The 2008 presidential bid must be our last great memory of John McCain. Had he won, John McCain would’ve been the oldest President of the United States. But this guy is also remembered for many other things. Before diving into politics, he was known as a Navy brat and became a prisoner of war. In between his military and political career, he had been known for his defiant-and-rebel attitude.

The Fruit Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree

John McCain wasn’t the first in his family to enter the military. As the son and grandson of four-star admirals, McCain was unsurprisingly raised in traditional military ways that could be traced back to before the American Revolution. His great uncle, Brigadier General “Wild Bill” McCain, served directly under General Pershing in Mexico. General Henry Pinckney McCain fought in the Battle of Manila, established the selective service during World War I, and was an adjutant general of the Army. Other McCains also served in the Confederacy during the Civil War. There were also some who served as General Washington’s staff, while Washington himself was John McCain’s cousin many times removed.

President Richard Nixon Greets Former Vietnam Prisoner of War John McCain, Jr. at a Pre-POW Dinner Reception. (Series: Nixon White House Photographs, 1/20/1969 – 8/9/1974 Collection: White House Photo Office Collection (Nixon Administration), 1/20/1969 – 8/9/1974, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It isn’t so surprising that he was once quoted saying, “from the time I was a small boy, I heard my parents tell friends, ‘Johnny’s going to the Naval Academy.’ It wasn’t an aspiration. It was a fact.” This sounds like he was preordained to follow the footsteps of the men in his family, and for good reasons.

A Navy Rebel

When we talk about the military, it’s safe to assume that it goes with the words discipline, decorum, and order. We don’t hear many stories about them being otherwise and for obvious reasons, but not in the case of John McCain.

In an article by Greg Daugherty released on History’s website, John McCain was described as “a decorated, if, at times reckless, fighter pilot who conducted nearly two dozen bombing runs in Vietnam before being shot down, captured, and tortured.” His rebel attitude came to light during his stay at Episcopal High School.

His rebellious, non-conformist personality, peppered with occasional brawls and unpermitted off-campus excursions, led him to collect enough demerits to be some sort of a class legend, but not too much to have the school expel him.

“A fight not joined is a fight not enjoyed,” he declared in his 2018 memoir The Restless Wave. In a commencement speech to the graduating class of 1993, he admitted that he graduated fifth from the bottom of his class.

“My four years here were not notable for individual academic achievement but, rather, for the impressive catalog of demerits which I managed to accumulate.”

From Time’s author Daniel S.Levy, McCain was the antithesis of naval spick-and-span. Most of his regularly earned demerits were because of unshined shoes and lateness.

Hanoi Hilton – Hotel Hell

The Hoa Lo Jail during the Vietnam War was a French colonial prison that was sarcastically nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by the POWs. This was in reference to the Hilton chain of luxury hotels – the same confinement where John McCain spent five years of his life as a prisoner of war.

In 1967, McCain took off “reportedly on a mission to destroy Hanoi’s thermal power plant.” As he released his bombs onto the target, a surface-to-air-missile from Russia that looked like “a flying telephone pole” attacked his plane and ripped off its right wing. He managed to eject from his damaged plane, although he broke both of his arms and one knee. He parachuted into a shallow lake before he passed out. It was then recounted by the former senator how he had spent years of torture and abuse from his captors. In April 1968, he was put into solitary confinement, and he stayed there for the next two years.

John McCain official photo portrait.
John McCain’s official photo portrait. (United States Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

McCain remained a prisoner until the U.S. and North Vietnam signed a peace accord in late January 1973, ending the conflict. He was released in March, along with 107 other POWs, and boarded a U.S. transport plane that was headed to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. In 1986, he was elected to the US Senate, advocating and focusing on foreign policy and military, and ran for the presidency twice. He died of glioblastoma on August 25, 2018.