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

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. Rowan: If they had made an all-out effort, could they have forced him to go home? Craner: There's little doubt in my mind that they could have tortured him right out of the country, but I'm sure that's not what they had in mind.

McCain's punishment sessions continued, according to his U.S. Newspiece. In October 1968, he "met" another prisoner, Ernest Brace, a civilian, through the wall of his cell. In his 1988 memoir of the war, A Code to Keep, Brace recalls of McCain:

He continued to get pressure to produce propaganda tapes or make appearances to peace delegations. Some days he would tell me, through the wall, not to worry if he wasn't in his room for a while. He was refusing, he said, to appear before another peace delegation, and he would probably be spending some time in the punishment room on the other side of the courtyard.

In May 1969, U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird admonished the North Vietnamese to treat American prisoners humanely, and allow inspections of the camps by impartial observers. The next month, the Vietnamese released a broadcast quoting McCain saying he had received "very good medical treatment." Laird denounced the recording as "contrived."

In October 1969, the torture sessions ended abruptly, McCain wrote. McCain and the others would later learn this was because word of his harsh treatment had gotten back to the U.S. via prisoners who had taken early release.

Three months later, McCain and his neighbor, Ernest Brace, were among a group of POWs moved to the Hanoi Hilton, as punishment for communicating with fellow prisoners. Brace wrote: On the night of December 9 [1969] my door was jerked open, and the guard told me to get ready to move. . . . "You are in bad trouble for communicating," he told me. "You are being taken to a harsher place." Blindfolded, I was placed in the back of a truck with some soldiers and other prisoners. The vehicle had rolled out of the prison grounds and was heading through the Hanoi streets when I felt someone tapping a message on my thigh. "Hi," said the message. "I John McCain. Who U?"
With tears forming in my eyes behind the blindfold, I worked my hand around to grasp my neighbor's hand, and squeezed out an answer. "EB here."

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