Review: James Stockdale. Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior

James Stockdale was the Carrier Air Group Commander on the USS Oriskany. He was shot down over North Vietnam while filing an A-4 attack mission on Sept. 9, 1965.

Before he took that fateful cat-shot, Stockdale studied stoic philosophy at Stanford. He was a student of the teachings of Epictetus, a Greek philosopher who was born in 50 AD. Stockdale’s story of how Epictetus’ philosophy helped him survive and flourish 7 1/2 years as a prisoner of war is required reading.

Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior is a 21-page essay that can be bought on your Kindle for $1.99

I particularly liked this book because of my experience as a naval flight officer, a designation Stockdale refers to in the book as “electronic wizards.” Additionally, I went through the Navy’s Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) school in 1981. The SERE school isn’t something one forgets. Reading this book reminded me of what I learned there–the prisoner tap code, the importance of the chain of command, and the Code of Conduct for the U.S. Fighting Man

But the primary lesson I learned reading Stockdale’s essay was an introduction to stoicism. I am drawn to this philosophy and believe it to be an excellent foundation for practical living. This little book is a great primer. 

I Was On a Warship Off the Normandy Coast on June 6

Just a young naval aviator at the time, it was cool to participate in the celebration of the 40th anniversary (1984) commemoration of the D-Day landings of World War II. I was aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, a United States super carrier, which patrolled up the Normandy coast on June 6-7, 1984, honoring the WWII D-day combatants.

The Ike operated in the area for several weeks before the commemoration. I had the pleasure of making port calls in Brest, France, and Portsmouth, England. I took leave when we made port in Portsmouth and traveled north to London.

London town was abuzz about an upcoming visit from then U.S. President Ronald Reagan. At that time, Guinness, a beer company from Ireland, was running a successful international marketing campaign based upon obtaining photographs of famous celebrities drinking Guinness.

Reagan, of Irish descent, was scheduled to visit Ireland as part of the D-day celebration. Controversy arose. Some experts in diplomatic matters felt it would highly unseemly of a U.S. President to allow himself to be used in a crass commercial promotion. The issue was hotly debated in the media, with most conservative commentators believing Reagan would never allow himself to participate in the Guinness marketing scheme.

When I awoke in London the morning after Reagan’s visit to Ireland, the headlines on the London papers screamed out the headline:

He Drank the Guinness!!!

Remembering Roy Hodge

On July 30, 1982, Roy Hodge piloted his VAQ-131 EA6B prowler into a landing on the USS Independence. The tailhook on the prowler snagged the four wire and began to decelerate. Only the tailhook didn’t really catch the wire. The hook speared the cable. As the 40 ton aircraft traveling at approximately 125 knots was screeching to a stop, the stress and force snapped the wire rope and the Prowler rolled unrestrained toward the bow. Problem was that the partial arrested landing slowed down the Prowler so much that it was impossible to takeoff again. There was only one choice as the prowler rolled toward the edge and the ocean below. EJECT.

In the Prowler ejection system, when the pilot pulls the ejection seat handle, the the Naval Flight Officers eject first, one every .4 seconds. The pilot goes last, 1.2 seconds after he pulls the handle.

Everyone in the VAQ-131 Prowler successfully ejected and Roy Hodge and the two NFOs landed in the ocean near the ship. Lieutenant Hodge even gave a thumbs up to signal that he was ok. But . . . he was not ok. Here’s a first hand account from someone on the flight deck that day:

I remember that day well . . . . I was in VF-32, on the flight deck waiting for my plane to land to retrieve film from it. It was surreal to see the ejections (3 as I recall)…I ran over to the angle deck to see Lt. Hodge give a thumbs up and then get taken down when the plane sank. it’s one of those seminal moments in a life that you will NEVER forget.

I met Roy Hodge once at the Whidbey Island O-club. We had a drink. He was from Danville, Virginia. Roy Hodge struck me as a happy go lucky person. I wish I had a chance to know him better.

When an aircraft accident happens in TACAIR, the Navy conducts a JAG investigation and issues a report on the accident. I remember reading the message about Roy Hodge’s death and the aircraft accident. Tragedy times two.

