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

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. . . ."

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.

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