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

Craig Willbanks wants you to know that John McCain--former prisoner of war, current senator, White House aspirant--is a traitor, a liar and a wimp.

Willbanks and McCain have never met. The senator probably has never heard of this hunched-over, soft-spoken fellow who served two tours of duty in Vietnam as an Army combat engineer and now lives in a run-down apartment in Mesa.

Craig Willbanks is obsessed with John McCain, and he is not alone.

He is part of a small, nationwide movement hell-bent on convincing the rest of us that in spite of glowing accounts of McCain's valor as a POW, Arizona's senior senator betrayed his country by collaborating with the North Vietnamese, and has been trying to cover up that fact ever since.

Willbanks' mission: "Don't get him elected. Cannot have . . . a traitor in the top position, giving away secrets of the United States."

To that end, Willbanks spends virtually all his free time retyping any Arizona Republic articles that portray the senator in an unflattering light. He intends to post them on the Web, where they'll join a pile of documents that, Willbanks insists, proves McCain collaborated with the Communists during his five years as a POW.

Willbanks has a paying job, as a bus driver for the City of Mesa. But he was recently reassigned to drive an adult day-care van. He's excited about it; the older people will want to talk about war history, and he can give them packets of information he keeps on McCain. He's already given out 15 or so.

"I give them a packet, and they come back and say, 'Well, that goddamn traitor,'" he says.

The "documents" include an article McCain wrote for U.S. News & World Report in 1973, upon his release from prison camp. In the article, McCain admits that he--like many POWs--confessed to war crimes under physical and emotional duress. There's also a transcript of an interview POW McCain did for French television, a story about McCain that appeared in a Vietnamese newspaper, and an account of an interview of McCain by a Spanish psychiatrist.

Willbanks got these documents from retired Army Colonel Earl Hopper Sr. and his wife, Patty, who run a POW/MIA research organization from their home in Glendale. The Hoppers' goal is to force the U.S. government to produce a full accounting of the more than 2,000 men whose bodies have not been recovered from the Vietnam War. Among those men is Earl Hopper Jr., the colonel's eldest son.

Willbanks and the Hoppers believe that live American soldiers were left behind at the end of the Vietnam War, and that McCain is part of the conspiracy to cover it up. McCain has long contended that there is no proof that live Americans remain in Southeast Asia. The Hoppers have gathered a motley crew of local Vietnam veterans and POW/MIA family members to assist in their crusade against McCain, and have hooked up with like-minded vets and POW kin across the country.

One foot soldier for the cause is Roy Kerr, a veteran from Goodyear who researches McCain's business interests full-time. Around New Year's, Kerr hand-delivered anti-McCain packets to syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, U.S. Representative Henry Hyde and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who were in town for "The Weekend," a conservative confab at the Arizona Biltmore resort. Kerr packaged the documents in manila envelopes labeled "Veterans for McCain," figuring no one would open a package that said "Veterans Against McCain."

Kerr says he has driven to McCain's home at night to drop copies of anti-McCain literature and "Dump McCain" stickers over the senator's fence. And he's a frequent caller to radio talk shows when McCain is a guest. He proudly provides taped copies of these interviews, bragging that he made the senator stutter. (Barely, if at all.) He does all of this, he says, "to keep myself busy and appease my dislike for McCain."

And then there's Ted Sampley, who publishes a newspaper out of Kinston, North Carolina, called U.S. Veteran Dispatch. Sampley calls McCain the "Manchurian Candidate," maintaining that the Vietnamese brainwashed McCain, then sent him home to do their bidding--which, to Sampley's way of thinking, explains why McCain was instrumental in the nation's normalization of relations with Vietnam.

The POW/MIA zealots are a dwindling subculture. Mainstream society tends to dismiss the Willbankses, Hoppers and Kerrs as sad footnotes to an ugly chapter in American history.

Stanley Kutler, professor of law at the University of Wisconsin and editor of The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, calls the behavior of these people "Sick. If it weren't so sick, it would be laughable. These are not nice people. They are the other side in an ongoing uncivil Civil War in America. They would refight Vietnam, criminalize abortion, make public school prayer mandatory, prove that Hillary bumped off Vince Foster, and indict Teddy Kennedy for Chappaquiddick. They are uncivil and intolerant of any views or information they do not share."

Kutler examined the Hoppers' packet, which, along with the "documents," includes political cartoons lampooning McCain, and accounts of testy exchanges between McCain and POW/MIA activists. Aubrey Immelman, associate professor of psychology at St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota, looked at the anti-McCain propaganda, too, and observes:

"Once a person becomes as committed to a cause as some of these individuals, it becomes difficult to let go, and the lines between activism, crusade and obsession--and perhaps even paranoia--become increasingly blurred."

Is John McCain a hero or a traitor?

What a question.

In post-Monica politics, there aren't many taboos. Enter the presidential sweepstakes, and it's open season on every detail of your life. Everything except the hero status of a man who endured a broken leg, two broken arms and five and a half years in North Vietnamese prison camps.

Even McCain foes who carp about his youthful philandering, his grandstanding, his political flip-flopping, his membership in the Keating Five, his wife's drug addiction, don't question his war heroism.

So the Earl Hoppers of the world are dismissed as crazies, wackos, extremists--and perhaps it's a deserved label. Then again, to paraphrase another Arizona senator: Extremism in defense of a lost loved one is no vice. Who couldn't imagine themselves single-mindedly demanding the truth about a vanished son or husband?

McCain says he understands. "Those people who are family members, at least I have--I hope I feel--sympathy and some understanding for their zealotry on this issue," McCain tells New Times. "If I had a brother or a son who was in this situation, then clearly I think I would feel very strongly about it."

Not every POW/MIA activist despises John McCain, and among those who do, there are gradations of disgust.

Many activists don't like the way McCain has behaved since he was freed. They abhor his support for the normalization of relations with Vietnam, his apparent lack of respect for them and their cause. They say he has unfairly attacked those he says prey on the family members by selling them false hopes in the form of faked pictures of their loved ones, even though in some cases McCain has been proved right. And most of all, the activists feel McCain has used his POW status to spring up the political ranks, with his eye on the presidential prize.

