John McCain: Prisoner of War
John Sidney McCain III was born on August 29, 1936, into a Navy family, the grandson of an Admiral and son of a future Admiral. His childhood would be that of a typical Navy brat. The family moved a lot. His father, a submariner, was away for very long stretches. Because of the absence, his feisty mother had a great influence on him. He was a troublemaker at heart and that held true when he entered the Naval Academy. While beloved by classmates for his rebellious attitude, he finished near the bottom of his class in 1958. Despite the poor academic performance, he was accepted into flight school and became a carrier pilot.
McCain lived up to the stereotype of the fighter pilot, his reputation preceded him wherever he was posted. Even his ratings as a pilot suffered. Regardless of his recklessness, McCain kept moving up the ranks and received more challenging assignments. In those days, an admiral’s son was usually accorded a long leash.
Eventually rising to Lieutenant Commander, McCain ended up off the North Vietnamese coast onboard the USS Forrestal for his first foray into combat flying the A-4E Skyhawk. Prior to his arrival in Southeast Asia, the notorious bachelor had gotten married to Carol Shepp, a divorced mom with two sons, who he adopted. They would also have one daughter together.
Just a few weeks into his tour, he nearly died while sitting in the cockpit of his A-4. The flight deck became engulfed after a poorly maintained rocket ignited and hit the fuel tank of another fighter. Minutes later, a Korean War-era bomb exploded on the aft deck. 134 men died; nearly 160 were injured, including McCain, who had fragments in his legs and one in his chest. He recovered quickly and with many others in his squadron, volunteered for duty on another carrier.
They were transferred to the USS Oriskany and joined squadron VA-163, where they continued to be part of Operation Rolling Thunder, the air operation which had begun in 1965.
October 26, 1967: Twist of Fate
McCain’s 23rd mission started like every other: his A4-E was catapulted off the deck and he formed up with the rest of his flight. The day’s target was a power plant in the middle of Hanoi. Bristling with Soviet-made surface to air missiles (SAMs), every trip over the city was a near death experience.
The power plant, situated next to Truc Bach Lake, had been attacked before. By the middle of 1967, it became a point of pride for the pilots of the Oriskany. The A4 was equipped with electronic countermeasures against SAMs including a missile warning signal. So provided with just enough lead time, most pilots could take evasive maneuvers. But McCain began taking fire while on approach to the target, seconds before releasing his bombs. Not wanting to have to do a go around, he chose to remain on approach. After release, he pulled back hard on the stick and in that instant, a SAM blew his right wing off. The A4 went into a death spiral before McCain was able to pull the ejection lever.
While ejecting, he struck part of the plane, and by the time he cleared the canopy, he had broken both arms and fractured his right knee. In less than a minute, he hit the water. Weighed down by his flight gear, and unable to control the descent, he plunged to the bottom. The shallowness of the lake saved him, as he quickly gained buoyancy. Once on the surface, he instinctively inflated his life vest before blacking out. As he awoke, he was being dragged to shore by an angry crowd. They began pummeling him with bamboo sticks and rifle butts. One butt smashed into his right shoulder.
It appeared the crowd was ready to kill him, but then a woman emerged from the throng and made a half-hearted attempt to set his limbs; a photographer was nearby to take a propaganda picture. Out of the corner of his eye, McCain noticed a military truck pull up to the crowd. The men got out and placed him on a stretcher before putting him in the back of the truck.
A New Life
Within just a few minutes, the truck ended up at the main gate of Hỏa Lò Prison in downtown Hanoi. It was the central prison within a very extensive and somewhat ad hoc system. Dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton,” by the American POWs, it had been built by the French in the 1880s. Once a detested symbol of colonialism, the North Vietnamese now used it as their former masters did: for humiliation and torture.
It would take a few days before the North Vietnamese realized the pedigree of their new prisoner. McCain was placed in a cell with no medical care. Guards came to take him for interrogation where they called him a war criminal, reinforcing their point with the occasional punch.
This went on for a couple of days. His condition worsened; the knee was now swollen and discolored. He begged for help. A prison medic came in and declared it was too late to do anything. His captors were sure he would not survive. Falling in and out of consciousness, even McCain thought he only had a few hours to live. All were certain his broken limbs would get infected due to the less than sanitary conditions.