We were all trained that upon ejecting, one should not release our Koch fittings. The Koch fittings held our bodies to the parachute. There is a legitimate concern about landing in the ocean still attached to your parachute. Your chute can drag you in the wind, or it may become water logged and sink. So, release your Koch fitting as soon as possible to avoid being entangled with the parachute. We were even provided a knife in our survival gear to cut the parachute cords. But who wants to try and fish around for a knife while being drowned? The Navy figured that we aviators would just release our Koch fittings before we hit the water to avoid the problem altogether. However, that is also a bad idea. Distances can deceive when there is no point of reference to determine your distance above the surface. You might think your only a few feet above the water, but you could be hundreds. Therefore, it was standard protocol not release the Koch fittings until your feet hit the ocean. It all changed after what happened to Roy Hodge.

After Roy Hodge’s death, we changed our pre-flight briefs on every aircraft carrier flight. When I briefed the flight, I must have said dozens of times something like:

If you have to punch out around the boat, pick a point of reference like the flight deck or the hanger deck, and then release your Koch fittings there. I’m going with the hangar deck.

Roy Hodge’s parachute was entangled in the wreckage of the Prowler. The aircraft floated a few minutes, long enough for Roy Hodge to land nearby. Eventually, the airplane sank, pulling Roy Hodge to the bottom of the Eastern Med with it.

Remember the fallen.

Jim and Dewgie’s Near Air Medal

It was a dark and clear night in the Mediterranean Sea when my friends suffered a total electrical failure. They were flying an EA6B Prowler in the Spring of 1983. Our squadron was operating off the super carrier, Dwight D. Eisenhower, south of Greece. This was just another routine TACAIR night hop.

The Prowler emergency procedure for total electrical failure said everyone should punch out. But Jim Keresy (the pilot) and Dougie Moore (front seat Naval Flight Officer) didn’t much care for the idea of ejecting, deploying a parachute, landing in the ocean, and avoiding drowning while disconnecting their harnesses from the wet parachutes before the parachutes took them down to watery graves like an old time sea anchor. Nor were they down with the idea of rolling around in a raft, bobbing up and down on the swells of a black sea below, waiting for who knows how many hours (or days) on a rescue copter. Instead, they decided to save the plane. Here’s their story.

When an EA6B has a total electrical failure, you lose everything. You lose your radios so you cannot declare an emergency. You lose your navigation aids like the the tacan, radar, and onboard computer system. Finding your way around without any aids makes navigation difficult. You also lose all of your gauges in the cockpit. The little gauges on the console tell an aircrew important stuff. The fuel gauge tells you how much fuel is left in your plane. How long do you have to fly before you flame out. Your compass tells you what direction your going. That’s nice information when navigating. Your altimeter tells your altitude. Your airspeed tells your speed. Your gyroscope tells your attitude–i.e., whether you are upside down or flying down into the ocean. Each of these gauges individually are important. Losing all of them is a disaster.

That is why the EP tells the crew just eject and let the plane crash.

Luckily, Jim and Dougie still had their eyes and brains and God gave them a clear sky. They could see all the stars and visually maintain proper attitude. The sea can be deceptive about altitude, but they stayed high enough to keep out of danger. The crew could see a long way that night. It was CAVU to the moon. They were high in the sky and saw over the curvature of the earth’s surface. From their height while sweating bullets, they saw a faint glow on the western horizon. Shouting back and forth over the rushing noise of the Prowler’s Pratt and Whitney P408 engines, Jim and Dougie figured out that the glow in the distance was from the volcano on Sicily, Mount Etna, an active volcano. They also knew that the runways at Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella were nearby. They decided to dead reckon their way back to Sig. Somehow, they got the message to naval academy graduate Marc Troiani, who was trying to stay cool in the back seat. They flew on toward the faint reddish glow on the horizon coming from Mount Etna about 400 nautical miles away.

