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THE RIGHT WIFE
IN THE 1960S, NAVY fighter pilots had a 23 percent likelihood of dying in an aircraft accident over a twenty-year career—not including combat deaths.1 In order to survive in this line of work, a man had to possess an enormous ego—one that rivaled those of heads of state or Hollywood film stars. Confidence, a steady hand, and the idea that you could never, ever be shot down were requirements for anyone in this dangerous business. If you thought for more than two seconds about what you were doing, you would most likely end up dead—and kill everyone else on the plane with you.
A 1975 study in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine on “the outstanding jet pilot” found that many successful pilots were firstborn children with a close relationship with their father, “reinforcing ‘positive male identification.’” Another finding from the same study noted that “21 of the first 23 astronauts who went on space flights were first born. The pilots were self-confident, showed a great desire for challenge and success and were non-introspective.”2 In author Tom Wolfe’s famous words, these men were made of “the right stuff.”
The right stuff extended beyond the professional into the personal; a pilot had to enjoy parties, since his time on earth might be short. He had to be able to hold his liquor (lots of it) at night, and then get up at the crack of dawn and climb into the cockpit before his morning coffee.
Finally, a pilot needed the right wife: attractive, kind, a model mother, and an excellent cook. Her job was to be sure he could do his job. The military cranked out training manuals for her that were every bit as rigorous as his. 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.” Women were judged on their abilities in the domestic sphere above all, and were given advice from senior wives, such as “The food you serve and the way you serve it are just as revealing as the kind of person you are as the house which is your background and the clothes you wear. It is fun to dream up new color combinations in both decorations and in foods.”3
The Navy Wife was a government-approved guide to the rules of naval etiquette and hierarchy. A wife’s status mirrored her husband’s rank. Everything she did or said would reflect on him and could affect his career. More than one social faux pas in their byzantine world of calling cards, shrimp forks, and proper thank-you notes might result in a young officer getting “passed over” for a promotion. More serious offenses could even end in exile at some desolate military outpost. Most military wives realized that their “best interest (promotion, advancement, success in any form) was accomplished by playing within the rules.” In this way, the wives were empowered to play a significant role in their husbands’ careers, and thus in their own lives and those of their families.4
Customs from Victorian times still prevailed in the Navy and other service branches. The tradition of formal calls upon senior servicemen by junior officers and their wives was standard. Both the officer and his wife had their own calling cards, which had to be presented during “calling hours” at the home of the senior officer. Cards were typically left on a silver tray placed in the household just for this purpose. “A man leaves a card for each adult in the house … a woman never calls on a man, you leave cards only for the adult women of the household.”5
Young Navy wives were cautioned, “Wives influence their husbands in many ways, and the excellence of a man’s performance of duty has a direct relationship to the happiness and stability of his home life.”6 Army wives were cautioned, in their own The Army Wife protocol manual, not to be “a stone around his neck.”7
The Air Force Wife manual laid out perhaps the most potent psychological message to young military wives: without a tranquil home life, disaster was just around the corner. A pilot’s blood—and the blood of his colleagues—might just end up on his wife’s hands. “It is said that domestic troubles have killed more aviators than motor failures, high-tension wires and low ceilings, so as an Air Force wife your responsibility is great and your job is of big proportions if you live up to the finest traditions of this Service.”8
These military messages of exacting protocol created a powerful bond among the pilots’ wives. While their husbands risked death in distant lands, their wives developed a code of support of their own that was reinforced in a positive manner by the military. These women were encouraged to cultivate “a kind of empathy unknown to civilian wives—an identification, a pride … in your husband’s role.”9 Until the Vietnam War, however, many of these wives would have no idea how critical this support for one another would become.
* * *
If the Navy could have selected two people to represent the Ideal Fighter Pilot and the Ideal Fighter Pilot’s Wife, Jim and Sybil Stockdale would have won the titles.
Commander James Bond Stockdale was born on December 23, 1923, in Abingdon, Illinois. He was the product of a solid midwestern upbringing, featuring football and the family farm. But from childhood on, Jim hungered for life beyond his small town. The tales that his father, Vernon, told about his life as a naval chief petty officer inspired his son to follow in his footsteps and soar even higher.
When Jim was seven, Vernon, who later became an executive in a china company, took him cross-country to the Naval Academy to see the midshipmen on parade. The pageantry made a deep impression on the boy, and from then on he dreamed of attending the academy. As an adult, Jim remembered, “From the time of my first memories, there had been no question about it: I would be going to Annapolis to make a career in the navy dad loved so much.”10
After an illustrious high school career both on and off the football field, Jim was accepted into the Naval Academy class of 1947. There he would meet his lifelong friend, Alabama native Jeremiah Denton. Years later, Jim and Jerry would work together under incredible circumstances.11
Like her husband, Sybil Bailey had been raised in a rural setting, growing up in a white clapboard house on her family’s prosperous dairy farm in New Haven, Connecticut. But Sybil’s parents valued culture and the finer things, too. As a young girl, Sybil was obsessed with dance and adored her tap and ballet lessons. “If I’d had long legs and a liberated mother, I think I might have become a Rockette.”12 The Baileys made enough money to acquire a Victorian cottage in nearby Sunset Beach, where Sybil spent many summers fishing, sailing, and daydreaming about boys.
