hidden history: the story of the indomitable wives and families who fought to bring pow/mia loved ones home
every evening sybil stockdale communed with her husband in private.
“she would go up right before dinner and say, ‘i need to have some time with my husband,’” stockdale’s college roommate bebe woolfolk recalled. “sybil was not particularly religious, but she would have this ritual of psychically being with him, thinking about him and just praying he was okay.”
the year was 1965. not long before then-commander james stockdale’s aircraft crashed into the jungle and he was taken prisoner by the north vietnamese, president lyndon johnson deployed combat units to vietnam, increasing troop levels to close to 200,000—the first major escalation of the conflict, but not the last. the vietnam war would claim american lives until 1973, when the united states signed a peace treaty and troops were withdrawn.
sybil’s magical thinking, meant to conjure the husband she desperately wanted—needed—to come home, was an act of self-preservation. the fear for his well-being, the not knowing, the slog of each day, could quickly overwhelm and ferociously devour the life she’d carefully reconstructed for her children in the years since his capture.
she maintained this ritual for years. during that time, though, she did far more than hope for her husband’s safe return—she galvanized a movement to make it so.
sybil stockdale founded the national league of families for american prisoners and missing in southeast asia. the nonpartisan lobbying group dedicated itself to bringing prisoners of war (pows) home, and to accounting for the missing. the organization’s membership, comprised of pow/mia families, grew from a handful of west coast navy families in 1966 to a membership in the thousands that stretched across the united states with ties to every branch of service.
stockdale’s story is central to heath hardage lee’s recent book, league of wives: the untold story of the women who took on the u.s. government to bring their husbands home.
lee found this “hidden history” buried in the papers of family friend and 1972 national league board chair phyllis galanti.
“phyllis had passed recently, and i was sad that i’d never talked to her because i knew she was an activist and had done something to help her husband return from vietnam,” lee says. “that was the extent of what i knew.”
though phyllis galanti and anne hardage, lee’s mother, attended the same book club in richmond, virginia, for 30 years, phyllis didn’t say much about her involvement and leadership in the national league of families. but she kept meticulous records.
phyllis’s husband, paul, a u.s. navy pilot, survived a seven-year stay in the infamous hoa lo prison (dubbed the “hanoi hilton” by pows) after his plane went down in 1966.
phyllis’s papers provided a treasure map of connections lee followed all over the country; from the families of the women who organized, printed flyers, made phone calls and showed up on the doorsteps of diplomats in washington, paris and vietnam, to the politicians with the clout to change the course of history—among them, henry kissinger and bob dole.
lee, a 1992 graduate of davidson college, has written a book that recounts the little-known story of courageous military wives who spoke truth to power during a fraught time in american history. through the voices of the women and their families, and interviews with politicians and diplomats of the era, she reveals their herculean efforts to bring pow husbands home and give closure to the families of missing soldiers.
this “reluctant sorority” of wives, and family members of the captive and missing, was driven to organize by the ineffective “quiet diplomacy” of the u.s. government.
“one of the universal experiences shared by the women in this group was the american government’s admonition to keep quiet about their husbands’ perilous scenarios,” lee writes in a time op-ed. “if the women dared to discuss it, their government warned them, the men might be badly treated or even executed. with this heavy burden to bear, the women were supposed to go about their daily existence, telling no one what they were up against. supposedly this would help bring the men home safely. this policy had been applied to prisoners and missing troops in previous wars and was one president lyndon b. johnson would also adhere to during the vietnam war.”
the women, however, wanted more information about their husbands. how could they get a list of the names of those being held? were they being treated in accordance with the tenets of the geneva convention?
at the same time, government bureaucracy was making it difficult to take care of their families. they faced barriers to collecting their husbands’ paychecks, and the government initially excluded them from a savings plan created for american servicemen fighting in combat zones.
frustrated and exhausted from getting nowhere through official channels, sybil stockdale began to make strategic visits to potential allies within various government agencies. she created a newsletter to connect the wives, from california to virginia.
the wives began to socialize more frequently—pot luck dinners, coffees, trips to a favorite mexican restaurant in coronado, california.
lee says those get-togethers provided a chance to get away from the kids for a little bit and an opportunity to commiserate. they also helped to lay the groundwork for the league’s activities.
