Senator John McCain passed away on Saturday, bringing a life led largely in service to his nation to an end at the age of 81. As a veteran and former Prisoner of War, McCain was a vocal supporter of the veteran community, and although his politics occasionally placed him at odds with those within his own party, many on either side of the aisle developed a significant level of respect for the man that self-identified during his own presidential bid as a “maverick.”
During the Vietnam war, McCain was a young Navy pilot and far from the most prominent John McCain serving at the time. His father, a prominent Admiral, would eventually share the honor of becoming the namesake of an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, and honor that is now being shared with the Senator himself, making the USS John S. McCain reflective of not just one McCain’s service to his country, but of three men that shared a name and a dedication to the United States of America worthy of such an honor.
In 1973, McCain penned his own experiences being shot down over Vietnam and living in captivity for the following five and a half years for “U.S. News & World Report,” and right from the start, it clear that the odds were stacked against him”
The date was Oct. 26, 1967. I was on my 23rd mission, flying right over the heart of Hanoi in a dive at about 4,500 feet, when a Russian missile the size of a telephone pole came up—the sky was full of them—and blew the right wing off my Skyhawk dive bomber. It went into an inverted, almost straight-down spin.
I pulled the ejection handle, and was knocked unconscious by the force of the ejection—the air speed was about 500 knots. I didn’t realize it at the moment, but I had broken my right leg around the knee, my right arm in three places, and my left arm. I regained consciousness just before I landed by parachute in a lake right in the corner of Hanoi, one they called the Western Lake. My helmet and my oxygen mask had been blown off.
McCain landed in the water and as he struggled to stay afloat with his heavy gear and broken limbs, he was taken into custody by the North Vietnamese before even reaching the shoreline. When he yelled about the state of his badly broken leg, he was beaten and stabbed in the foot with a bayonet. Eventually, he was taken into custody and brought to Hanoi’s main prison, where he drifted in and out of consciousness for days. He gave only his name and serial number throughout, prompting the North Vietnamese to beat him and refuse any form of medical treatment for his serious injuries. Finally, after four days, McCain even offered to provide military information in exchange for being taken to the hospital, but he was refused — the jailers, named “Zorba” and “Bug” had determined that his injuries were too severe, and they intended to let him die.
Sometime later, ‘The Bug’ came rushing into the room, shouting, ‘Your father is a big admiral; now we take you to the hospital.’
At that point, McCain was given treatment for some of his injuries and taken into a clean hospital room, where he was told that he needed two surgeries to survive — surgeries that he would only get if he agreed to tell a French journalist that was coming that he was sorry for his crimes and appreciative of his treatment from the North Vietnamese people.
Finally, the Frenchman came in, a man named Chalais—a Communist, as I found out later—with two photographers. He asked me about my treatment and I told him it was satisfactory. ‘The Cat” and “Chihuahua,’ another interrogator, were in the background telling me to say that I was grateful for lenient and humane treatment. I refused, and when they pressed me, Chalais said, ‘I think what he told me is sufficient.’
Then he asked if I had a message for my family. I told him to assure my wife and others of my family that I was getting well and that I loved them. Again, in the background, ‘The Cat’ insisted that I add something about hoping that the war would be over soon so that I could go home. Chalais shut him up very firmly by saying that he was satisfied with my answer. He helped me out of a difficult spot.
After six weeks in the hospital, McCain found himself “well enough” to be returned to prison, where he would remain for more than five years, undergoing torture and interrogation throughout. Often, he’d be tortured three or four times per week, while other weeks, he acknowledged, were lighter. Eventually, his value as a propaganda tool once again put him in the spotlight, but once again, his refusal to participate garnered him more torture.
So this was a period of repeated, severe treatment. It lasted until around October of ’69. They wanted me to see delegations. There were antiwar groups coming into Hanoi, a lot of foreigners—Cubans, Russians. I don’t think we had too many American “peaceniks” that early, although within the next year it got much greater. I refused to see any of them. The propaganda value to them would have been too great, with my dad as commander in the Pacific.
McCain’s experiences as a P.O.W. are worthy reading, related by an intelligent and introspective man with a pragmatic understanding of how his value, derived largely from who his father was, was as a tool to discredit the country he loved. The challenges McCain faced are unique even among many who shared his experiences, and the ways those years in captivity shaped his perspective of nations, governments, and policies are difficult to overstate.
You can read McCain’s full account of being captured and held a prisoner of the North Vietnamese here.