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

After the interview, McCain says he was returned to his squalid room. Six weeks later, McCain was sent to another Hanoi prison, The Plantation, and put in a room with two Air Force officers, George E. "Bud" Day and Norris Overly.

In his memoir, Return With Honor, published in 1989, Day recalls the arrival of the white-haired skeleton:

John was in an immense body cast which started at buttock level and extended all the way over his shoulder. His right arm was propped up, sticking out of the cast like a broomstick protruding from a snowman. It angled crazily. One did not have to be a doctor to recognize another butcher job. . . . He could not wash, relieve himself, or do any normal function of life without assistance. Without someone to feed him, he was a dead man. John's head and body were filthy. Food particles and juices covered his chin, neck, and sideburns. He had not been cleaned after bowel movements. These things were of no concern to him. He was "on cloud nine" to have roommates. We were the first Americans he had talked to. Day wasn't in much better shape than McCain. He'd been shot down and captured. He escaped and was recaptured. He underwent excruciating rope torture and was beaten repeatedly. Overly nursed McCain and Day. The men were relatively well-treated at The Plantation, which was designated the "show camp" for camera crews and visiting dignitaries.

From John G. Hubbell's POW: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner of War Experience in Vietnam, 1964-1973:

An endless parade of dignitaries came to the cell, mostly to stare at McCain, the "crown prince." The visitors were mostly older men. They wore civilian clothing, but prison staff members attested to their exalted rank by bowing deeply to them as they came and went. These dignitaries would look upon the young son of an American admiral with something close to awe. . . . As Christmas approached, [Bud] Day grew uneasy. He could not understand the comparatively good treatment, could not reconcile it with the horrors of the recent past. It seemed clear the enemy was trying to curry favor with McCain. What would they want in return: And what did it have to do with him? And with Overly?

Day got an answer in February 1968, when Overly and two other POWs accepted early release, a move reviled by their fellow prisoners, who had vowed to go home in the order in which they had been imprisoned.

Day and McCain remained together for another month, until McCain was able to walk. Then McCain lived in solitary confinement for two years.

As far as this business of solitary confinement goes--the most important thing for survival is communication with someone, even if it's only a wave or a wink, a tap on the wall, or to have a guy put his thumb up.

--John McCain,
"How the POWs Fought Back,"
U.S. News & World Report

McCain became a prolific communicator, tapping and receiving messages from other prisoners in elaborate code. McCain's code name was "Crip," for cripple, because he walked with a limp.

One of McCain's closest friends was his neighbor at the beginning of his solitary confinement, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Craner. Craner died during the Eighties, but part of his story is recorded in the 1973 book They Wouldn't Let Us Die: The Prisoners of War Tell Their Story by Stephen Rowan. In a Q-and-A format with Rowan, Craner said:

McCain and I leaned on each other a great deal. We were separated by about 18 inches of brick, and I never saw the guy for the longest time. . . . My world had shrunk to a point where the figures in my dreams were myself, the guards, and a voice--and that was McCain. I didn't know what he looked like, so I could not visualize him in my dreams. Yet he was a very vital part of my dreams, because he became the guy--the only guy--I turned to, for a period of about two years. We got to know each other, more intimately, I'm sure, than I will ever know my wife. We opened up and talked about damn near everything, besides our immediate problems--past life, and all the family things we never would have talked to anybody about. We derived a great deal of strength from this.

Until the summer of 1968, McCain's lot had not been so bad, he wrote in U.S. News. His captors interrogated him frequently, threatening to try him for war crimes, but did not torture him. That changed in June 1968, when McCain was asked if he wanted to go home.

I was astonished, and I tell you frankly that I said that I would have to think about it. I went back to my room, and I thought about it for a long time. At this time I did not have communication with the camp senior ranking officer, so I could get no advice. I was worried whether I could stay alive or not, because I was in rather bad condition. I had been hit with a severe case of dysentery, which kept on for about a year and a half. I was losing weight again.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets