World Apart: Growing Up Stockdale During Vietnam. And how does his story and that of his heroic family fit into a real estate section on Memorial Day? There’s an historic home at the center of it.
“People don’t know that 23 U.S. POWs died while in prison in North Vietnam,” the author shared in an email. His family couldn’t be sure their beloved prisoner of war wouldn’t become the 24th fatality at any point during his brutal seven and a half year confinement in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton.’
While Memorial Day honors service members who lost their lives in wartime, including 58,220 Americans in Vietnam, those like Stockdale and his family who suffered and sacrificed in its wars, deserve recognition too.
The 1910 Craftsman bungalow the aviator’s family lived in at 547 A Avenue in Coronado, California played a supporting role in its ability to endure those excruciating years. It also plays a role as a poignant landmark in the local community across the bay from San Diego.
The city of about 20,000 residents and two bases is still full of Naval aviators and support crew, Navy families, Navy veterans and local Navy supporters who gaze askance at anyone complaining about the “sounds of freedom” from military helicopters and jets roaring over their island.
The author described part of his childhood home’s emerging wartime role this way, “My mother organized a luncheon at our house for eleven wives who she knew in Coronado and the San Diego area whose husbands were POW or MIA.” The wives had been instructed not to speak to each other or to the press in what was described as the government’s “keep quiet policy.” The effect was to make them feel “isolated and forgotten,” Stockdale observed.
After a year of abiding by this instruction, Sybil Stockdale was over it; she needed to connect with others suffering the same difficulties. She needed to be in action. “The luncheon started at noon and when I came home from school about 3:30 the house was abuzz with talking and laughter. Dishes and teacups were all over the dining room.”
That first gathering gave a physical and emotional space for the wives to organize, and the Stockdale dining room became the historic headquarters of the National League of Families of the POWs and Missing in Southeast Asia. Describing the dining room in his memoir as a “beehive of activity,” Stockdale recalled, “It was now common to encounter two or three POW wives in the house working with Mom, composing letters, and making phone calls, often staying late into the evening.”
Heath Hardage Lee, author of The League of Wives about the group, shared in an email, “The POW MIA movement was literally ‘born’ at Sybil’s massive oak dining room table. The women regularly met at the Stockdale home around that dining room table to share information, plan strategy and most importantly to lend moral support to each other during the war years.”
The A Avenue home was also the site of a highly classified military operation. “Within a year of Dad’s capture, Mom was working secretly with Navy intelligence and trained to code her letters,” Stockdale emailed. “Dad was the senior officer in the Hanoi Hilton and Naval intelligence was sending Dad information through these coded letters that he disseminated to the other prisoners. Dad was also using a scheme to clandestinely reply through his letters to Mom, so the communication went back and forth. Dad’s first hidden message received in the spring of 1966 read, ‘Experts in torture, leg irons 18 hours a day.’” Sybil Stockdale knew through these secret messages what her husband and his fellow POWs were enduring at the hands of their captors, but couldn’t reveal the maltreatment without risking their harsh conditions worsening — or their executions.
The home’s rose bushes inspired the secret codes. As Stockdale explained in his memoir, “In early March 1968, I remember Mom asking me to take her photograph arranging roses in a silver vase in the corner of our living room. Little did I know the photo would be used to conceal a secret message to Dad after he ‘gave it a good soaking.’” He later learned from his parents’ 1985 book, In Love and War, that his father was instructed to soak any photo with a rose in it.
On his next Coronado visit, “I looked back through our old family photos and found many photos of Stan, Tay, Mom, and me posing next to the rose bushes in the front yard,” Stockdale recalled. A memorial being planned to honor military spouses features those roses as a tribute to Sybil Stockdale and her sisterhood of Vietnam era POW/MIA wives, the creators say on their website.