“the women are the rescuers here,” lee says. “they are the ones that have to bypass their own government, and take matters into their own hands.”
the women eventually eschewed traditional diplomacy for a far more public approach. they used the world media to shame the north vietnamese into compliance. in 1968—the year richard nixon was elected president—sybil stockdale went public with her husband’s plight in the san diego union newspaper.
the shy, intelligent phyllis galanti joined stockdale in her activism, earning the moniker “fearless phyllis.” she overcame her dread of public speaking to address the virginia general assembly, traverse the halls of power in washington, d.c., and travel the world to advocate for the captured and missing men. in 1972, while on a league trip to paris, she met with french communist reporter madeleine riffaud in an effort to obtain information about her husband, paul. riffaud had interviewed paul soon after his capture.
more wives stepped into the spotlight. massive letter writing campaigns flooded embassies in france and sweden. wealthy texas businessman ross perot aligned his pow/mia awareness group united we stand with the wives’ cause, funding newspaper and television advertising as well as a gambit to fly 1,400 meals and other supplies to the hanoi pows on a boeing 707 deemed peace on earth.
unlike the johnson administration, the nixon government was empathetic to the wives’ plight, quickly backing off of the “keep quiet” policy. the president also recognized the public relations value of the national league of families. the pow/mia cause was perhaps the one issue a divided america could rally around.
the government provided the national league members with contacts, suggestions, an office in washington, d.c., regular briefings, and tips on public speaking and how to deal with the press.
the national league’s “go public” approach was among the factors that led directly to immediate improvements in prison conditions and treatment of the prisoners.
in an interview for lee’s book, u.s. senator and former pow john mccain confirmed just that.
“our treatment changed dramatically,” he told lee. “it went from bad—in my case, solitary confinement—to being with 25 others… it was a decision made by the politburo. it was not gradual.”
the torture stopped.
“they become so empowered to change history,” lee says. “it’s almost the power of life and death.”
surprisingly to lee, the women did not see their empowerment as a feminist act.
“i did not understand, for so long, that feminism in those days was associated with communism and the left,” lee says. “so, to be a feminist to many of these wives would mean you were associated with your husband’s torturers. that just blew my mind.
“as a historian, you really cannot come in with your own political biases,” lee says. “they became empowered along the way, but it was about human rights and about upholding the geneva conventions of war. just basic human dignity is what they were fighting for, not for themselves. but, by the end of the story, many of them do realize they’ve changed the entire way of thinking about their own power.”
in 1979, sybil stockdale received the navy distinguished public service award, the highest honor given to a civilian not employed by the department of the navy. sybil is the only wife of an active duty naval officer to receive this award.
“some of the women and others i interviewed for the book were not really aware that history was happening, which i think is so true of a lot of history,” lee says. “you don’t really know it’s happening when it’s happening to you.”
marty and porter ’63 halyburton have recently returned from their ninth trip to vietnam, where they led a group of davidson college alumni to absorb the culture of the vibrant country and retrace porter’s steps as a pow. it is late february and news of the novel coronavirus is starting to affect international travel.
they’ve recently moved to a retirement community in greensboro, north carolina. inside their home, striking artifacts from their travels and artwork crafted by porter himself—stained glass, pottery—line the walls and add interest to nearly every corner.
two elegant chairs carved from rosewood, with intricate etching along their curved arms, sit across from a sofa framed by a large picture window. these beautiful, distinctive chairs are copies of those at hoa sua restaurant in hanoi, vietnam. hoa sua is a hospitality training center for vietnamese street kids, orphans and disadvantaged youth. marty volunteered there, teaching english as a second language.