But a few have let their ire take them even farther. A handful of POW/MIA activists are critical of McCain's behavior during the war. They believe that John McCain did not return from Vietnam a hero. They say his own clumsiness caused his limbs to be broken as he ejected from his plummeting warplane. They claim McCain was never tortured in prison. They accuse him of collaborating with not only the North Vietnamese but with Communists in the Soviet Union and Cuba. They quote unnamed sources who say McCain had a wife and children in Vietnam.

Some even claim he was broken and brainwashed by the Communists and then returned to the U.S. to amass political power and carry out the Reds' wishes. Why else, they ask, would McCain support normalization? Why else would he have embraced onetime North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin during hearings into POW/MIA issues? (They circulate a photo of that traitorous act as evidence.) Why else would the North Vietnamese have erected a monument at the lake in Hanoi where he was shot down in 1967?

All these claims disintegrate upon close inspection--they cannot be proved or disproved--with one tenuous exception: two former POWs who say they were senior officers at a camp where McCain claims to have been tortured tell New Times they knew of no such torture during that time at that camp. McCain has denied that he ever reported to these men.

Short of crossing the Pacific to interview McCain's captors, there is no way to be certain of what he endured. McCain says that much of his time was spent in solitary confinement. He did communicate through his cell walls, by tapping messages to other prisoners, but only McCain knows exactly what happened.

Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff, says the senator has decided to ignore his POW/MIA detractors and their charges.

"Nobody believes these idiots. They're a bunch of jerks. Forget them," Salter says.

But as McCain's political star rises, so do the voices of his naysayers. Someone really must try to answer the question.

Is John McCain a hero or a traitor?

To say that Earl and Patty Hopper devote all of their waking hours to the POW/MIA issue would be just short of an overstatement. They travel the country in an RV, visiting other POW/MIA-niks, attending conferences, badgering government officials for more information about Earl Jr.

Earl Hopper Jr.'s Phantom II disappeared January 10, 1968, near the North Vietnam/Laos border. Over the years, Earl Sr. has had some tantalizing clues as to his son's fate, but nothing conclusive.

Hopper, 77, perseveres. He was a founding member of the National League of Families, a group created in the late Sixties that agitated to bring POWs home. When President Nixon announced that all live POWs had been returned to the U.S., Earl Hopper Sr. and other relatives of unaccounted-for servicemen refused to believe him. They have kept the issue alive all these years, though their efforts have been nearly fruitless. Since 1973, only one live POW has returned to the U.S.--perhaps. A Marine private named Bobby Garwood came home in 1978, claiming he was a POW. His story is widely disputed; many believe he was a defector.

Today, the United States spends $55 million each year in an effort to resolve questions of unaccounted-for soldiers. The unspoken reality is that the government is looking for bodies, not captives; no one wants to say they know there is no one left alive. To date, remains of about 500 of the 2,587 POW/MIAs unaccounted for after the Vietnam War have been recovered.

U.S. officials are trying to convince Hopper that they've found his son's remains. Costly expeditions into the jungle have yielded an engine plate with the serial number from Earl Jr.'s plane, some bone fragments and teeth.

Even if DNA tests show the remains to be Earl Jr.'s, it's unlikely that Earl Sr. will believe it. After all, the movement to rescue POW/MIAs has become his life. He met Patty through the movement, and they run a nonprofit POW/MIA research organization called Task Force Omega Incorporated out of their Glendale home.

"There are not many people out there that are that active in the POW issue anymore," Earl Hopper Sr. acknowledges. "Nor that many involved in anti-McCain. I know that people we talk to across the country, to include Washington, D.C., we seldom, seldom hear of anyone that likes McCain. We have had people who question what we would say or do about McCain, but after we showed them the documents that we have, then they would see why we feel that way."

On a recent afternoon, Earl and Patty Hopper sat in matching rockers in the den of their Glendale home, and enumerated John McCain's wartime sins:

* McCain's broken arms and leg were his own fault.
The Hoppers have no documentation of this--they have deduced it.
"When he bailed out of his jet, he was not in the right attitude, and that's how his arms and leg got broken, because he screwed up when he ejected," Earl says.
Adds Patty, "He didn't have his arms tucked in and his legs tucked together and back."

* McCain accepted special favors.
For proof, the Hoppers offer the U.S. News article and interviews McCain granted the French, Spanish and Vietnamese.
"The other POWs did not get the medical treatment that McCain got," Earl says. "Shortly after he was shot down, as you know, he was in a military hospital that was reserved for North Vietnamese officers. Clean sheets, nice soft bed, cast on his arm.
"Other POWs who came into the system like that had to endure broken bones sitting or lying in a cell. Many of them had broken backs, had no treatment whatsoever. If they gave them any treatment, it would be an aspirin."

* McCain was never tortured.
Patty: "There are a lot of little nuances, dealing with John McCain. He claims that he was tortured . . . or he implies it. That's a lie."
The Hoppers have located two former POWs who claim they were senior ranking officers at the time McCain says he was tortured in solitary confinement. Ted Guy and Gordon "Swede" Larson both tell New Times that while they could not guarantee that McCain was not physically harmed, they doubted it.
"Between the two of us, it's our belief, and to the best of our knowledge, that no prisoner was beaten or harmed physically in that camp [known as "The Plantation"]," Larson says. ". . . My only contention with the McCain deal is that while he was at The Plantation, to the best of my knowledge and Ted's knowledge, he was not physically abused in any way. No one was in that camp. It was the camp that people were released from."

* McCain was not singled out and offered early release.
Patty: "Whether he was actually sat down by the Vietnamese and singled out and said would you like to go home early and having him say no--"
Earl: "No proof of that."
Patty: "No. Only John's mouth."

