In May 1972, the CIA launched Operation Thunderhead to rescue escaped American soldiers from a North Vietnamese prison. Here's why James Bond Stockdale and the other "Hanoi Hilton" POWs decided to shut it down.
In 1973, 591 American POWs returned home from the Vietnam War, bringing with them harrowing tales of survival. But there was an even more remarkable -- and secret -- story to tell: a feat of incredible spycraft that remained classified for decades...until now. This is the unbelievable story of James Stockdale and his fellow prisoners at the notorious "Hanoi Hilton." Their clandestine communications with U.S. intelligence alerted the CIA and Pentagon to the horrors of the Vietnamese POW camps and prompted a daring, top-secret rescue mission.
Lieutenant Melvin Spence Dry was the U.S. Navy SEAL commander in charge of the small SEAL-UDT platoon assigned to Operation Thunderhead, a daring mission put in place to rescue two escaped U.S. POWs from a Vietnamese prison camp.
On June 5, 1972, Dry was accidentally killed in the course of the operation, thereby becoming the last Navy SEAL lost during the Vietnam War. Due to the clandestine nature of the mission, details of his death were long shrouded in secrecy. A campaign to uncover the facts about Dry's death was conducted by his own father, Captain Melvin H. Dry, U.S. Navy, who devoted the next 25 years of his life pursuing the facts and urging the Navy to honor his son's sacrifice.
In December 2004, the Naval Academy Foundation confirmed that Spence Dry would be recognized as an operational loss during the Vietnam War. Subsequently, in 2008, the Navy awarded Dry a posthumous Bronze Star Medal with Combat "V" for valor for his heroic achievement in leading his platoon in combat operations.
Vice-Admiral James Bond Stockdale was a Navy Commander who survived 2,621 days in captivity during the Vietnam War.
In 1965, during a routine bombing mission over North Vietnam, Stockdale's plane was shot down, leading to his capture and imprisonment in the infamous Hoa Lo prison -- better known as the "Hanoi Hilton." It was the beginning of a grueling ordeal that would last until the end of the war.
Despite brutal and relentless torture, Stockdale risked his life by relaying information back to his wife Sybil in the U.S. Together, they worked with the CIA to help build a covert communications system that remained a government secret until 2015. Over the remainder of his captivity, Stockdale was able to organize a large number of his fellow POWs, leveraging their skills and coordinating their efforts in order to transmit vital intelligence back to the U.S. government.
In 1973, after the war ended, Stockdale was released and sent back to the U.S., where he was reunited with Sybil. He was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor and became one of the most highly decorated Navy officers in U.S. history. In 1992, he ran for the Vice Presidency of the United States, on the independent ticket with H. Ross Perot.
Vice-Admiral Stockdale died peacefully in his home in 2005 and was buried at the United States Naval Academy Cemetery.
Robert W. Wallace is the former director of the CIA's Office of Technical Services whose officers supported covert communications with Vice-Admiral James Bond Stockdale during his captivity in the "Hanoi Hilton."
CIA/OTS led the CIA's communications with Stockdale, with the help of Stockdale's wife, Sybil. The Stockdale partnership would develop into one of the most important covert assets in the history of the Vietnam War, paving the way for the recently declassified Operation Thunderhead -- a mission set up to rescue U.S. POWs from North Vietnam.
After completing his service in Vietnam in 1968, Wallace was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, two Bronze Stars with a "V" for valor, and three Air Medals, and was honorably discharged from the Army in 1970.
In 1971, he joined the CIA, where his field assignments included two tours as an officer and three tours as Chief of Station. In the latter capacity, he directed clandestine operations and managed intelligence collection programs. From 1991, he held several senior positions at the CIA.
Wallace eventually retired from the CIA in 2003 and went on to form a private consulting group that provided organizational, management, and business development services for government and commercial clients, as well as various other activities.
In 2005, he was honored by his alma mater, Ottawa University (class of '66) with an Outstanding Achievement Award.
Commander Danny E. Glenn was a POW housed in the same cell of the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" as Vice-Admiral James Bond Stockdale -- a senior officer suspected by the North Vietnamese of passing secret messages to the U.S. government.
Despite being subjected to gruesome and sustained torture, Glenn never betrayed his cellmate. In fact, he went on to become a trusted and key member of the POW covert communications effort, led by Stockdale, which would develop into a major source of intelligence for the CIA.
After 2,226 days in captivity, Glenn was released by the North Vietnamese as part of Operation Homecoming on March 4, 1973. Upon his return, he was presented with several military awards and honors for his bravery during his time as a POW, including his second Silver Star citation, which references the torture he endured immediately after his capture.
The citation noted that through his refusal to yield, he contributed significantly toward the eventual abandonment of harsh treatment by the North Vietnamese, and that his determination, courage, resourcefulness, and devotion to duty reflected well on him and upheld the highest traditions of the Naval Service and the United States Armed Forces.