“i asked if i could buy them, and they said ‘no, but we’ll tell you who made them,’” marty says.
marty commissioned a vietnamese furniture maker to craft the close cousins that now rest near her dining room table in greensboro.
the halyburtons choose to appreciate the beauty of life, and the richness of a place half-way around the world that came to define their time together in many unexpected ways. that conscious decision has guided their lives and shaped a history that very nearly didn’t happen.
they sit down to tell a story they have told many times, but the memories still stir emotion. porter speaks softly, a counterbalance to marty’s matter-of-fact energy. both have a command of vietnam’s history and their place in it, and each fill in gaps in the other’s telling.
the vietnam years
when naval aviator porter halyburton deployed for vietnam, he left behind his young wife and five-day-old daughter, dabney.
a year and a half after his plane was shot down over north vietnam, porter sat in a filthy cell shared with another american prisoner of war, and learned that he was supposedly dead.
five years later, marty halyburton’s postman left her empty house holding a letter addressed to
“mrs. marty halyburton, usa.” for two months marty had been waiting for that letter, sent by way of swedish politician olof palme. the postman knew she had been expecting an important letter. he tracked her down in a big apple grocery store in decatur, georgia, where he tapped her on the shoulder in the produce aisle, exclaiming, “i have your letter! i have your letter!”
the precious letter, written in her husband’s own hand, confirmed that porter was alive.
in the years between porter’s capture and the confirmation of his status as a pow, marty received two visits from navy administrators bearing news.
the first time they knocked on her door, they reported that porter had been killed in action.
porter’s plane crashed and exploded into a karst ridge 40 miles northeast of hanoi on oct. 17, 1965. no parachutes were sighted, and no radio contact made.
a year and a half later, well after marty held a memorial service and the tombstone was placed in the family cemetery, six men visited with news that they had reason to believe porter was a prisoner of war.
“i had convinced myself porter was better off dead than to have been captured,” she says. “now i would have to live with terrible uncertainty and worry about him for what would be another six years.”
initially, she was told to keep the news private and share it only with family and close friends. she escaped to st. simons island, georgia, where she had lived with porter and where few would know her as she picked up the pieces of this strange new life as a pow wife.
the government went public several weeks later and marty’s new situation became reality when porter’s picture flashed across the screen as the subject of the top story on that night’s nbc huntley-brinkley report.
“for months after learning porter was a pow, i talked to government officials daily,” she says. they gave her sybil stockdale’s phone number and address.
after the shock abated, she contacted sybil and got involved with the national league.
“i now had a group of wives and families who shared my predicament and we had a job to do. our primary focus was to publicize the plight of the pows and missing in action and to seek humane treatment for those held captive,” she says. “north vietnam and the viet cong did not acknowledge holding but a few prisoners, so most families did not know if their loved ones were dead or alive.”
the families working on behalf of the pow/mia strove to spread information. they talked to rotary clubs, churches and civic organizations, and wrote letters to foreign governments.
“we knew there were pows in north vietnam like porter, who the north vietnamese had not acknowledged holding,” she says. “they were not allowing them to write letters as they should have been able to do under the geneva convention.”
five years would pass before porter’s name came out on a list of pows and he was allowed to write the first of 14 six-line notes marty would receive.
instead, the north vietnamese allowed senior officers like jim stockdale to write letters, mainly as a propaganda maneuver to give the impression that they were acting in accordance with international law.
sometimes, though, those letters contained code that revealed valuable information to the u.s. government.
naval intelligence enlisted sybil stockdale to send covert letters to her husband. the coded letters penned by the stockdales and other pow husbands and wives provided news of prison conditions, torture, and the names of american pows being held at the hanoi hilton and other prison facilities.
inside the prison, the men communicated using tap code, a code with ancient greek origins. porter’s name finally made it out by way of an enlisted man named doug hegdahl, who’d been ordered by his superior officers in the hanoi hilton to take early release—he had memorized 250 of the other prisoners’ and missing mens’ names. doug called marty 15 minutes after his plane touched down in the united states.
as marty became more involved with the national league, she faced a choice.
“one of the big struggles was balancing my pow activism with being a single parent and trying to pursue a normal life for my daughter and me,” she says.
the first speech she gave was supposed to be to a local rotary club. a month out, as marty thought about what she wanted to say in her allotted 10 minutes, she received a call—the speaker that evening had cancelled, and could she fill in?
the host organization turned out to be the national convention of the american bar association, not a local rotary club.
marty was ushered into the packed ballroom of the omni hotel in downtown atlanta amid a flash of cameras and situated in front of a bank of microphones—only then she learned she was pinch-hitting for the u.s. attorney general, robert kennedy, whose plane was delayed.