* John McCain is no hero.
"I don't consider John McCain a hero," Earl says. "No. No way. That's propaganda that's put out by his people. And to prove that John's a fraud and a liar, is that he's done nothing to stop that propaganda from coming out. If he was really the man that he should be, he would come out and say, 'Look, that didn't happen to me. I wasn't that ill. I got special treatment.'"
Patty: "'--and I accepted special treatment, because I was afraid not to.'"

Orson Swindle, who slept next to John McCain for more than a year in the Hanoi Hilton, happened upon Craig Willbanks' handiwork on the Web recently. He was horrified. He disagrees with just about everything that comes out of the Hoppers' mouths.

As to the suggestion that McCain was responsible for his own broken bones, Swindle says, "The man's airplane . . . was turning ass over teakettle. Getting in the right position is sometimes damn difficult. In his case, he was missing the wing of an airplane and the airplane was tumbling. For anybody to make that statement, they display their ignorance, and I don't care who they are."

The date was October 26, 1967. I was on my 23rd mission, flying right over the heart of Hanoi in a dive at about 4,500 feet, when a Russian missile the size of a telephone pole came up--the sky was full of them--and blew the right wing off my Skyhawk dive bomber. It went into an introverted, almost straight-down spin.

I pulled the ejection handle, and was knocked unconscious by the force of the ejection--the air speed was about 500 knots. . . . I regained consciousness just before I landed by parachute in a lake right in the center of Hanoi, one they called the Western Lake. My helmet and my oxygen mask had been blown off.

I hit the water and sank to the bottom. I think the lake is about 15 feet deep, maybe 20. I kicked off the bottom. I did not feel any pain at the time, and was able to rise to the surface. I took a breath of air and started sinking again. Of course, I was wearing 50 pounds, at least, of equipment and gear. I went down and managed to kick up to the surface once more. I couldn't understand why I couldn't use my right leg or my arm. I was in a dazed condition. I went up to the top again and sank back down. This time I couldn't get back to the surface. I was wearing an inflatable life-preserver-type thing that looked like water wings. I reached down with my mouth and got the toggle between my teeth and inflated the preserver and finally floated to the top.

The preceding passage--a firsthand account titled "How the POWs Fought Back"--appeared in the May 14, 1973, edition of U.S. News & World Report, two months after Navy Lieutenant Commander John Sidney McCain III and 590 other POWs returned to the United States as part of Operation Homecoming. McCain's official debriefing, on file at the Library of Congress, contains an almost identical description of his downing. Several books include similar accounts.

At the time McCain's jet was blasted from the air, his father was commander in chief of U.S. naval forces in Europe. His grandfather had also been a Navy admiral. Yet young John McCain was legendary not for his military acumen but for his reputation as a troublemaker and a ladies' man. He had graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy, and earned nicknames such as "McNasty."

The Vietnamese who fished him out of Truc Bach Lake knew none of that, of course--only that they'd found an American. As was customary, they hauled the soldier to shore and stripped him to his underwear. A crowd of hecklers gathered.

Again, from U.S. News:
When they had most of my clothes off, I felt a twinge in my right knee. I sat up and looked at it, and my right foot was resting next to my left knee, just in a 90-degree position. I said, "My God--my leg!" That seemed to enrage them--I don't know why. One of them slammed a rifle butt down on my shoulder, and smashed it pretty badly. Another stuck a bayonet in my foot. . . . A woman came over and propped me up and held a cup of tea to my lips, and some photographers took pictures. This quieted the crowd down quite a bit. Pretty soon, they put me on a stretcher, lifted it onto a truck, and took me to Hanoi's main prison.

The facility was Hoa Lo, dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" by the American prisoners. McCain says he lapsed in and out of consciousness for a few days. He had broken his right femur just above the knee, his right arm in three places, and his left arm. From the first day, he says, he was told he would not receive medical treatment unless he revealed military secrets. He says he offered nothing but his name, rank and serial number.

On what McCain believes was his fourth day in captivity, two guards came into his cell and pulled back his blanket.

I looked at my knee. It was about the size, shape and color of a football. I remembered that when I was a flying instructor a fellow had ejected from his plane and broken his thigh. He had gone into shock, the blood had pooled in his leg, and he died, which came as quite a shock to us--a man dying of a broken leg. Then I realized that a very similar thing was happening to me.

When I saw it, I said to the guard, "O.K., get the officer."

McCain agreed to give military information in exchange for a trip to the hospital, but he was told it was too late. Then, however, the Vietnamese discovered they were holding the "crown prince"--the admiral's son.

McCain says he confirmed that his father was the "big admiral" and was taken to a hospital. He recalled that his hospital room was filthy and he was fed only a few spoonfuls of soup a day and was never washed. Crude attempts were made to set McCain's bones, sans painkillers.

An article about McCain appeared in the newspaper Nhan Dan (The People) in Hanoi on November 9, 1967. The translation begins:

That piratical pilot had a pretty good-looking face. He was reasonably fat. What was worth our attention was that his hair had turned almost completely white although he was only 31. He himself drew our attention to that fact right at the beginning of the interrogation. Was it meant to show his "nobility" of some sort? Sometimes this U.S. Navy lieutenant commander still showed his boastful behavior tastelessly that way.

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.

--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.

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. News piece. 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."

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 Granma on 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.

Ann Mills Griffiths, whose brother disappeared in Vietnam, became director of the National League of Families in 1978. She recalls lobbying Congress with McCain and his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Red McDaniel, another returned POW. Griffiths and her group wanted a clear accounting--dead or alive--of the Vietnam-era POW/MIAs.

"Clearly, I got the impression that both of them [McCain and McDaniel] would kind of go behind what I was saying and say, 'Look, this is really good that the families are trying to get answers and it's very patriotic and all, but it's unrealistic,'" Griffiths recalls.

"In other words, kind of, it can't be accomplished, and if anybody had been left there, we would have known it. . . . It was sort of condescending."

If that was McDaniel's attitude, he had a change of heart. He now runs the American Defense Institute, an organization devoted to the live POW/MIA issue. Susan Katz Keating, a Washington Times reporter who wrote a book in 1994 called Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW/MIA Myth in America, labels McDaniel a "Gray Flannel Rambo." (He declined to comment for this story when he heard it was about McCain, saying he wanted to "take the high road.")

