Commander Allen Stafford ’63
As a young boy growing up in Cambridge, Md., Al Stafford developed a lifelong passion for sailing. His love of the sea and desire to fly airplanes enticed him to join the Navy in September 1955. By the age of 21, he had earned his wings, and by the time he came to Washington College in the fall of 1960, Al Stafford had spent five years in the Navy. After two years at WC, where he was editor of the student newspaper and president of the Lambda Chi fraternity, he was recalled to active duty.
Beginning in 1964, Lt. Cmdr. Stafford did three tours in Vietnam—one flying bombing missions from aircraft carriers, another as a forward air observer directing air strikes from the ground in South Vietnam, and a third as an adviser to the surface fleet from aboard amphibious vessels. Of all his tours of duty, he preferred flying.
Stafford’s Skyhawk single-engine plane was shot down over the port city of Hai Phong August 31, 1967. Despite barbaric treatment, he and his fellow captives survived by their wits: keeping the lines of communication open between the POWS through tap code and sign language, memorizing meticulous records of every American pilot who was shot down and where he was being held; and conducting lessons in languages, literature, physics and philosophy. At the “Hanoi Hilton,” with its smooth concrete floors serving as chalkboards, prisoners appointed “deans” who developed curricula of study.
With the end of the war, Stafford was released March 15, 1973, and began the road to recovery. He served out the remainder of his Navy career in Pensacola, commanding a survival school there. Stafford, who had studied at St. John’s College in Annapolis and at Washington College before returning to active duty, finished his college degree in sociological disciplines at the University of West Pensacola. He bought a sailboat and an old pick-up truck—pursuits he had dreamed of while in captivity.
Stafford died December 28, 2003. In addition to his wife and brother, Stafford was survived by his son Jeffrey, his stepdaughter Amani, and a brotherhood of former POWs.
“We had been in better places,” Stafford once remarked of this brotherhood. “But never in better company.”