Finally, after four days, one of the prison's officers came in and declared, "Your father is big Admiral." McCain had a glimmer of hope.
The Fight to Survive
McCain was taken immediately to a nearby hospital where he was given a very cursory examination. The hope of better conditions quickly faded. Rats, mosquitoes, and puddles of putrid water were everywhere.
A teenaged staff member was assigned to watch McCain and that involved feeding him a bowl of noodles in some very questionable tasting broth. Occasionally, medical personnel would come by to stare or roughly move his arms. No real care was offered. However, his presence was starting to cause a stir.
After nearly a week, the Vietnamese had a surprise for him; he was going to be interviewed by a French TV Reporter, Francios Chalais. They began coaching him what to say; that he was being treated wonderfully with great food and excellent care. McCain initially declined to be interviewed. The prison system commandant, who the Americans called “the Cat,” insisted. McCain persisted in saying no. Finally, Cat threatened to withhold medical care and ordered the new prisoner to tell the reporter how well he was being treated. Still believing he was near death and wanting to let his family know he was alive, he relented.
In preparation, the doctors were supposed to set his limbs, but instead, they put the right arm, shoulder, and part of his body in a plaster cast. His left arm remained untreated. Then he was put into what the staff considered a clean room to prepare for the TV interview.
An Agonizing Interview
During the interview, the Cat kept a close eye on both men. Calais began by asking about his shootdown and the circumstances of his capture. They talked about his injuries and even his dad. During the back and forth, McCain gave the name of his ship and squadron. He regretted it immediately.
After being visibly uncomfortable for some time, one of the Vietnamese officers interjected to demand McCain state that his treatment was lenient. He refused. Bravely, Calais stepped in to express his satisfaction with their prisoner's answers. After a couple of other questions, the interview ended. But the Cat wanted more; a statement against the war. Again, McCain refused and Calais came to the rescue to say they had enough for broadcast.
That would be his last contact with the outside world until his captors allowed him to receive letters from home. The weeks dragged on and no care was forthcoming. His condition worsened. Finally, they tried surgery on his leg. It was a disaster; they cut the ligaments on the side of the knee and just walking again without aid would take years.
In mid-December, he was suddenly blindfolded and thrown in the back of a truck. His next stop would be a temporary prison located behind the mayor's residence. For its once stately main house and gardens, it was dubbed the Plantation.
Feverish, emaciated from dysentery and still in great pain, he was placed in a cell. To his astonishment, he was with two other Americans: Majors Bud Day and Norris Overly, USAF. Both had also been shot down earlier in 1967. The hollow-eyed prisoner who now weighed just over 100 pounds, shocked both men. Unsure of his survival, the men began assessing their new cellmate..
Day and Overly had been beaten and tortured. Day, like McCain, had been injured upon ejection, suffering a broken arm. The Vietnamese had exacerbated his injuries by rope torture. Both his arms were now barely functional. But he still helped Overly aid McCain.
Over the next two months, they nursed McCain back to health. Though still unable to walk on his own, his fever had broken and eating was less difficult. The food was mostly bread, pumpkin soup, and bitter greens. Chicken heads, rotting fish, hooves, and rice would eventually be added to the menu. Throughout this time, the guards and the officers left them somewhat alone. There was very little interrogation. All three men knew something was up.
In February, Overly was brought back to his cell after a long interrogation. He told Bud Day that he had been offered early release, along with two other prisoners. It was supposedly without conditions. Day advised him to say no; it was against the U.S. military's Code of Conduct. The Code stated that prisoners only give their name, rank, service number and date of birth when questioned. It required the men to resist by all means possible and to not accept parole or special favors from your captors.
To the dismay of both McCain and Day, he accepted. McCain tempered his anger; owing the man a great debt. Without Overly's care, he probably would have died.
McCain and Day would be together for only a few more weeks. Day was moved to another part of the prison where he was severely beaten and tortured over the next two years.