McCain apparently never wavered from his skepticism. In fact, he didn't show much interest in the POW/MIA issue for many years--a point the POW/MIA activists claim proves his disloyalty.

McCain's first marriage ended in 1980, and he quickly remarried. He retired from the Navy in 1981, and McCain and his new bride, Cindy Hensley, relocated to her home state, Arizona, and prepared his first congressional bid. McCain was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982.

"He was trying to focus on his job as a congressman and trying to represent the people of Arizona," says Ann Mills Griffiths, who is more sympathetic to McCain than radical activists. "Just because he was a POW didn't mean that was all he could focus on. So I think there was probably disappointment by some people at that point that he wasn't taking a more active leadership role. At the same time, he was very quietly supporting a lot of [legislative] initiatives that we were doing in those days."

Earl Hopper Sr. sees it differently. He recalls a meeting at the new congressman's Mesa field office. Hopper brought along some refugee reports and other purported live-sighting materials, but says McCain wasn't interested.

"John was very much on the defensive at that time, and argumentative, defending the intelligence agencies and their methods of interrogating the refugees and so forth," Hopper recalls. "He didn't like what I was saying, I didn't like what he was saying, so we just parted.

"After that, I didn't have too much to do with John McCain."

But that was far from the end of John McCain's dealings with POW/MIA activists. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, and in 1991 Congress held hearings into the POW/MIA issue, examining World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Although the Vietnam POW/MIA activism is by far the most vibrant, there are still questions about the fate of prisoners and MIAs who fought in the other wars.

Many POW/MIA activists did not welcome the hearings. Ann Mills Griffiths, director of the National League of Families, believes the hearings were designed to bury the issue once and for all.

"What it did was tie up assets and resources for a very long time, cause great divisiveness, give a forum to irresponsibility as well as responsibility, and every time that happens the issue loses," she says. "It was a very well-orchestrated, concerted effort to pave the way for all of the steps that the Clinton administration would take. It was very well-done."

Senator John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, was chosen to chair the committee; Senator Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, was vice chair. Kerry and Smith, both Vietnam veterans, had differing opinions on the issue. Kerry made his skepticism clear early in the hearings, which went on for a year. Smith was more willing to believe that live POWs might remain abroad, particularly in Southeast Asia.

But it was Senator John McCain, the sole former POW on the committee, who attracted the spotlight during the hearings of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. McCain forged a relationship with Kerry, with whom he'd never been close (Kerry had become a war protester after returning from Vietnam) and made his skepticism about the live prisoner issue known during his questioning of witnesses.

During one memorable exchange, McCain reduced Dolores Alfond, the sister of a Vietnam POW/MIA, to tears with his harsh comments.

Carol Hrdlicka, who has obtained government documents indicating that her husband, David Hrdlicka, a Vietnam POW/MIA, was alive past 1973, flew to Washington, D.C., from Kansas for many of the hearing sessions.

Hrdlicka wears a laminated photo of her husband around her neck. Her concerns are typical.

"There's been no evidence to date that he ever died," Hrdlicka says of her husband. "If he's dead, where's his body, or where's the evidence? And there's no one from a government agency anyplace that has ever been able to answer that question."

She didn't get any answers from the Senate committee, either. After she saw Alfond weep, Hrdlicka was reluctant to testify. She did anyway, and it went fairly smoothly, she recalls, but she was still furious with McCain. She glared at him through the rest of the hearings.

"I figured that anybody who was a former POW should have some compassion for the guys who were left behind," Hrdlicka says, adding, "McCain fascinated me, because he couldn't look me in the eye. And anybody that can't look you in the eye, I feel, is guilty."

McCain raised eyebrows when he embraced Colonel Bui Tin, a former North Vietnamese political emissary who defected to the U.S. Tin claims he interrogated McCain in the Hanoi prison camps. A photo of their embrace was widely published.

Mark Salter, now McCain's chief of staff, was a legislative assistant at the time. He had no experience with the POW/MIA issue--but learned quickly after McCain assigned him to staff the committee. Salter is quick to observe that Tin made the first move.

"All the members went down to shake his hand, as they do with every witness that testified," Salter recalls. "And he reached up and embraced McCain, and that suddenly was splashed everywhere. Everywhere. It wasn't McCain embracing him, he was being embraced and graciously accepted."

In fact, a videotape from the hearing confirms that McCain was responding to the colonel's gesture.

That doesn't matter to Carol Hrdlicka. "Here's a Vietnamese Communist, and he's hugging him," she says. ". . . I can see being civil, but I can't see hugging the former enemy."

As expected, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs concluded that there was no compelling evidence that live prisoners remained in Southeast Asia.

McCain paid--just a little--for his unwavering position. Evan Mecham, impeached as governor of Arizona in 1988, returned to politics to challenge McCain in 1992, primarily because of McCain's position on POW/MIAs. Mecham failed, obviously.

WHEN JOHNNY GOES FLYING TO HANOI
(sung to the tune of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home")

When Johnny goes flying to Hanoi,
He's got some gall!
We know it's just a political ploy.
That's all! That's all!
For he will spend his nights and days
selling out our MIAs.
And we'd sure be glad if he never came home again!

When Johnny goes sailing 'cross the sea,
He's got some guts.
To suck up to the enemy,
and kiss their butts,
He'll have a ball in old Hanoi
sneaking round with his joy-boy.
And we'd sure be glad if he never came home again!
When Johnny hits ground in Vietnam,
Poohbah! Poohbah!
We hope he forgets his way back home.
We'll shout "HURRAH"!
Oh, Hanoi, grant our fondest wish,
and keep that low-life son-of-a-*****!
And we'd sure be glad if he never came home again!
--song by Arizona POW/MIA activists, 1993

John McCain's flagging stock with POW/MIA activists dipped further with the "October Surprise"--a hastily arranged, 24-hour trip to Vietnam orchestrated by the Bush administration in 1992, just before both the president and McCain stood for reelection. Some criticized McCain for grandstanding on his status as a former POW, an issue he once swore he wouldn't exploit. Mark Salter says the McCain campaign was not enthusiastic about the trip--the purpose of which was purportedly to check out photographs of live American POW/MIAs--because it cut into the senator's flesh-pressing at home. "The entire campaign flipped about it," Salter says.

The photographs were fakes. In some, Salter claims, bullet holes were clearly visible in soldiers' foreheads.

McCain refused to mollify the POW/MIA activists. In 1993, he forged a compromise that, in the eyes of the activists, significantly watered down legislation designed to release classified U.S. government documents on POW/MIAs.

In 1994, he supported the Clinton administration's decision to lift the trade embargo on Vietnam.

And then McCain did something to earn the undying enmity of the POW/MIA community: He pushed to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam. In a meeting at the Oval Office on May 23, 1995, McCain told President Clinton, "It doesn't matter to me anymore, Mr. President, who was for the war and who was against the war. I'm tired of looking back in anger. What's important is that we move forward now."

Salter calls McCain the catalyst for normalization. He says McCain told Clinton, "I will stand with you as you do it. I will do whatever you want me to do. . . ."

When Clinton hesitated, Salter says, McCain told him, "'This is really about 100 people,'" referring to the POW/MIA activists. "'That's all it is. Most veterans are going to have no problems with it.'

"But Clinton, for reasons we all understand . . . was incredibly apprehensive about it. We had a hard time. We told him, 'Mr. President, Lafayette Park is not going to fill with fatigue-wearing angry veterans. Nobody's going to protest this. . . . There's some suspicion that you won't do the hard things, Mr. President. And people will look at it and say, "Here's an instance where Clinton took a political risk." And you're going to get praised for this.'

"It was a one-day story. He was praised for it, and there was absolutely no outcry in the veterans community at all."

Mark Salter exaggerates. No, there was no deafening outcry, but the POW/MIA activists--who certainly number more than 100--were furious. Particularly when McCain stood on the dais for a photo opportunity with Clinton, then embraced him.

Says Ann Mills Griffiths, "So many people view that as John being a cardboard cutout for whatever reasons, to accomplish or to facilitate the Clinton administration's agenda on normalization."

When one totals McCain's 23 missions over North Vietnam, times the number of minutes he was actually over enemy territory (approximately 20 to 35 minutes per mission), McCain's total time over Vietnam before being shot down, was about 10 1/2 hours.

For those 10 1/2 hours over Vietnam, McCain, the Admiral's son, was awarded two Silver Stars, two Legions of Merit, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars, the Vietnamese Legion of Honor and three Purple Hearts averaging over one hero medal per hour.

--Ted Sampley,
U.S. Veteran Dispatch

Like John McCain, Ted Sampley is either a folk hero or a sleaze. It simply depends upon whom you ask. Just about everyone in the POW/MIA movement--and beyond that, in the broader veterans community--has an opinion.

Sampley is on the fringe of the radical wing of the movement, a member of the National Alliance of Families, which, unlike the National League of Families, still pushes the live POW issue. Hard. (The Alliance broke off from the League in the Eighties, in response to what many saw as Ann Mills Griffiths' kowtowing to Republican government officials.)

Sampley ranks at the top in the pantheon of McCain-haters.

One evening late last June, Sampley manned a table containing POW/MIA tee shirts for sale. It was situated just outside the Alliance's annual meeting, which takes place every summer in a Washington, D.C., hotel across the street from a hotel where the League meets. POW/MIA memorabilia has long been Sampley's bread and butter.

Ted's 6-year-old son, Owen Lane, nagged his dad to play with him. "Let me sell some tee shirts, and we can buy some serious toys," he told the boy, who wandered off.

From a credibility standpoint, Owen and his mother, Robin, are godsends for Sampley. Never mind that the couple is divorced. Sampley can say his son is a blood relative of an MIA--Robin's father, a Special Forces soldier, disappeared in Laos in May 1968.

Sampley first got interested in the POW/MIA movement because as a Green Beret he served two tours in Vietnam. The first was in 1965, making him one of the first conventional soldiers to be sent there. (Many early tours were assigned to "advisers.") Sampley knew next to nothing about the conflict when he went, and he knew little more about the POW issue until 1971, when he saw an Army training film about POWs.

He went home to North Carolina and founded a group called Americans Who Care, which handed out literature, sold POW bracelets and publicized the POW cause.

"In 1973, the prisoners of war came home," Sampley recalls. "I watched this, teary eyed, and I believed the government at that time that all our people had come home. I mean, I had no reason not to."

He went about his life, working as a potter and for newspapers and in television. "I just kind of withdrew back into myself, like a lot of vets did."

In 1982, Sampley went to Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial, and heard many of his fellow veterans express doubts about the fates of comrades.

Sampley made two quick decisions: first, that the government was withholding information, and second, that he would be the one to get the answers. He didn't get many answers, but he certainly made a lot of noise.

"I took my training in guerrilla warfare and I turned it around on the U.S. government," Sampley says. "It was nonviolent civil disobedience."

He stood up at a meeting of the National Vietnam Veterans Coalition and announced it was time to get President Reagan's attention.

"I said, 'We need to start doing things like they did in the Sixties.' I said, 'I will chain myself to the White House fence if some of you will go with me.'"

A handful did, and the national press reacted. Sampley was just getting warmed up.

"I started thinking of as many types of tricks as I could pull to disrupt the system," he says, chuckling, ". . . and through my leadership we became some of the biggest nuisances they've ever--I mean, we've done things I can't even admit to. The idea was not to get anybody hurt, but to disrupt the process, to cause the government to have to talk about the POW issue, to keep the POW issue in the light."

Because he thought Ann Mills Griffiths and the National League were in cahoots with the Reagan administration, Sampley and his cohorts took over the League's office in the American Legion building.

"No weapons," he says. "Just plain old outsmarting them."

Mills Griffiths doesn't have such fond memories of the stunt, recalling that Sampley "threatened to kill me" before he was hauled off in handcuffs.

