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

--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.

Ultimately, McCain says, he adhered to Code of Conduct's proscription that prisoners are not to accept special favors. On the morning of July 4, 1968--the day McCain's father was named commander in chief of U.S. Naval forces in the Pacific--the prisoner was taken to the "Quiz Room" and put before two notorious interrogators, nicknamed "The Rabbit" and "The Cat." They wanted his final answer: Would he go home? Again, the answer was no.

With this, "The Cat," who was sitting there with a pile of papers in front of him and a pen in his hand, broke the pen in two. Ink spurted all over. He stood up, kicked the chair over behind him, and said, "They taught you too well. . . ." "The Rabbit" said, "Now, McCain, it will be very bad for you. Go back to your room."

Nothing happened for weeks. Then one day McCain was taken to the camp commander, "Slopehead," who told him, "You have violated all the camp regulations. You're a black criminal. You must confess your crimes."

McCain refused. Slopehead asked why he was disrespectful of the guards.
I answered, "Because the guards treat me like an animal."
When I said that, the guards, who were all in the room--about 10 of them--really laid into me. They bounced me from pillar to post, kicking and laughing and scratching. After a few hours of that, ropes were put on me and I sat that night bound with ropes. . . . For the next four days, I was beaten every two or three hours by different guards. My left arm was broken again and my ribs were cracked

After four days, McCain gave in. He signed a confession admitting to war crimes. He was left alone for two weeks. During that time, he says, he regained some strength and was able to refuse the next demand for a confession.

A September 13, 1968, cable from Averell Harriman, U.S. ambassador-at-large, to the State Department confirmed that McCain's captors had offered him early release, but that he had refused. The cable reported that, according to the Vietnamese, "Commander McCain feared that if he was released before the war is over, President [Lyndon] Johnson might 'cause difficulties' for his father because people will wonder if McCain had been brainwashed." Harriman speculated that instead, McCain was abiding by the Code of Conduct.

With the exception of the North Vietnamese, Bob Craner was the only apparent witness--albeit through a wall--to McCain's ordeal during this time. Craner told Stephen Rowan:

. . . At the time we [McCain and Craner] were fairly effectively cut off from the remainder of the camp, except for sporadic contact, and so we relied on each other. He asked for what advice I could offer on the topic, after he came back from his little session. I'm afraid I didn't have a heck of a lot to offer. . . . They lowered the boom on him. But he stuck with that decision [to refuse early release], and I am immensely proud of him for that.

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