The joy of speaking with his fellow Americans was now gone. Although there were about 80 men imprisoned there, strict separation was the rule for all. Left to face his captors alone, McCain's mind raced for weeks trying to handle the isolation and squalor. The heat was oppressive, made worse by the boarded windows and tin roof. Boils and heat rash added to the discomfort. For the first few months, there were trips to the interrogation room across the courtyard and the daily trip to a washroom, but that was it.
Isolation bred innovation. A prisoner communication system had been developed, and every man became highly proficient at tapping out messages. It involved dividing the alphabet into five columns with the letter K dropped. The letter A got one tap, the letter F got two, and so on. So after indicating the column, there would be a pause. Then the prisoner would tap one through five times to indicate the letter. All of those interned in Hanoi referenced the tapping as important as food. But those caught trying to communicate were often beaten and lost privileges.
The threat of torture hung everywhere and all too often, became real. Fear overwhelmed the men at the sound of footsteps and the jingling of keys; they never knew when the guards were coming. The screams of men being strung up reverberated throughout the prison. McCain described the usual method of extracting information:
"...I would find myself trussed up and left for hours in ropes, my biceps bound tightly with several loops to cut off my circulation and the end of the rope cinched behind my back, pulling my shoulders and elbows unnaturally close together."
Many of the prisoners' permanent injuries were caused by rope torture. Some never regained full use of the shoulders, even after years of physical therapy.
Humiliation by the guards became routine. They would spill the prisoners' food and forced them to bow every day. One regular humiliation on McCain was the water tank. Still struggling to walk, it took him a while getting to the shower. Very often, he would find the tank empty and have his handlers laugh.
McCain felt his treatment was still better than that of the others because the Vietnamese feared disfiguring him. They held on to the hope that he would accept early release, then claim he was humanely treated. In late summer 1968, the pressure was ratcheted up. He continued to decline even after one of his fellow prisoners, Bob Craner, told him to accept. Bob did not think McCain would survive another year of abuse. But obedience to the Code still guided all of the men's behavior; it was a source of inspiration as well as despair.
After several weeks of refusals, in August '68, a period of severe punishment began. He was frequently dragged to the floor and badly beaten. Long periods of being tied up and forced to stand on a stool for hours began to occur. His waste bucket would be dumped in his cell. During one beating by the guards, he slipped and rebroke his arm. For days on end, he had to lay in a pool of his own waste and blood. Before this period of abuse was over, he would be repeatedly kicked and punched in his side, resulting in broken ribs.
By the end of the year, the abuse had slowed. The Vietnamese appeared to be changing strategy. A Christmas service was even allowed for the men of the Plantation. Just to be in the company of other Americans buoyed their spirits. With the election of Nixon, they had renewed hope.
The early months of 1969 had been the same routine as the prior year for McCain: isolation, interrogation and recovery. In May '69, an escape attempt by two POWs in another prison lead once again to systematic abuse. All of the men described it as horrific. One of the escapees died under interrogation. That summer was the high point of torture.
Then in August, there was an early release. This time it was approved by senior leadership. The men got back to the States and were finally allowed to discuss the horrific conditions. Detailed information on the POWs was finally obtained. North Vietnam began to lose the public relations battle. Combined with the death of Ho Chi Minh in September, living conditions improved slightly.
In early December 1969, McCain, along with a few others, was moved back to Hỏa Lò, to a section of the prison known as "Little Vegas." They were locked in a group of cells known as the "Golden Nugget." His solitary confinement, for the most part, was over.
While still separated in cell blocks, prison authorities allowed some communal activities, such as ping pong and gathering in a recreation room. Messages began to be stashed behind light switches and posts. The tapping method was still in full force. But McCain was caught several times. Initially, it was the stool punishment; forced to sit or stand on a stool for several days in the courtyard. Things got considerably worse when caught later, as he was sentenced to three months in a punishment cell known as Calcutta. It was a 3 x 6 room with very little ventilation. More weight loss and sickness followed.
Back in the U. S., his wife Carol had taken the kids north to see her family in Philadelphia for Christmas. But tragedy would strike again, as Carol was driving back from seeing friends late at night and crashed on the icy roads. She broke both legs, an arm, and pelvis. McCain would not know about the incident until he returned home.