Sampley made more headlines when he put a bamboo cage filled with the daughters of POW/MIAs on then-presidential chief of staff Don Regan's front lawn. Sampley and the group that came to be known as the "North Carolina Crazies" took 1,500 care packages--Bibles, toothpaste, food and clothing addressed to individual POW/MIAs--to the Laos Embassy in Washington, D.C. When the Laotians threw him out, Sampley dumped the packages on the front lawn of National Security Adviser Frank Carlucci.

"Carlucci had to get five Army trucks there to get them out of his yard," Sampley recalls.

Sampley sponsored a Rambo of the Year award for anyone who could plant a POW flag within 30 feet of the White House without being shot.

It was all a joke, he insists. "People did start climbing it [the White House fence], but no one was trying to get over it. But they [police] were beating people off the fence with night sticks.

"The whole objective, it was a Gandhi-type thing, take the night sticks, take the hits, get the attention, get the press. This went on for years. . . . That probably got me the reputation that I've got now."

Sampley wasn't present for his most famous trick. In 1992, he planted hecklers to disrupt President Bush's speech to the National League of Families. Sampley wasn't allowed in the room, but when Bush began speaking, the crowd began yelling, "No more lies! No more lies!"

With the cameras rolling, Bush--frustrated, after repeated attempts to quiet the hecklers--yelled, "Sit down and shut up!"

Sampley's first POW/MIA-related newspaper debuted in 1986. He called it Bamboo Connection, and while the name has changed a few times over the years, he still publishes a paper today. You can find it at www.usvetdsp.com/usvet/index.html

Although his antics detract from his credibility, Sampley has had some journalistic successes--including one just last year. His early reporting led to a CBS News story that prompted the U.S. government to open the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and do DNA testing on what proved to be the remains of Air Force pilot Michael Blassie. His work earned Sampley a "Laurel" from the Columbia Journalism Review.

His coverage of John McCain has been spotty, at best.

Sampley says he first met McCain in the Eighties, while McCain was still in the U.S. House. Sampley dropped by to say hello and discuss the POW/MIA issue.

At the time, Sampley did not consider McCain to be a foe. But it quickly became clear that the two had little in common when it came to the POW/MIA movement.

Sampley recalls, "When we started talking about the POW issue, he [McCain] got fidgety, he got agitated. . . . He started pacing back and forth."

Sampley says McCain got up in the middle of the discussion and walked out of his office. Sampley followed McCain into the hallway.

"Finally, as we got outside, he just walked off and left me. . . . Out of his office, out of his building, down the street and he walked faster than me, and I got the hint he didn't want to talk to me anymore.

"At that point, I didn't make a big deal out of it, other than thinking, 'This guy's a loony tune.'"

He says he started looking more closely at McCain during the Senate hearings in 1991-92.

Sampley dug up McCain's 1973 U.S. News & World Report article, as well as the interview with the Spanish psychiatrist and the piece by the French journalist.

"Through that, through his own words . . . and my training as an interrogator, I locked onto him. I locked onto what he was saying. And the key thing was when he said, 'I told them that if you'll take me to a doctor I'll give you military information.'

"That went BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! Bad. Wrong, wrong. That violated everything--the whole Code of Conduct was violated there. And I saw that he was trying to cover himself, there must be more to it."

Sampley's reporting spun out of control. He dubbed the senator the "Manchurian Candidate," suggesting that McCain was a pawn of the Vietnamese because he was afraid they would reveal the true extent of his "collaboration" during the war.

"I'll say it now, that eventually--it may not be any time soon--it will come out. This stuff will come out. The exact amount of his collaboration will come out. He was a serious collaborator."

Sampley offers no credible proof of these allegations, other than quotes from unnamed former POWs and suggestions that the Vietnamese still have film of McCain's activities in the prison camps. The Manchurian Candidate theory, Sampley maintains, is the only plausible explanation for McCain's behavior on the POW/MIA issue.

"Explain to me why John McCain would turn on us, the families," he asks. "Why would he hug Colonel Bui Tin? . . . Bui Tin, whether he defected or not, was one of the Communists responsible for the policy that killed American prisoners of war and kept McCain and others in prison.

"It's not that McCain loves the Vietnamese, he loves himself. He doesn't want them dropping the dime on him, so to speak, making the phone call on him, making available to the American public the extent to which he collaborated in order to save his own skin."

In December 1992, as the Senate hearings were winding down, Sampley was making the rounds in the halls of Congress, handing out copies of his latest periodical, which featured McCain and the Queen of Diamonds on the cover with the headline: "Sen. John McCain: 'The Manchurian Candidate.'"

The story condemned McCain for his lack of support on the live POW/MIA issue, and cited the U.S. News article and others as evidence that McCain had collaborated with the enemy and was protecting the Vietnamese for fear of being exposed. The article summarized the senator's political career, relying on reports from daily newspapers and wire services. It touched on McCain's role in the Keating Five and his friendship with former Arizona Republic publisher Duke Tully, who had fabricated a military career for himself, only to be exposed in the mid-Eighties.

Sampley claims he never intended to go into McCain's office, but when he realized that's where he was, he tossed a copy to the receptionist, requesting that it be delivered to the senator's veterans affairs assistant.

Mark Salter happened to be standing by the front desk. Sampley's version of what ensued goes like this:

"He [Salter] said to me, 'You son of a bitch.' Those were his words. He said, 'You low-life bastard.' . . . The dumbass followed me, yakking at me all the way down the hall. I'm thinking, 'Why doesn't this guy go away? I'm leaving.' I turn to go into the stairway, he followed me in there and for some reason he felt frisky and he punched me in the back of the shoulder--not hard--and that was it. I turned around and I fried him."

Salter claims he just tapped Sampley on the shoulder to get his attention. Security guards intervened. Sampley eventually was found guilty of assault and sentenced to two days in jail and 180 days of probation. He also was ordered to stay away from McCain and his staff.

Of Sampley, Salter says, "Mr. Sampley is about as disreputable a person as I've ever met in some 20 years of public service. . . . He's just a con artist. Nothing more, nothing less."