“There were no photos or shrines to Dad in our home. Mom understood it would be counter-productive and probably damaging to have us boys fixated on Dad’s circumstances. His ultimate fate was highly uncertain,” Stockdale wrote in his email. So the bedrooms they shared were not filled with reminders, and the glassed-in porch where they played was filled with their electric train set, Hot Wheels and toy soldiers, rather than mementos. The living room piano, on which “Dad loved to play jazzy tunes,” Stockdale reminisced, the annual Christmas tree and, of course, his empty seat at the table were likely reminder enough.
The Stockdales had been given the option of living on base, but that wasn’t their preference, as Stockdale wrote in his book. “Later in life I learned how much Mom wanted to avoid living on the naval base in housing provided by the military.” (My ex-husband, second generation career Air Force, felt the same way, and we lived off-base during all of his assignments.)
According to The Coronado Times, “Upon his return home after being a POW during the Vietnam War in 1973, Rear Adm. Stockdale was assigned to head an aviation warfare command with an office at North Island Naval Air Station… He was offered spacious quarters aboard North Island but declined so the family could stay in their beloved A Avenue home.”
Lee described it this way in her email and book, “It was a warm, comforting familiar environment. Sybil said that after they bought 547 A, ‘She liked to imagine that Peter Pan was watching their happy family life through the English windows of their snug new home.’ She felt, safe, protected, and content.”
Not surprising that they didn’t want to move after Stockdale came home, Lee pointed out. “The home became their home base and safe refuge for Sybil and her boys during Jim’s long imprisonment,” the historian wrote in her book. “Though Sybil and the younger boys spent a year in D.C. and the older boys were in boarding school, 547 A was always a familiar comforting presence where everyone could relax and return to-a shelter from the storm so to speak.”
Recalling 1972 and the later months of her husband’s time in captivity, when Sybil Stockdale was working closely with Nixon and Kissinger on the POWs’ release, Sydney Stockdale wrote in his email, “Feeling more optimistic that this was going to happen eventually, Mom renovated our home. She added a bedroom and bath to the main floor in case Dad was unable to climb stairs, and she added a large deck on the back of the house so he could enjoy sunshine and fresh air. She also renovated the kitchen.”
Wherever you lived or worked on the island in the years Sidney Stockdale and his brothers were growing up, you were surrounded by Navy sailors, officers and families. Lee shared Sybil Stockdale’s thoughts in her book this way, “When she finally returned home with her boys in 1971 after a year in Washington running the National League of Families organization, she said, “I just wanted to hug everyone I met on the streets of Coronado. Oh how relieved I was to be back where I seemed to belong. Even the furniture seemed to heave a sigh of relief as it settled back into its familiar locations.’”
“The homes in Coronado are a charming mix,” Lee commented in her email about her many visits to the town while working on League of Wives and even afterward to visit Sybil Stockdale and the other POW/MIA wives still in the area. “You see elements of Tudor style, Spanish hacienda, even colonials set back on idyllic palm-studded avenues. As I said in the book, the whole town looks like a Hollywood film set. It has a storybook charm—I see why Sybil thought Peter Pan might be looking into her English windows at night!”
Sadly, many of those architectural charmers have been torn down and replaced with larger residences as land values exploded. The A street home still proudly stands – with honors. After an extensive recent remodel to restore it to its early glory, it won a 2021 GEM Award by the Coronado Historical Association. Owned and occupied by another family member, the Stockdale house is not on the market today, but real estate analysis firm ATTOM estimates its current value between $2.16 million and $2.45 million.
Some active duty and retired Navy families still live in Coronado, but median housing costs of $2.03 million, (according to ATTOM), have skyrocketed in the six decades since the Stockdales bought their 1910 Craftsman, (built at a cost of $5,000, according to CHA), putting them out of reach of most military families. Some were very fortunate to have inherited once affordable Coronado homes from retired military parents, or to have invested wisely and bought their own before the doubling of prices these past two decades.
“547 A Avenue was a place of celebration and rebuilding our family following Dad’s return,” Stockdale shared in his email. “Many happy memories occurred in that house. But it was also filled with many powerful childhood memories of fear, loss, and clinging to hope,” he added.
His new memoir is filled with photos and recollections of the home, the family, and their nexus to a painful era of American history.