Military families endure hardships that the public often forgets. Carol's struggles and her bravery were an example for many other families.
At the end of 1970, most of the remaining prisoners were brought to Hỏa Lò and put into what they named “Camp Unity.” It was a series of seven large cell blocks. Some of the prisoners met for the first time. Defiance by all of the POWs began to occur more frequently. Singing of the National Anthem would break out spontaneously or in reaction to some new rule. Some secretly sowed American flags. Others, like McCain, were surly towards the guards. It cost him several months in solitary again, but the worst was over.
After the Christmas bombings of ’72, they all knew the end was near. The American cheered as they heard the B-52s rumble over the city. Bombs landed very close the prison. They didn't care. Their government had gotten serious about getting the war over. In early ’73, the peace accords were signed. Operation Homecoming started in late February 1973 and was completed by April.
McCain’s adjustment was difficult. Both he and Carol had physical and emotional struggles. Divorce soon followed, along with years of painful physical therapy. He rebuilt his life, remarried and had four more children, including adopting a special needs child. After two terms in the House of Representatives from 1983-87, he was elected to the Senate from Arizona. His career propelled by his association with the Reagans.
During his first campaign, his opponent accused him of carpetbagging because had only lived in Arizona for a few years. His response encapsulated his life experience perfectly:
"We in the military service tend to move a lot. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living my entire life in the First District of Arizona, but was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi."
The crowd went wild and he never lost an election. There were controversies and bruising political battles. But as the years went on, the American public began to embrace Vietnam veterans, gaining a greater appreciation for what they went through.
The Long Goodbye
McCain had several health battles, including skin cancer and blood clots. However in 2017, came grim news. Doctors determined he had glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer. After a year of treatments, he decided to forego any further care.
John S. McCain died on August 25, 2018. His funeral was held at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. His daughter Megan spoke as well as old friends, Senator Lindsay Graham, and former Senator Joe Lieberman. But it was former President Barack Obama who delivered a stirring tribute:
"...there are some things that are worth risking everything for; principles that are eternal, truths that are abiding. At his best, John showed us what that means. For that, we are all deeply in his debt. May God bless John McCain. May God bless this country he served so well."
During the War, 771 Americans were confirmed prisoners of war. Officially, 113 died in captivity. The actual number is most likely higher, because many died while considered missing in action. 1,246 remain listed as missing in action, along with hundreds of others from the conflicts in Cambodia and Laos. 58,318 Americans died during the conflict. The United States finally normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995. A former POW, Douglas Peterson, became the first U.S. Ambassador to the country.
- Relman, Eliza. “As a POW in Vietnam, John McCain refused release until his fellow prisoners were freed, making him a hero in the eyes of many.” Business Insider, August 26, 2018.
- Dockter, Mason. “John McCain and Bud Day: Vietnam Cellmates, Kindred Spirits.” Sioux City Journal, August 26, 2018. (Online Edition)
- Johnson, Sam Rep. “I Spent Seven Years as a Vietnam POW. The Hanoi Hilton Is No Trump Hotel.” Politico.com, July 21, 2015.
- Myers, Christopher. “12 Inhumanely Savage Torture Methods Used In The Hoa Loa Vietnamese War Prison.” www.ranker.com. 2019.
- Powell, Stewart M. “Honor Bound.” Air Force Magazine, August 1999.
- Rothman, Lily. “How John McCain’s Years as a Vietnam POW Shaped His Life.” Time.com, September 11, 2018. (Original article published August 26, 2018).
- Day, George. Return with Honor. Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum Press, 1991.
- Dramesi, John. Code of Honor. New York: Norton, 1975
- McCain, John. Faith of My Fathers: A Family Memoir. New York: Random House, 2016. (Paperback edition)
- McGrath, John M. Prisoner of War: Six Years in Hanoi. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1975.
- Risner, Robinson. The Passage of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese. Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 2004 (I read a different edition of the book, but that imprint is no longer sold).
- Rochester, Stuart I., and Kiley, Frederick T. Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999.
- Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Department of the Navy. "Investigation of Forrestal Fire." August 21, 1969. Presented as a letter from the CNO to the Judge Advocate General. Original report dated December 1, 1967.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 CJ Kelly