The League Of Wives – A Coronado Story That Reaches Far Beyond Our Shores - Coronado Eagle & Journal | Coronado News | Coronado Island News: Coronado Island News

The League Of Wives – A Coronado Story That Reaches Far Beyond Our Shores

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Posted: Friday, October 18, 2019 12:18 pm

Coronado was treated to a series of activities last week all related to a new exhibit at the Coronado Historical Association about the wives of Vietnam era prisoners of war. As many locals know, the founder and leader of the group that evolved after their husbands were shot down over the expanding war in Vietnam was Sybil Stockdale. Stockdale, who lived in Coronado with her young family, was the wife of U.S. Navy Vice Admiral, James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war for over seven years.

The book, “League of Wives,” by Heath Hardage Lee, was released this year and built on years of work that Lee put in curating the exhibition entitled, “The League of Wives: Vietnam’s POW/MIA Allies and Advocates,” for the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics, which is now showing at the Coronado Historical Association (CHA) through March as part of a larger national tour.

Lee spent several days in Coronado, attending the exhibit opening at the CHA, engaging in a book talk at the Coronado High School auditorium and holding smaller gatherings with some of the wives featured in her book and local military families on base. I also had the pleasure of having lunch with her, where we spoke about the details of the book.

Lee shared that there were multiple motivations for writing the book. First, she said that she was always interested in learning more about the Vietnam war, but had trouble learning about it: “I remember in college trying to find a class about it, but there were no classes. None in high school, certainly, and nothing in college even though I was seeking that … and nothing in graduate school at the University of Virginia.” So, she realized if she was going to study it, she would have to do it on her own.

But there was also a more personal reason that Lee decided to dive into the material when she did and, in particular, ended up delving into the story of the POW wives. She said: “Phyllis Galanti [one of the wives featured in the book] … was actually a good friend of my mother’s in Richmond. I knew she was a political activist. I didn’t even really know what she was active in. But I knew it had something to do with Vietnam.” When Galanti died, her papers were donated to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, which reached out to Lee to take a look. Lee said that she found diaries, papers, agendas and thought, “This is an epic Vietnam War story that no one knows … but everything in her papers pointed to Sybil Stockdale as the founder and leader of the POW/MIA movement.”

And so, the papers brought Lee to Coronado. And as much as this story belongs to America as a whole, it is truly a Coronado story. The story, as Lee tells it, begins in Coronado in the early 1960s, when Commander Stockdale “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.” At that point, the young family was flying high: “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.”

In the book, Lee paints a very personal picture of family life on the island at the time, she describes the home at 547 A Avenue where the Stockdales lived, the parties they held and even what Halloween was like for the children who lived here in the days before the bridge. She also recounts the seriousness of the role of a Navy officer’s wife. While wives were expected to master extensive rules of etiquette and to show the appropriate deference to social hierarchy, it wasn’t all tea parties and pearls. In fact, Navy wife had a serious role: “Her job was to be sure he could do his job.” While that meant the wives were expected to be excellent cooks and excellent mothers, they were also expected to handle all aspects of domestic life (as both father and mother and as head of household) when their husbands were deployed. They were not the diminutive wives some might have expected. In fact, they knew their missions were every bit a piece of their husbands’ missions and they had to be strong and disciplined in their own roles. It was this as much as anything that helped them, over time, pull off an organizational feat that was the most critical aspect of getting their husbands home – one way or another.

The book recounts the story of how Sybil and the other wives learned of their husbands’ fates and how they worked together to carry out the incredible task of drawing domestic and international attention to the POW/MIA plight despite a distinct lack of support (at least at the beginning) from the U.S. government. At the outset, the wives were told by their government to keep quiet as making a ruckus might lead to torture or even death for their husbands. Over time, though, the wives learned that their husbands were being tortured and some killed anyway. They had to make the difficult decision of choosing whether to do as their government commanded or as they thought best. In the end, they chartered their own course and brought the Nixon administration along with them.

The book tells about how Sybil wrote coded messages to her husband both to transmit information and to elicit it – all in the service of the prisoners. It tells how the wives managed to harness enough interest to get Ross Perot involved in launching a mission of getting supplies to the prisoners and in sending delegations of wives to Paris for the peace talks. The women learned that they couldn’t rely on others to save their husbands and so if it meant marching into Henry Kissinger’s office and demanding a meeting, that is what they did. All the while, the women continued to raise their children, pay their mortgages, and hold jobs. Lee quotes Louise Mulligan, another POW wife: “You feel torn in many directions … You are trying to be a mother and a father to your children and you feel that you have to do everything you possibly can for your husbands.” Lee asks, “How much more could the women endure?”

The women achieved much even beyond getting the prisoners freed. They demonstrated supreme organizational and leadership skills, they became excellent public speakers and fierce advocates, and they demonstrated that they could plan and act strategically to change public attitudes. As an example of their success, Lee said to me: “Look at Sybil – she had international power. She was a diplomat, a spy and a leader of this huge movement.” But the success took a toll. The women had to go to war with the policies of the Johnson administration and, as such, all of them faced severe psychological stress. And even though they brought the Nixon administration over their side in the end, the process was long in coming and difficult. As a result, some of the women faced lifelong mental issues. Lee said, “[Sybil] suffered depression the rest of her life.” And, some of the marriages failed once the men came home.

When asked what her takeaway from the whole project is, what she learned personally, Lee said, “This has really been a good wakeup call for me personally about grass roots organizing and women’s empowerment.”

In fact, the last line of the book, prior to the epilogue, suggests that this story tells a broad lesson for all: “Sybil and her League of Wives remain role models for courageous women who speak truth to power today.”

While the story is very much a Coronado story, it is also bigger. Lee was clear that while Sybil was the leader of the movement, the whole thing couldn’t have worked if it weren’t for the “women’s collective,” as she put it. The book focuses on the leaders of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia: Stockdale, Jane Denton, Louise Mulligan, Andrea Rander, Galanti, and Helene Knapp. But there were many others involved – some of whom still live in Coronado today. It is a story that touched many lives and it was an effort that required support of many women.

And, the story is now bound to go much further as the movie rights have been purchased by Academy Award winner, Reese Witherspoon, who also made Gone Girl and Wild and whose production company focuses on telling female driven stories.

Lee said that she was recently in Los Angeles and met with “Reese’s people about the movie. So, we have [moved studios] and they are starting to interview screenwriters right now and we should have the script three months after that approximately. We’re hoping to get going in the spring on filming or at least getting the actresses and director in place and the filming will probably start in the fall … I cannot imagine that they would not film in Coronado as picturesque as it is and Sybil is the center of the story and Coronado is a character and it needs to be where we start.”

The exhibit, currently showing at the Coronado Historical Association, features papers, videos and many artifacts, including the prison smock of Stockdale. It includes a wall of photos and stories showing what Coronado was like in the 1960s and other items, such as stacks of letters written to the POWs. There is much to learn for audiences of all ages.

Over lunch, Lee said that prior to writing this book, “I never watched the news and now I avidly read and watch the news … That’s probably the biggest thing for me out of this book is becoming more politically educated and interested.” She shared that she is also hoping that the book can be used in curriculum in schools to help students learn more about history, politics and the importance of these women and this movement.

The exhibit is open seven days a week at the Coronado Historical Association, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

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