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COVID-19 and Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton

On September 9, 1965, Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale (1923-2005) launched from the USS Oriskany to deliver bombs over a target in North Vietnam. On this bombing run, Stockdale’s aircraft sustained extensive damage from enemy antiaircraft fire. Stockdale ejected from his plane and landed in North Vietnamese territory. North Vietnamese soldiers captured Stockdale, and he spent the next seven and a half years as a prisoner of war (POW) in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” the sarcastic name given by those incarcerated in this compound. As the senior naval officer in the “Hilton,” Stockdale would provide extraordinary leadership under the most challenging circumstances and enable his fellow POWs to resist their captors and return home with their honor and dignity intact. 

As COVID-19 continues to dominate our thoughts and disrupt our routine, this is an appropriate moment to return to the “Hanoi Hilton” and determine what fire department leaders can learn from Admiral Stockdale’s experience. Though our current situation does not rival the circumstances faced by those held captive for years in Hanoi, the similarities can be instructive and provide leaders with keys for leading in unique and uncertain times. 

First, the POWs found themselves in circumstances neither chosen nor anticipated. Stockdale toured the Yuma Territorial Prison with his two eldest sons prior to his imprisonment. After viewing the dank cells, Stockdale assured his sons, “the days of wild Western desperados, as well as jails such as these, were gone forever.” In Hanoi, however, he would find himself in even worse conditions. Likewise, we did not predict a health crisis of the current magnitude nor foresee the far-reaching impact on our leadership responsibilities.  

Second, the POWs faced an unknown timeline. When Admiral Stockdale ejected from his A-4 Skyhawk aircraft and floated toward earth with his parachute, he said to himself, “five years” as a best guess for his time as a prisoner. Likewise, we don’t know the staying power of the COVID-19 virus or its potential to regenerate at a future time. 

Third, the POWs often found themselves isolated from one another. Admiral Stockdale spent four and a half years in solitary confinement and still had to lead his fellow POWs. Likewise, these are times when restrictions of movement or proximity reduce our capability to interact and communicate.  

Fourth, the POWs needed to persevere. As Stockdale once shared with cadets at West Point, “The test of character is not ‘hanging in’ when you expect light at the end of the tunnel, but performance of duty and persistence of example when you know no light is coming.” Likewise, the unknown nature of this pandemic requires an unusual degree of grit and stamina.  

Given these similar circumstances, what can leaders learn from Stockdale?  

Stockdale reminds leaders to establish and maintain a clear and concise set of expectations for their departments and teams. As a leader in the camp, Stockdale promulgated many directives, but his foundational message came in the form of an acronym, “BACK US.” Each letter had a special meaning to guide the POWs’ actions. For example, “B” meant “don’t Bow to the enemy in public,” “A” communicated “stay off the Air” and do not become tools for propaganda purposes, and so on. To Stockdale, the most critical element was “U.S.”— “Unity above Self.” Stockdale believed each of the POWs had to become “their brother’s keeper,” what he termed “the flip side of what’s in it for me?”  

Stockdale reminds leaders they must be diligent in sharing these expectations and keeping lines of communication open. Admiral Stockdale and his colleagues used a 5x5 matrix composed of twenty-five letters (with C and K interchangeable) and tapped the row and column to send messages throughout the prison camp. Stockdale once remarked the POWs “risked military interrogation, pain, and public humiliation to stay in touch with each other and maintain group integrity...” Stockdale and his fellow leaders sent meaningful, purposeful, and timely communications. 

Stockdale reminds leaders they must be messengers of hope but hope defined in a specific way. Jim Collins captured this concept when interviewing Admiral Stockdale for his book Good to Great. Stockdale told Collins:  “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality...” 

Collins called this “The Stockdale Paradox”—keeping faith while acknowledging the harsh reality of the moment.  

And finally, Stockdale reminds leaders they must set the example—and Stockdale was a role model of determination and courage. Perhaps an excerpt from his Medal of Honor citation summarizes it best:  

Stockdale was singled out for interrogation and attendant torture . . . Sensing the start of another purge, and aware that his earlier efforts at self-disfiguration to dissuade his captors from exploiting him for propaganda purposes had resulted in cruel and agonizing punishment, Stockdale resolved to make himself a symbol of resistance regardless of personal sacrifice. He deliberately inflicted a near-mortal wound to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate. 

This selfless action inspired his fellow POWs and caused the enemy to cease their excessive harassment and torture. 

At the Naval Academy’s Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, which I led for over a decade, we had memorabilia from the Stockdale family. One framed poster in the entranceway to the Center had a sketch of a POW in his cell block with the knob on the outside of the door, but no handle on the inside. The quote next to the sketch read, “There’s no such thing as a bad day when there’s a doorknob on the inside of the door.”  

As we look at the doorknobs on the inside of our doors, front line leaders should be motivated to step up, like Admiral Stockdale did 55 years ago, and lead with fortitude and integrity for the good of others.


Colonel Arthur J. Athens is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer, served as a White House Fellow during the Reagan Administration, and most recently led the Naval Academy’s Vice Admiral Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership. He has been a conference keynote speaker for the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs and Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs.


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