Salter is referring to Sampley's business of selling POW/MIA souvenirs at the Vietnam War Memorial. Sampley formed a nonprofit corporation that sold memorabilia, including tee shirts that were manufactured by his own for-profit company, Red Hawk.

Sampley was sued for copyright infringement by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and a sculptor, for using the likeness of a statue called The Three Servicemen on his tee shirts. A judge ordered Sampley to pay more than $350,000 in royalties. Sampley, who claims the legal bills broke him, hasn't paid.

The North Carolinian continued to blast McCain in print. In a 1995 article, he dubbed McCain "The Rhinestone Cowboy" and printed his claim that film of McCain's collaborative acts exists in Vietnam. He also quoted an unnamed source who said McCain had a wife and children in Vietnam. He reiterated many of those claims in a 1997 story about McCain.

"Even in this country, as difficult as it is to win a libel suit, we could win one against Sampley," Salter says. "He knows he's making it up and he's doing it with malice."

Accusations like Sampley's have hurt, Salter says.

"I remember the first time I saw the Sampley thing in his paper, the first Manchurian Candidate article, and I showed it to him [McCain]. He was stung. And I was kind of laughing, to make light of it. He said, 'It's not funny.'

"Then after a couple of months, he began to laugh about it, and then refer to himself as the Manchurian Candidate. He got over it. But it stung. And he didn't deserve it. It wasn't right."

McCain says he can't recall exchanging many words with Sampley, although Sampley claims the senator once walked past him and said, "Hello, scumbag."

McCain recalls the event--a congressional fund raiser in North Carolina--differently. He says Sampley stood up and berated him.

"I simply said, 'Sampley, you and I have a disagreement,'" McCain recalls. "I didn't see any reason to call him any names or lower myself down to that level. I have some dignity."

John McCain and his staff take pains to mark a distinction between the Ted Sampleys and the Carol Hrdlickas of the POW/MIA movement.

"You can't get mad at the families, but you get mad at the Ted Sampleys of the world," says Mark Salter.

But many family members maintain they have been abused by McCain. One is Dolores Alfond, who was reduced to tears by McCain during her 1992 testimony before the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs.

Salter denies that his boss has ever mistreated a family member. "I've never seen him lose it with a family member--ever, ever."

Few, if any, of the alleged incidents are recorded, so recollections of participants must be relied upon.

Earl Hopper Sr. says the last time he spoke to McCain was in the early Nineties, in the hallway of the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Hopper was in Washington for a POW/MIA-related hearing.

"I came in and was headed to the hearing room, and John and a couple of his aides were standing off to the side. And as I went by, I said, 'Hello John.'

"He didn't acknowledge that at all. He says, 'I don't like what you said about my wife.'

"I stopped. I'd never said anything about Cindy, I didn't know Cindy. I said, 'What do you mean? I never said anything about your wife.'

"'Well, I'm not going to get into it here.'

"I said, 'No, you brought it up, now let's finish it. I want to know what it is I was supposed to have said, because I've heard so many lies being told about me.'

"He says, 'Well, I'm just not going to talk about it.'

"I said, 'John, you're a goddamn liar, then. If you make a statement like that and you can't back it up, I want to tell you now, you're a liar.'

"Well, he turns red and he takes off. And his aide goes with him. And I guess that's the last time I've ever personally spoken with him."

McCain says the exchange took place not in Washington but at the Phoenix VA hospital, when both men were attending a POW/MIA-related event.

"We exchanged some words about something, I can't even remember what it was about now," McCain says. "I think that he had said something about a friend of mine or something like that, I don't remember. And I said, 'Look, I don't agree with your comments about that,' and that's the last time that I have seen or talked to Colonel Hopper, as I remember."

The most infamous McCain/family encounter took place in 1996 in the hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building, outside McCain's office.

Carol Hrdlicka was in Washington for a POW/MIA event. She and a group of other family members were gathering to try to meet with McCain. As Hrdlicka recalls it, she and two others were early. They bumped into McCain in the hallway as he walked down the hall to another office.

"Down the hall he comes, and I said, 'Senator McCain, are you coming back?'" Hrdlicka recalls. She hadn't seen him in years, since the Senate Select Committee hearings, and he obviously didn't recognize her.

"'Oh, yeah,' he says, 'I'll be back in a minute.'"

In the meantime, the group of more than a dozen family members gathered, including one woman who was wheelchair-bound--right outside the office McCain had stepped into. He emerged into the crowd.

"What's really funny is, when he thinks you're just a regular civilian, he's got all these smiles on his face," Hrdlicka says.

But the family members started talking and, Hrdlicka says, the smile faded. She says the senator shoved Jeanette Jenkins, who was pushing her aunt's wheelchair, against the wall, in his haste to escape. Hrdlicka took off after McCain. He stopped in front of an elevator.

"I stepped in front of him and I said, 'Senator McCain, David Hrdlicka is still sitting over there,' . . . and he says, 'You just don't understand.' And I said, 'I understand.' I said, 'I understand. David Hrdlicka is still sitting over there and you're here.' And at this point the elevator opens and he steps on and he says, 'Well, you just don't understand,' and I said, 'Yes I do, you're a traitor.' And at that point the doors shut."

Hrdlicka, Jenkins and Jane Duke Gaylor, the woman in the wheelchair, all complained to the Senate Ethics Committee. No action was ever taken.

Mark Salter calls Hrdlicka's account "an absolute lie. I was an eyewitness to that event. An absolute lie. He [McCain] didn't say one word to them, he said, 'Excuse me.' Didn't touch them, walked, got in the elevator and the both of us went down. An absolute lie."

McCain's recollection: "I walked by them as they were yelling 'traitor' and words like that, and all of the sudden I was accused of shoving a woman or someone in a wheelchair or something like that. I was astounded by that.

"But look, let me also say this to you. Someone like Carol Hrdlicka has spent literally all her adult life on this issue. It's very difficult and very emotional for them when literally their whole lives are consumed by this issue. As is to some degree the case of Earl Hopper. . . . I understand the emotion associated with this . . ."