Commander Glenn would continue his service in the Navy, including several overseas posts, until his retirement in 1983.
Michael G. "Mike" Mullen is a retired U.S. Navy Admiral, who served as the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011. He was also a close friend of Vice-Admiral James Bond Stockdale, the naval aviator captured by the North Vietnamese in 1965.
In 2005, when Stockdale passed away, it was Mullen who delivered his eulogy: "We too often throw the word 'hero' around," he said of his friend and fellow serviceman. "But Vice-Admiral Stockdale was able to put in place a structure that allowed so many of his fellow prisoners to survive, to inspire them with hope and to bring them home."
On September 30, 2011, Mullen officially retired from the military when his term as Chairman ended.
Eugene "Red" McDaniel is a retired U.S. Navy Captain and a former Vietnam War POW at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton."
Inside the prison, McDaniel became a key member of Vice-Admiral James Bond Stockdale's covert operation between the POWs and the U.S. government. He was instrumental in implementing a system of taps that enabled communication between the cellblocks, a sound he likened to "30 secretaries typing away on typewriters."
He would later credit his faith with giving him the strength to survive his ordeal, as well as the knowledge that the U.S. government was actively working on their behalf.
Eventually, McDaniel was released on March 4, 1973, after more than six years in captivity. Upon returning home, he was awarded the Navy's second highest award for bravery, the Navy Cross, as well as two Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit with Combat "V," the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Stars with Combat "V," and two Purple Hearts for wounds received in captivity.
McDaniel would continue his service in the U.S. Navy, culminating in his role as Director of Navy/Marine Corps Liaison to the United States House of Representatives from 1979 to 1981. He retired in January 1982.
After the war, he became involved in Vietnam War POW/MIA issues and aimed at focusing attention on American servicemen still missing in Southeast Asia.
Lieutenant Philip "Moki" Martin, is a former U.S. Navy SEAL and one of the men involved in the highly classified Operation Thunderhead, a 1972 mission to rescue U.S. POWs attempting to escape a North Vietnamese prison.
While the mission did not fulfill its objectives, Martin distinguished himself during the course of the operation but was not immediately recognized for his actions due to its clandestine nature.
Three decades later, the mission was declassified and Martin was finally awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal with a "V" for valor.
He now lives in the San Diego area with his wife, Judy.
Sybil Stockdale is the wife of the late Vice-Admiral James Bond Stockdale, who survived 2,621 days in the infamous Vietnamese prison known as the "Hanoi Hilton." In a letter he wrote her from captivity, he made an unusual literary reference that aroused her suspicion.
Correctly guessing that her husband was trying to relay a secret message, she passed the letter on to the Office of Naval Intelligence. Over the next few years, Sybil agreed to allow concealed information to be passed on to her husband through their correspondence, despite the danger this posed on his life. At one point, Sybil even received formal training by the CIA in covert communications.
In 1973, Stockdale was finally released and returned to the U.S., where he was reunited with Sybil. They would go on to pen a co-memoir together, "In Love and War: The Story of a Family's Ordeal During the Vietnam Years," which became a national best seller and a successful made-for-television movie.
While Sybil initially agreed with the U.S. government's request not to publicize POW torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese, she eventually became frustrated with its secrecy. As a result, she co-founded the National League of POW/MIA Families -- a nonprofit organization that worked on behalf of American Vietnam-era missing in action and POW families.
James B. Stockdale II worked for 40 years in public and independent schools as a teacher, counselor, coach, and administrator. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University and received his Ph.D. from Auburn University. Stockdale has served as headmaster at The Latin School of Chicago and Lawrence Country Day School in New York. At the request of the Department of Education, he spent six years as a Distinguished Educator in schools requiring "corrective action." He retired as a public school superintendent in 2012.
Stockdale spent three months with his father, Vice-Admiral James B. Stockdale, immediately following his return from imprisonment in Vietnam. Stockdale served as his father's aide-de-camp, driver, and editor during the "debrief days." In the years that followed he continued this work as speechwriter and editor. During and since his career in education, Stockdale has written and worked in the areas of politics, psychology, leadership facilitation, and military families. He and his wife Marina have been married for 38 years. They live in Beaver, Pennsylvania, where Marina teaches English, history, theatre, and gifted education and supervises college placement. Their daughter, Elizabeth, is Director of Student Life at the Emery-Weiner School in Houston. Their son, Bond, is Chief Operating Officer of Capital Lending and Finance in Pittsburgh.
Access even more free Smithsonian Channel full episodes and documentaries online through participating TV providers.
Find out if your television provider carries Smithsonian Channel on air.
Don't panic! It's simple to upgrade to the latest version of one of these browsers:
Don't panic! To get the best possible experience on smithsonianchannel.com we recommend you upgrade your operating system.
For the best possible site experience, please use Chrome for Android.
Add username "SmithsonianChan" on Snapchat for fun and fascinating facts. We'll be sharing spontaneous photos and videos as inspiration strikes.