“My favorite fantasy was that I was really a royal princess, and that a handsome prince had already been chosen as my future husband.” Although Sybil was privileged enough that she assumed she would always have help in her married home, her mother insisted that she needed to learn to cook—just in case. Sybil just laughed. Leave that to the servants, she thought.13
Very much against her will, Sybil was sent off to boarding school for her junior year in high school. To her mother’s delight, she was accepted the next year into exclusive Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, one of the “Seven Sisters” schools, the female counterparts to the Ivy League. While attending Mount Holyoke, Sybil would have often heard founder Mary Lyon’s admonition to students: “Go where no one else will go, do what no one else will do.” One day she would become one of the school’s distinguished alumnae, but as a student, she majored in Cute Boys 101. Even so, she did well in her classes, pursuing a double major in history and religion.14
During her sophomore year, Sybil met the perfect roommate. Tall, blond, and stunning, Bebe Woolfolk was a native of Richmond, Virginia. She and Sybil found that they had many interests in common. Bebe recalled Sybil as a very determined person who “liked to run the show,” and they would share many road trips in Sybil’s beat-up convertible—as well as double dates—in college and beyond. After graduating from Mount Holyoke in January of 1946, the two young women shared an apartment in Richmond.
The former Southern Civil War capital was now awash with good-looking single men coming home from World War II. The fuel shortages that had put an end to road trips to male colleges during the war were gone, and the lack of eligible young men had now turned into a deluge of them. So many men, so little time, Bebe laughed as she recalled the era years later.15
They became teachers at the all-female St. Catherine’s School, in West End, Richmond. Founded by notable educator Virginia Randolph Ellett in 1890, the school boasted Colonial Revival architecture, ivy-covered walls, and graceful brick arcades: an appropriate setting for the two recent Mount Holyoke graduates. Sybil taught modern dance and medieval history while Bebe taught typing. They also drove day students to and from school, monitored study hall, and chaperoned boarding students.
Jobs did not keep Sybil and Bebe from their primary objective: having fun while pursuing their respective “Mrs.” degrees. “None of this slowed down my social life in the least,” Sybil recalled. “Richmond is a social city, and Bebe introduced me to most of the young men returning home from World War II.”16
The handsome prince Sybil had dreamed about during her girlhood was about to arrive, right on time.
On Easter weekend 1946, Sybil and Bebe went to Annapolis at the invitation of their teacher friend Anne Rogers. Anne was engaged to a student at the Naval Academy. She arranged blind dates for Sybil and Bebe, and the young women were giddy over the prospect of meeting dashing naval midshipmen.
In Sybil’s version of the story, she and Bebe paired off by height with two young midshipmen: the taller, blond-headed Marvin Scoggins and the shorter, dark-haired Jim Stockdale. Bebe was very tall, and she towered over Jim, necessitating the pairing with Sybil. Bebe’s tale is slightly different: “Sybil stepped right up to Jim! She knew!”17 The newly minted couple found much to admire in each other—both were practical, driven, and organized.
It was a whirlwind courtship, and by March of 1947 Sybil and Jim were engaged, effectively putting an end to Sybil’s teaching career. “I forgot not only classes, but chapel services I was supposed to conduct, and faculty meetings I was required to attend.” Now, instead of preparing assignments for her students, Sybil had her nose in The Navy Wife.18 Little did she know how much her life would deviate from this military protocol playbook as the years passed.
For now, she was just a romantic-minded young woman swept off her feet by blue-eyed James Bond Stockdale, an officer and a gentleman in a starched white Navy dress uniform. The couple married in Sybil’s hometown, at the North Branford Congregational Church, on June 28, 1947.19 The next day, the newlyweds flew to Key West so Jim could attend sonar school. Sybil’s career as a Navy wife began with military precision—and no delays for a honeymoon.
* * *
Over the course of the 1950s, life in the Navy meant moves to Pensacola, Florida; Norfolk, Virginia; Patuxent, Maryland; and Los Altos, California (in what is now Silicon Valley). Sybil slid right into her new role as a wife, mother, and hostess. The relatively peaceful and prosperous fifties made for a fortunate time to gain her footing as a Navy wife.20
It was an era when filling that role still had a sepia-toned glow. “The world of a 1950s’ officer’s military wife was, outwardly seen, one of relative privilege: lovely brunches, civilized teas, over-the-top parties, proper hats, white gloves, silver tea services.”21 Women like Sybil and her peers also had the luxury of helping their husbands build their military careers without the life-and-death worries of wartime. Midcentury wives tended to have a heightened devotion to protocol and the rituals of military life, and this fixation would both help and hinder the way they dealt with what came their way.