Hi, Amy, Laird Gutterson. I wouldn't care to go on the record or off the record, on John McCain. We have sort of an unwritten rule that we don't talk about each other and what we did while we were there. I won't vote for him, and that's about the size of it.

--a phone message

Laird Gutterson, a Tucson resident who was a POW with John McCain in Vietnam, is one of many POWs who are unwilling to talk about their experiences in the camps.

Patty Hopper says many of these men--including Gutterson--have confided privately to her about McCain's behavior, and she's frustrated that they won't go public.

"How many are willing to come up against John's nastiness?" she asks. "He is a scumbag. He is a piece of garbage. And he's vicious and he's nasty and he knows no bounds. So how many people want to subject themselves to John Sidney McCain's mouth?"

None. Even Ted Guy and Swede Larson have nothing negative to say about McCain's behavior--only that they don't have firsthand proof he was tortured. They do complain about McCain's politics since the war.

And as for McCain's alleged collaboration with the Communists, Larson says, "I don't think he told them anything they didn't already know."

A typical POW response, this to an e-mail Patty Hopper sent to Terry Uyeyama, an Air Force pilot shot down in May 1968:

Sorry, but I have nothing on McCain, while in prison. Otherwise, I would have gladly given you something several years ago. As I said in previous posting, I was never in the same camp, nor did I ever hear anything derogatory about him over there. If there was any serious breach of conduct, believe me, it probably would have become common knowledge before we all came home. . . .

The other typical POW response is pro-McCain. Larry Chesley, a former Republican state legislator from Mesa, who served in the Air Force and was a POW for seven years, says, "John McCain was considered one of the model prisoners of war by all of us that were there. The people who bad-mouth him are people who have never been with him in prison. Have you found one of us who ever served with him, who have said this about him?"

No. Most are more like Orson Swindle.

Swindle and McCain have remained close over the years. McCain was instrumental in getting Swindle his current job, as a Federal Communications Commission member. The two don't always agree on POW/MIA politics, Swindle says, but he considers McCain a hero, and doesn't think people like Earl and Patty Hopper--who were not POWs--can pass judgment.

"Some who were not there, I guess, would say, 'You guys are very intolerant of those people.' But unless you've been there in our shoes, it's probably very difficult to comprehend the code we were trying to uphold under very difficult circumstances. And our Code of Conduct is very clear about what we can and what we should and should not do. That's not to say that we didn't fail. God knows, we all were defeated by the physical and mental torture, and we gave the Communists things we all wish we had not."

If McCain is a traitor, Swindle says, then he's a traitor, too, because he--like many--signed war-crime confessions.

"People who weren't there have no grounds whatsoever to criticize any one of us for yielding under that kind of pressure and pain. They weren't there. And I don't know what their standard is, where they get their calling from, when we who were there, having gone through it, never judge harshly those who went through the ordeal. 'Cause we know. They don't know.

"John McCain is an authentic hero of this country. He is a helluva patriot. And he's quite a bright guy and he'll make a helluva president."

New Times: "One more question for you, Senator. Do you consider yourself a hero?"

John McCain: "Of course not. Of course not. I have never, ever--I've stoutly maintained that I was privileged to serve in the company of heroes, but never, never have I described myself as having done anything heroic."

John McCain's humility won't stop his presidential campaign from painting a heroic portrait. His staff members have happily pushed their boss's war record for years, with great success. A news database search revealed that in the past year alone, the words "McCain" and "hero" appear in the same story or broadcast 631 times. The words "McCain" and "traitor," only 22 times.

"You know, it's part of his bio," says his chief of staff, Mark Salter. "I'm not going to pretend it hasn't been an enormous advantage to a politician to have a bio like that. And you never have to reference it. It's just there. It's just there. You go to an audience and they know it and it's there. And you know what? So what? . . . He earned the distinction. And if there's an advantage to it, well, what's wrong with it? There should be an advantage to it. Some people have done that for the country. Other people haven't."

To that end, McCain's own memoir of the war is due out in September. Salter, who worked on it himself, says half will be devoted to the military careers of McCain's father and grandfather; the other half to McCain's own war experience.

Salter promises the book will showcase a humble McCain.

"When I worked on this book with him, he just kept saying, 'Other guys had it a lot worse. I think they took it easier on me because of who my dad was. . . . When they tied me in ropes, they'd roll my sleeve up to give it a little padding between the rope and my bicep, you know, little things I noticed. The only really hard time I had was when I didn't go home, and then it only lasted a week, and sometimes I felt braver, I felt I could get away with more.'"

The presidential campaign will certainly have to endure the continued jabs from the likes of Ted Sampley.

How is the McCain campaign handling it?

"Ignoring it," Salter says. "Occasionally, we get calls from reporters who've . . . talked to somebody at the [Ted Sampley's tee shirt] booth and, you know, McCain's the Manchurian Candidate. But we've always been able to make our case and nobody's ever done anything with it."

Mark Saltveit, editor of The Skeleton Closet, a self-described Web scandal sheet that catalogues reported misdeeds of presidential candidates, says he didn't know quite what to do when the POW/MIA activists started sending him anti-McCain e-mails.

Saltveit, a 37-year-old San Franciscan, admits his own non-veteran status made him hesitant to give the claims much credence, but he put up a couple links to the POW/MIA sites, to cover his bases.

The Skeleton Closet references rumors of George W. Bush's drug dalliances and Al Gore's hypocrisy on the tobacco issue, but Saltveit isn't sure he has the stomach for claims John McCain wasn't tortured in Vietnam.

"How more viciously could you attack someone who's been through what he's been through?" he asks.

McCain's POW status has become so ingrained in his political identity that the senator has taken to lampooning it. A featured speaker at the Gridiron Club's annual dinner on March 20 (a night where newsmakers poke fun at themselves), McCain went to the podium with the lapels of his tuxedo covered with medals and introduced himself as an "incredibly self-effacing guy" and a "genuine war hero."

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