Sure enough, the glowing grew brighter and brighter as they approached the volcano. Jim and Dougie knew they were getting close to a place where they could land when they saw the lights of Catana, the Italian city at the foot of the volcano. Dougie still had to DR his way 25 nautical miles south to the 8,000 foot runway at NAS Sigonella. Their hearts lightened as they realized that the odds of an improbable safe landing were improving .

They were getting close but there were several more complicated problems to solve. The brakes on the Prowler are actuated by an electronic signal from the foot pedal. If Jim successfully landed the Prowler on the short, 8,000 foot Sigonella runway the brakes wouldn’t stop the airplane and it would crash at the end of the runway in a ball of fire. With0ut the luxury of radios, Jim had to communicate to the Sigonella tower that this aircraft needed an emergency arrested landing. Jim flew by the tower and waggled his wings. The tower flashed its lights indicating understanding. Circling above the airfield, Jim and his crew looked down and saw the trucks and ground personnel rigging the arrested landing gear.

Landing landing calculations were needed. The absence of a working fuel gauge meant the crew had guesstamate the weight of the Prowler. Weight was critical. Jim had to bring the Prolwer in slow her down enough to land, but not so slow she would stall and crash. This landing would be complicated further because the flaps and speed brakes were electrical and were unavailable meaning a much higher-speed landing than normal. The Sigonella arresting gear had speed and weight limits too. The crew consulted the airfield divert manual. Reading the tiny text about the Sigonella arresting gear specs in the red glow of his flashlight, Dougie confirmed the maximum safe airspeed and weight to take a trap. He shouted the information to Jim. Now Jim would need to dump tons of fuel to lighten the aircraft. A lighter Prowler could slow enough to engage the gears. But, but, but . . . if the crew dumped too much fuel . . . then the Prowler engines might flame out on approach and it would crash. Dougie calculated the time, distance, speed, wind to reach his best guess at the quantity of fuel remaining onboard. He shouted the additional data to Jim using naval aviator’s hand signals as a back up system of talking. Jim then figured out the dumping rate and calculated how many seconds to actuated the pneumatic fuel dump.

Jim still had to get the landing gear and tailhook down. Normally, the gear and tailhook operate on hydraulics after electrical actuation. But there was no electrical power to send the signal. Fortunately, the Prower is equipped with an emergency pneumatic system to blow down the landing gear and hook. Jim pulled the handle and the gear and hook snapped down. Jim banked into the final turn of the pattern and established the steep landing glide path into the gear. Everyone prayed the fuel would last. Boom. The Prowler slammed down and the crew felt the tug of an engaged tailhook. A perfect Navy landing. The crew’s logbooks kept by the squadron’s Assistant Operations Officer would record one more landing.

My Skipper thought this a heroic effort and put in the paperwork for Jim and Dougie’s air medals. But the Admirals back in Washington were unimpressed. The Navy and Marine Corp don’t issue medals willy-nilly like the Army. No air medals for Jim and Dougie. But they earned respect from their shipmates.

Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy

In 1984 I watched the USS New Jersey Make A Sideways Wake

In early 1984, I was flying in an EA-6B Prowler at Flight Level 20. The Ike, where my VAQ-132 Prowler squadron was deployed, was off the coast of Lebanon. I was in the backseat gathering electronic surveillance for the intelligence officers. Hezbollah groups supposedly had some Russian surface to air missile systems. So we strained in vain to detect the SA6 Straight Flush signal.

At some point during that mission, the U.S.S. New Jersey went into action. She carried  16″/50 caliber Mark 7 guns. I witnessed her fire those bad boys into the Chouf mountains. That was cool.

The U.S. Marines were stationed at the Beirut airport. Under the Reagan Administration the United States had gotten drawn into a conflict between squabbling factions in Lebanon.

Somebody in the Chouf Mountains thought it was a smart plan to shell the U.S. Marines in Beirut. Bad idea.

The New Jersey‘s guns fired shells slightly bigger than Volkswagen beetles. The power of those guns was spectacular. When she fired them, the New Jersey left a sideways wake. She was blowing the tops off mountains. The decision to shell the U.S. Marines at the Beirut airport was reconsidered.