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 and Ernie Brace landed in cells in "Golden Nugget," a section of "Little Vegas," as the prisoners called that area of the Hanoi Hilton.

McCain was asked to meet with a "visitor" who turned out to be Dr. Fernando Barral, a Spanish psychiatrist living in Cuba. The interview took place at the Committee for Foreign Cultural Relations in Hanoi. Barral describes the setting, which included a spread of oranges, cakes, coffee and cigarettes. An account of Barral's interview with McCain was published in the Cuban periodical Granmaon January 24, 1970.

Barral and McCain talked about a variety of subjects, according to Granma. McCain praised his treatment by the North Vietnamese, spoke of his wife and of his family: "One of my forebears was a colonel in Washington's independent forces. Another was a general in the war of secession. Thus it was natural for me to follow a military career. Of course my father was not always an admiral; during World War II he was commander of a submarine. He has been in the navy since 1927 and has been an admiral since 1965. He holds the highest rank in the navy. If I had not been downed, I would have become an admiral at an earlier age than my father."

Barral also reported that McCain talked of his education and military training, and that he had once dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

Barral's psychiatric analysis of "the personality of the prisoner who is responsible for many criminal bombings of the people":

He showed himself to be intellectually alert during the interview. From a morale point of view he is not in traumatic shock. He is neither dejected nor depressed. He was able to be sarcastic, and even humorous, indicative of psychic equilibrium. From the moral and ideological point of view he showed us he is an insensitive individual without human depth, who does not show the slightest concern, who does not appear to have thought about the criminal acts he committed against a population from the absolute impunity of his airplane, and that nevertheless those people saved his life, fed him, and looked after his health, and he is now healthy and strong. I believe that he has bombed densely populated places for sport. I noted that he was hardened, that he spoke of banal things as if he were at a cocktail party.

McCain became angry when a photographer showed up to snap some pictures of the meeting, and to the chagrin of his captors, said he would never meet with "visitors" again.

In the U.S. News piece, McCain wrote that because of his repeated refusals, he was forced to sit on a stool for three days and three nights. Although he got a cellmate in March 1970, by early June he was yanked away from other Americans entirely and relocated to a remote room dubbed "Calcutta."

It was 6 feet by 2 feet with no ventilation in it, and it was very, very hot. During the summer I suffered from heat prostration a couple or three times, and dysentery. I was very ill. Washing facilities were nonexistent. My food was cut down to about half rations. Sometimes I'd go for a day or so without eating. All during this time I was taken out to interrogation and pressured to see the antiwar people. I refused.

By late December 1970, McCain was moved to a section of the Hanoi Hilton called "Camp Unity," where for the first time he was in a large cell with dozens of other prisoners.

In March 1971, it was back to solitary, this time at another camp called "Skid Row." November 1971, back to the Hanoi Hilton, and a room of about 40 POWs.

Aside from bad situations now and then, 1971 and 1972 was a sort of coasting period. The reason why you see our men in such good condition today is that the food and everything generally improved. For example, in late '69 I was down to 105, 110 pounds, boils all over me, suffering dysentery. We started getting packages with vitamins in them--about one package a year. We were able to exercise quite a bit in our rooms and managed to get back in a lot better health. My health has improved radically. In fact, I think I'm in better physical shape than I was when I got shot down.

In January 1973, following intense U.S. bombing of Hanoi, as the end of the war neared, McCain was moved again to The Plantation. On March 15, he boarded a plane home, as part of Operation Homecoming.

He concluded his U.S. News piece:
I had a lot of time to think over there, and came to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life--along with a man's family--is to make some contribution to his country.

John McCain was free again, but his poorly mended bones required extensive surgery and ultimately grounded him to a desk job. Yet as one career ended, another began. In 1977, McCain was assigned to be the Navy's liaison to the U.S. Senate--a perfect gig for a guy intrigued by politics.

It was an easy transition for McCain, who had been raised amid dignitaries. His office quickly became the party spot on the Hill. But from the start, POW/MIA-niks took a dim view of McCain.

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