It was 9:30 p.m. when the doorbell rang. In the sleepy Navy town of Coronado, Calif., hardly anyone rings the doorbell. Sybil Stockdale, the wife of Navy attack pilot Cmdr. James Stockdale, is sleeping upstairs and doesn’t hear it, but soon wakes to the sounds of voices down below. Hurrying to the front door, she sees her friend, Doyen Salsig, also the wife of a naval flyer, who is accompanied by a Navy lieutenant. With trepidation, the young naval chaplain informs Sybil that her husband has been shot down while on a bombing mission over North Vietnam and is missing.
The 41-year-old mother of four is immediately shaken. Doyen fetches her a glass of sherry. It’s September 1965 and Sybil Stockdale’s life has been changed forever.
The Navy had previously advised Sybil to stay publicly quiet in situations like this and let State Department “professionals” do their work in negotiating such matters. A dutiful Navy spouse, Sybil understood not to rock the boat. It wasn’t long, however, that she and other wives of military aviators missing in action or prisoners of war in Vietnam became disillusioned with the lack of progress by their own government.
Under Sybil’s leadership, these wives decided to take matters into their own hands. They formed a union, that ultimately became the National League of Families, and went public to tell the world about their missing or imprisoned husbands.
The true story of the women who fought on behalf of their men is chronicled in the mesmerizing new novel “Unwavering: The wives who fought to ensure that no man is left behind” by Taylor Baldwin Kiland and Judy Silverstein Gray. The 300-page book recounts, in astonishing detail, the passionate and tireless efforts and experiences of these military wives who unwittingly took on diplomatic roles, often to the chagrin of America’s political leadership, to bring national attention to horrible treatment their husbands were enduring at the hands of their North Vietnamese captors.
“Once I heard about the landmark, little-known, and valiant work of the women against many odds, it became clear we had to share their stories,” said Judy, a retired chief petty officer from the U.S. Coast Guard. “Their narrative included Cold War-era intrigue, women bucking tradition, political history, and marked changes in society.”
For Taylor, the story of the wives triggered an intimate connection.
“I was six years old living in Coronado in 1973, the year the POWs came home,” recalled Taylor, a former naval officer. “I grew up with many of the POW and MIA families in this small island military community and remember their homecoming. While there has been so much written and documented about the Vietnam POWs, much less has been written about their wives and the epic home-front battle they waged against the U.S. government to raise awareness of and rally a nation around the plight of their men.”
Shortly after the release of their book this spring, Taylor and Judy held a book-signing event on the hangar deck of the USS Midway Museum to share the story of these incredible women. The experience of writing the book was a long and emotional experience for both authors.
“It took eight years to research and write this book,” said Taylor, the third generation in her family to serve in the Navy. “Theirs is not simply a wives tale. The gutsy determination the women displayed, their strong message, and straightforward eloquence underscore the importance of speaking up, even when it is challenging to do so.”
“In many ways it was like detective work,” said Judy, who has already published six books for young readers. “First, we had to fully understand the breadth of the collective narrative, as well as the individual narratives against the backdrop of a sprawling war. It took careful and coordinated interviewing to build trust with the women and even longer to tease out cultural and historic details. Hearing the wives recount their stories humanized the narrative, clarified the significance of their work, the impact they made, and how they overcame a slew of cultural, political, gender-base, and economic hurdles.”
To ensure the highest level of accuracy in their writing, Taylor and Judy had to overcome a number of challenges.
“Much of the information had not been discussed or accessed for more than five decades, so we used a tincture of patience and prodding,” said Judy, who has also written numerous articles for the Tampa Tribune. “There was also no single source where we could verify facts, so we used a kind of triangulation through documents found in the National Archives, Navy Archives, Library of Congress, Stanford’s Hoover Institution, the Bush, Nixon and Reagan presidential libraries, personal collections, repositories, and news stories. Our lengthy endnotes underscore that painstaking process.”
Taylor is well acquainted with the broader POW/MIA subject, having already written multiple books on the issue. While her previous writings are in-depth journeys into the evolving lives of the POWs following their return to the United States, this novel now sheds light on the dogged determination of their wives.
“The women were persistent, focused, and courageous, but they were also successful at rallying a divided nation around a humanitarian cause,” said Taylor, who holds a master’s in marketing communications from Northwestern University. “They helped rally our nation during a deeply divisive time.”
The book has already received critical acclaim from Pulitzer Prize winning authors and former military leaders.
“Taylor Kiland and Judy Gray have chronicled—as no one else has—the dramatic, heart-rending saga of a small band of unlikely heroines who came to reshape U.S. foreign policy,” said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, former Director for National Intelligence. “While very diverse in backgrounds and personalities, they united around the common cause and soon learned how to call public attention to the plight of their men, and to bring pressure to bear on the government to take action.”
It would be seven and half years before Sybil would see her husband again following his release from Hanoi Hilton prison in February 1973. While her efforts and those of other wives were initially focused on bringing their husbands home from the war in Vietnam, the legacy of the organization that they started in the 1960s is still being felt today. The United States currently spends more than $130 million each year searching for those military members who remain missing in action.
“They are impressive and courageous women, who only now are beginning to understand the impact of their enduring work,” said Judy, who is also the third generation of her family to serve in the military. “Like many heroes, they remain humble. We are deeply grateful to these women for all they accomplished.”