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

The preceding passage--a firsthand account titled "How the POWs Fought Back"--appeared in the May 14, 1973, edition of U.S. News & World Report, two months after Navy Lieutenant Commander John Sidney McCain III and 590 other POWs returned to the United States as part of Operation Homecoming. McCain's official debriefing, on file at the Library of Congress, contains an almost identical description of his downing. Several books include similar accounts.

At the time McCain's jet was blasted from the air, his father was commander in chief of U.S. naval forces in Europe. His grandfather had also been a Navy admiral. Yet young John McCain was legendary not for his military acumen but for his reputation as a troublemaker and a ladies' man. He had graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy, and earned nicknames such as "McNasty."

The Vietnamese who fished him out of Truc Bach Lake knew none of that, of course--only that they'd found an American. As was customary, they hauled the soldier to shore and stripped him to his underwear. A crowd of hecklers gathered.

Again, from U.S. News:
When they had most of my clothes off, I felt a twinge in my right knee. I sat up and looked at it, and my right foot was resting next to my left knee, just in a 90-degree position. I said, "My God--my leg!" That seemed to enrage them--I don't know why. One of them slammed a rifle butt down on my shoulder, and smashed it pretty badly. Another stuck a bayonet in my foot. . . . A woman came over and propped me up and held a cup of tea to my lips, and some photographers took pictures. This quieted the crowd down quite a bit. Pretty soon, they put me on a stretcher, lifted it onto a truck, and took me to Hanoi's main prison.

The facility was Hoa Lo, dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" by the American prisoners. McCain says he lapsed in and out of consciousness for a few days. He had broken his right femur just above the knee, his right arm in three places, and his left arm. From the first day, he says, he was told he would not receive medical treatment unless he revealed military secrets. He says he offered nothing but his name, rank and serial number.

On what McCain believes was his fourth day in captivity, two guards came into his cell and pulled back his blanket.

I looked at my knee. It was about the size, shape and color of a football. I remembered that when I was a flying instructor a fellow had ejected from his plane and broken his thigh. He had gone into shock, the blood had pooled in his leg, and he died, which came as quite a shock to us--a man dying of a broken leg. Then I realized that a very similar thing was happening to me. When I saw it, I said to the guard, "O.K., get the officer."

McCain agreed to give military information in exchange for a trip to the hospital, but he was told it was too late. Then, however, the Vietnamese discovered they were holding the "crown prince"--the admiral's son.

McCain says he confirmed that his father was the "big admiral" and was taken to a hospital. He recalled that his hospital room was filthy and he was fed only a few spoonfuls of soup a day and was never washed. Crude attempts were made to set McCain's bones, sans painkillers.

An article about McCain appeared in the newspaper Nhan Dan (The People) in Hanoi on November 9, 1967. The translation begins:

That piratical pilot had a pretty good-looking face. He was reasonably fat. What was worth our attention was that his hair had turned almost completely white although he was only 31. He himself drew our attention to that fact right at the beginning of the interrogation. Was it meant to show his "nobility" of some sort? Sometimes this U.S. Navy lieutenant commander still showed his boastful behavior tastelessly that way.

According to the article, McCain described his crash and offered a detailed accounting of the military briefing that preceded it. Asked for his opinion of the North Vietnamese people, Nhan Dan quoted McCain as saying: "It is evident that the spirit of the Vietnamese people is very high, you are very powerful and to be afraid of. Your country is very small, and yet it is fighting the biggest and most powerful one. I may say this is the best example I can say about the determination of the Vietnamese people."

McCain was also interviewed by a French television crew (whom he says he later learned were Communists). He says his Vietnamese captors moved him to a clean bed with white sheets for the occasion. The date of the interview, conducted by a journalist named François Chalais, is unknown. It aired in France in December 1967. From a U.S. Department of Defense transcript of the broadcast:

My meeting with John Sidney McCain was certainly one of those meetings which will affect me most profoundly for the rest of my life. . . . In a weak voice, he relates his story to me: "I was carrying out a bombing mission, my 23rd raid, over Hanoi. It was then that I was hit. I wanted to eject but while doing so I broke both arms and my right leg. Unconscious I fell in a lake. Some Vietnamese jumped into the water and pulled me out. Later I learned there must have been about 12 of them. They immediately took me to a hospital, in a condition two inches away from death. A doctor operated on my thigh. Others at the same time dealt with my arms." "How are you treated here?" "Very well. Everybody is very nice to me." "How is the food?" He smiles feebly. Obviously, the least reaction hurts him. "This isn't Paris, but it is alright." "Do you have something to read?" "They have suggested that I read, but my hands are unable to hold even a newspaper." His cigarette has gone out. He talks to me about his wife who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, and about his three children. And now he addresses his family: "I know that this is going to turn out well. I hope that I will see you soon. . . ."

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