Is John McCain a War Hero?

The senator's five years as a prisoner of war have been widely viewed as heroic. But as he prepares a White House bid, a small group of detractors is determined to expose him as a wartime traitor

He went home to North Carolina and founded a group called Americans Who Care, which handed out literature, sold POW bracelets and publicized the POW cause.

"In 1973, the prisoners of war came home," Sampley recalls. "I watched this, teary eyed, and I believed the government at that time that all our people had come home. I mean, I had no reason not to."

He went about his life, working as a potter and for newspapers and in television. "I just kind of withdrew back into myself, like a lot of vets did."

In 1982, Sampley went to Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial, and heard many of his fellow veterans express doubts about the fates of comrades.

Sampley made two quick decisions: first, that the government was withholding information, and second, that he would be the one to get the answers. He didn't get many answers, but he certainly made a lot of noise.

"I took my training in guerrilla warfare and I turned it around on the U.S. government," Sampley says. "It was nonviolent civil disobedience."

He stood up at a meeting of the National Vietnam Veterans Coalition and announced it was time to get President Reagan's attention.

"I said, 'We need to start doing things like they did in the Sixties.' I said, 'I will chain myself to the White House fence if some of you will go with me.'"

A handful did, and the national press reacted. Sampley was just getting warmed up.

"I started thinking of as many types of tricks as I could pull to disrupt the system," he says, chuckling, ". . . and through my leadership we became some of the biggest nuisances they've ever--I mean, we've done things I can't even admit to. The idea was not to get anybody hurt, but to disrupt the process, to cause the government to have to talk about the POW issue, to keep the POW issue in the light."

Because he thought Ann Mills Griffiths and the National League were in cahoots with the Reagan administration, Sampley and his cohorts took over the League's office in the American Legion building.

"No weapons," he says. "Just plain old outsmarting them."

Mills Griffiths doesn't have such fond memories of the stunt, recalling that Sampley "threatened to kill me" before he was hauled off in handcuffs.

Sampley made more headlines when he put a bamboo cage filled with the daughters of POW/MIAs on then-presidential chief of staff Don Regan's front lawn. Sampley and the group that came to be known as the "North Carolina Crazies" took 1,500 care packages--Bibles, toothpaste, food and clothing addressed to individual POW/MIAs--to the Laos Embassy in Washington, D.C. When the Laotians threw him out, Sampley dumped the packages on the front lawn of National Security Adviser Frank Carlucci.

"Carlucci had to get five Army trucks there to get them out of his yard," Sampley recalls.

Sampley sponsored a Rambo of the Year award for anyone who could plant a POW flag within 30 feet of the White House without being shot.

It was all a joke, he insists. "People did start climbing it [the White House fence], but no one was trying to get over it. But they [police] were beating people off the fence with night sticks.

"The whole objective, it was a Gandhi-type thing, take the night sticks, take the hits, get the attention, get the press. This went on for years. . . . That probably got me the reputation that I've got now."

Sampley wasn't present for his most famous trick. In 1992, he planted hecklers to disrupt President Bush's speech to the National League of Families. Sampley wasn't allowed in the room, but when Bush began speaking, the crowd began yelling, "No more lies! No more lies!"

With the cameras rolling, Bush--frustrated, after repeated attempts to quiet the hecklers--yelled, "Sit down and shut up!"

Sampley's first POW/MIA-related newspaper debuted in 1986. He called it Bamboo Connection, and while the name has changed a few times over the years, he still publishes a paper today. You can find it at

Although his antics detract from his credibility, Sampley has had some journalistic successes--including one just last year. His early reporting led to a CBS News story that prompted the U.S. government to open the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and do DNA testing on what proved to be the remains of Air Force pilot Michael Blassie. His work earned Sampley a "Laurel" from the Columbia Journalism Review.

His coverage of John McCain has been spotty, at best.

Sampley says he first met McCain in the Eighties, while McCain was still in the U.S. House. Sampley dropped by to say hello and discuss the POW/MIA issue.

At the time, Sampley did not consider McCain to be a foe. But it quickly became clear that the two had little in common when it came to the POW/MIA movement.

Sampley recalls, "When we started talking about the POW issue, he [McCain] got fidgety, he got agitated. . . . He started pacing back and forth."

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