“i must have done okay, because i soon received a call from ross perot, who had taken up the cause of the pows, asking me to join the speaker circuit with him,” she says. “ross was a godsend to the pow cause, but a demanding individual, asking me to meet him in some faraway city on short notice.”
after a few scrambles to find a babysitter, marty realized her primary job was as a parent and decided that she could do just as much for the cause closer to home and on her own terms. she kept up her involvement with the national league as a board member and coordinator of southern states.
“for several years, i traveled to washington frequently, meeting with those we needed to keep engaged—president nixon, henry kissinger, alexander haig and members of congress,” she says. “the national league somehow managed to remain apolitical until the 1972 election when fractures surfaced.”
the presidential election loomed large, and the candidates had different ideas about what the end of the war would look like. president nixon pledged to stay in southeast asia until the pows were released, and his opponent, sen. george mcgovern, vowed to withdraw all u.s. forces, with or without the return of the known 660 pows and an accounting for the more than 2,500 missing.
“we, the families, were tired, weary, scared,” marty says. they wondered how much longer their men could hang on.
nixon won re-election and in 1973 signed an agreement to end the war. two weeks later, the pows were issued new clothes, toothpaste, and soap, and were allowed to take a bath. soon after, the men boarded planes first for the philippines and then for the united states. they were going home.
marty watched porter’s flight come in from the control tower. they reunited privately two days before valentine’s day 1973.
“after porter’s return home in 1973, i focused on our family and our future, mostly putting the war and the eight years porter was away behind me,” marty says. “it wasn’t until the air strikes in the first gulf war, accompanied by a barrage of calls from journalists wanting interviews, our opinions and stories, that i realized just how much the war in vietnam had shaped my life.”
some 25 years later, porter would return to vietnam for the first time as a free man, and marty would begin a love affair with the country.
a group of pows planned the trip. marty intended to go with a friend because porter wasn’t interested. when he realized the day they’d leave for vietnam was the date his plane had been shot down, and the day they’d arrive in hanoi was the date he’d arrived there 25 years earlier, he changed his mind.
“i didn’t have an agenda going back,” porter says. “i wanted to see the country. i’d been there so long and seen so little of it. and i didn’t have any animosity at all toward the vietnamese. when i walked out of the hanoi hilton, i said ‘i forgive you.’ that changed everything for me.”
marty had experienced vietnam on television during the war through images of american soldiers slogging through the jungles, women and children fleeing their napalmed villages. she wondered, what is this country like so many years later?
“i had watched these horrible pictures of women and their children running for their lives,” marty says. “i had everything i could want, except for porter, but these people…” she pauses, struggling with the memory. “so, i had this empathy and that’s why i was interested in going back.”
the trip proved transformative. they held a small memorial ceremony for the pilot of porter’s downed aircraft, whose body had never been found. they came to understand that the vietnamese did not think of them as enemies.
“it was so much more than i ever dreamed,” she says, “a trip filled with beauty, rich culture, discovery, surprise, memories, stories, thanksgiving, tears, joy, but most of all it was a journey of forgiveness.”
marty returned to vietnam for two months to teach english as a second language in hanoi. she kept going back. she served on the board of children of vietnam, a humanitarian organization that helps poor and homeless children in da nang.
the halyburtons have sponsored three vietnamese families who came to the united states as refugees and volunteer with refugee and immigrant organizations. they have a quasi-adopted daughter they met on their first trip, when she was a high schooler. they helped her finish college and earn a master’s degree, and she’s now married and living in the united states.
now, when marty recalls those eight years long ago, she says the unknown, the unimaginable, the seemingly endless waiting were the most difficult forces to bear.
“I’d almost forgotten about this until reading stories by families of hostages,” she says. “what i do remember most clearly is the groundswell of support, friendships made with people i would otherwise have never met, and the humor and camaraderie with other wives who share this story.”
the stories of women, teased from between the lines of official historical accounts and glimpsed in artifacts and scraps of correspondence, have fascinated heath lee since her days as a davidson history major.
“I’m always looking, and those stories are not as easy to come by as you would think,” lee says. “because for so long, women have just been dismissed as unimportant, and women’s history is often not recorded.”
lee, who was a kelley scholar, credits two faculty mentors for turning her toward a path less taken: assistant professor of history barbara ballard, who specialized in african american women’s studies, and mary reynolds babcock professor of history emerita sally mcmillen, who focused on southern and women’s history.
under their tutelage, lee, a southern woman from richmond, virginia, developed an intense interest in southern women and civil rights.