For now, there was no reason to question this system and the Navy life that had been so good to her, Jim, and what would soon be the couple’s four boys: Jim Jr. was born in 1950, Sid in 1954, Stanford in 1959, and baby Taylor in 1962. By the early sixties, Jim was the Navy commander, air group (CAG) of Screaming Eagles Fighter Squadron 51, and Sybil reigned in Coronado as the highest-ranking officer’s wife. She was almost forty and had grown proficient at the military game. She knew from experience that “sociability was a professional requirement and practical necessity, as every officer’s wife understood. It not only ameliorated the hardships of frequent moves, extended deployments, and imminent dangers that went with military life, it was essential to the business of advancing careers.”22
Despite casting everything aside to become Mrs. CAG Stockdale, Sybil’s sharp intelligence and natural love for education compelled her to do more. After she earned a master’s degree from Stanford University in 1959, Jim followed suit, earning his own master’s from Stanford in 1962. He became intensely interested in the Greek Stoics and their philosophy, studies that would later sustain him and even perhaps save his life.
In 1962, the couple moved to Coronado, where Jim was assigned to a fighter squadron in San Diego. While he was deployed in April of 1964, Sybil bought a charming Tudor cottage at 547 A Avenue that reminded her of her childhood home. Family life was heaven. The beach, the sunny and temperate weather, and the warm camaraderie among the Navy families made for smooth sailing.
Jim and Sybil had arrived. She liked to imagine that Peter Pan was watching their happy family life through the English windows of their snug new home. She felt protected, safe, and content.23
Inevitably, Jim’s next deployment arrived. To his chagrin, he had just missed action in the Korean War. This time, he was determined not to miss out on the action bubbling up in Southeast Asia. He was a fighter pilot, and warfare was what he was trained for.
In the weeks prior to his 1964 departure for Vietnam, Jim headed to the San Diego mountains for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) school. All officers assigned to combat zones went through this program, created in 1962 by American prisoners from the Korean War.24 The tenets of the course were based on the U.S. military’s Code of Conduct, especially Article 3, which provided the SERE acronym and applied especially to prisoners of war: “If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.” The men were all trained to live—and die if necessary—by this Code.25
The men were sent deep into the mountains northeast of San Diego to play a 1960s military version of The Hunger Games. The lessons were top secret. SERE was known to provide “a grim crash course in what to expect as a downed pilot in hostile territory.”26
In the unlikely scenario that any of them were captured (most pilots found this idea laughable; a good aviator would never get shot down), the course taught the trainees coping strategies. They learned how to outsmart, outwit, and outlast the enemy. Korean War vets serving as trainers advised the SERE newbies that if the men could resist their jailers for just a few months, they would be home free. The enemy would eventually give up when they saw how tough American military men were.
Jim returned home, dusty and physically and mentally worn out from his SERE training. Despite his exhaustion, he may have secretly chuckled to himself at the thought that, compared with what Sybil was doing at home, managing four active, rambunctious boys, SERE school might have been the easier assignment.27
* * *
As CAG of the VF-51 Screaming Eagles, based out of Naval Air Station Miramar, north of San Diego, Jim decided the time had come for a “traditional (a little wild) old time aviator” party.28 He and Sybil planned the be-all, end-all bash for his men at 547 A Avenue in December of 1964, celebrating their return from a Gulf of Tonkin deployment on the USS Ticonderoga. Their next deployment, on the USS Oriskany (dubbed by Navy men “the Big Risk”), was not far off: they would leave for Asia again in April of 1965.
The Stockdales rolled up the rugs, hired a local rock band, threw their French doors open to the outside, and set up a well-stocked bar for their guests. G&Ts (a Sybil favorite), manhattans, sidecars, and Harvey Wallbangers flowed freely.
That evening, the Screaming Eagle pilots drove up in Corvettes, sporting trim flight suits and accompanied by their pedal-pusher-clad wives and girlfriends. Here on the West Coast, things were much more casual than on the stuffy East Coast, even in military circles. The band played surf music and hits from 1964: Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys.29 A Beatle wig made the rounds, passing from one pilot’s head to another as the party gained momentum. Sybil ended up in the middle of the crowd, dancing with a six-foot-three pilot named Bud Collicott, who sported the Beatle wig.
Bud later carried Sid, the second Stockdale son, on his shoulders, giving the boy a bird’s-eye view of the scene. Sid remembered the night vividly, recalling a roomful of “pilots at the top of their game having a good party before they deployed.”30 His older brother, Jim, said, “I think they were all completely sure they were invincible … It was as close as Mom and Dad ever came to hosting a blowout.”31
These pilots were surfing the wave of military life with ease, riding high thanks to frequent parties, copious amounts of alcohol, and their own naturally high levels of testosterone. They tended to overlook any clouds on the horizon and considered themselves immune from mortal ills like the death and destruction of war.
Later, however, they would find themselves feeling like a squadron of Icaruses flying too close to the sun.
Copyright © 2019 by Heath Hardage Lee