“they really opened up my mind to a lot of things,” lee says. “i still think about them, their techniques, how they taught and how they recorded women’s history.”
after davidson, lee earned a master’s degree in french language and literature from the university of virginia. when she and her husband eventually moved to charlotte, lee worked as the director of programs and education for the levine museum of the new south where she learned oral history interview techniques—which would later prove crucial to her work on the league of wives.
her path branched into several directions, with stints teaching and grant writing. when she found time to contemplate her next move, she reconnected with her first loves—women’s history and writing.
she decided to try her hand at telling women’s stories and chose winnie davis, daughter of president of the confederate states jefferson davis, as her subject.
mcmillen, who consulted with lee on the topic, remembers her former student fondly.
“she was always very enthusiastic, and creative,” she says. “and she has this persistence—when she sets her mind to something, it’s going to happen.”
mcmillen pioneered women’s studies at davidson, becoming the college’s first professor to teach women’s history in 1988. she made a career examining what she calls the underside of history, the people who have been left out—her book, lucy stone: an unapologetic life, tells the story of a little-known but pivotal leader in the fight for abolition and gender equality.
“these stories have been overlooked or ignored,” she says, adding, “we’re trying to broaden people’s understanding of what this nation and this world is all about—women are more than half the population.”
because of lee’s persistence, the story of the national league will reach audiences in many ways, including a traveling exhibition.
the women lee interviewed entrusted her with boxes of their possessions—diaries, letters, clothing, jewelry. lee recognized these artifacts had a life of their own. after conducting research for the book at the robert j. dole institute of politics at the university of kansas, she was invited to curate an exhibition as the dole archives curatorial fellow.
the silver punch bowl and cup set engraved with admiral jim stockdale’s name and the names of all of the aviators in his squadron, and sybil stockdale’s blazing pink suit that she wore to a press conference with richard nixon, add dimensions to the people in the pages of the book.
audrey coleman, associate director of the robert j. dole institute of politics and director of the museum and archives, says the black and white photos of the time often fail to tell the whole story. that’s where the exhibit comes in.
“sybil was ready to bring it when she went to washington,” coleman says. “not only did she present herself sharply, as any military wife would, but she made sure to cut a memorable figure.”
a cascading chandelier, on loan from the halyburtons, is the cornerstone of the exhibit, coleman says. during the war, an organization called viva (voices in vital america) sold nickel-plated and copper bracelets inscribed with the names of the missing and imprisoned so that they may not be forgotten. once the serviceman whose name was inscribed on the bracelet came home or was identified, wearers were to send the bracelets back to his family.
upon porter’s release, he received letters and bracelets inscribed with his name from over a thousand strangers. he wrote to each and every person and hung the bracelets from a lamp above the kitchen table where he answered those letters, marty says.
the exhibit made its way to several states before the pandemic shuttered museums; it will continue to tour once host sites re-open.
with the exhibit on the road and the book in print, lee set her sights on the silver screen.
“i love movies,” she says. “i keep up with all the movie stuff, and i see everything.”
that knowledge served her well when she approached her los angeles film agent with an idea—league of wives was just the sort of story that might pique reese witherspoon’s interest.
lee’s hunch was right—witherspoon read the book over a weekend, and soon lee sat in her roanoke, virginia, home, anxiously waiting for a call from the production company. the call went well, and lee indulged in a celebratory dance around her house, embarrassing her teenage children.
witherspoon’s production company, hello sunshine, optioned the book and sony has acquired the movie. lee will serve as an executive producer.
“this story has so much life to it,” lee says. “i never get tired of talking about it because people really want to know, and they connect to it in this visceral way.”
it’s not uncommon for people to leave a talk or the exhibit in tears; often men respond to the book and exhibit with emotion, lee says:
“they say, ‘this is authentic. this is what that time period felt like.’ as a writer and curator born in 1969, that’s the best compliment i could possibly get.”
this story ran in the spring/summer 2020 issue of the davidson journal magazine.