McCain es­caped death in war, sur­vived bru­tal­ity

‘Been through worse,’ he says about cancer

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NEWS - MICHAEL E. RUANE

WASH­ING­TON — Sen. John McCain, the Ari­zona Repub­li­can who has been di­ag­nosed with a deadly form of brain cancer, told his best friend in the Se­nate: “I’ve been through worse.”

Much worse. Fifty years ago, the for­mer pres­i­den­tial can­di­date faced down death re­peat­edly as a Navy fighter pi­lot dur­ing the Viet­nam War.

On July 29, 1967, he was sit­ting in his jet on the deck of the air­craft car­rier USS For­re­stal when a rocket from an­other air­craft ac­ci­den­tally fired, struck a nearby plane, and ig­nited a fire that threat­ened to en­gulf McCain’s. He scram­bled out of the cock­pit to safety, sec­onds be­fore the fire set off bombs that had fallen off an­other plane.

A chain re­ac­tion of ex­plo­sions fol­lowed. McCain saw a fel­low pi­lot whose clothes were on fire. “I ran to­ward him,” he told The New York Times the next day. “He was 50 feet in front of me. I got closer and then the first bomb ex­ploded. I was knocked back about 10 feet. I never saw him again.”

Three months later, on Oct. 26, 1967, McCain was fly­ing a mis­sion over Hanoi when an anti-air­craft mis­sile blew the right wing off his jet, and he had to eject. Both arms and a leg were bro­ken. He landed in a lake and was beaten and bay­o­neted by those who cap­tured him.

He was taken to the no­to­ri­ous Hanoi Hil­ton prison, where he was fur­ther bru­tal­ized, re­peat­edly tor­tured and kept in soli­tary con­fine­ment for two years. The or­deal would break his body and mind, drive him to at­tempt sui­cide and make him a na­tional hero.

McCain’s cap­ture gen­er­ated news across the United States. His pic­ture ran on the front page of The Wash­ing­ton Post, with the head­line “Held in Hanoi.” He was filmed in an en­emy hos­pi­tal, and a copy of the footage was shown to his an­guished par­ents. His fa­ther, McCain said in a 2007 in­ter­view with the Post, “got down ev­ery night and prayed.”

A few months into McCain’s im­pris­on­ment, his fa­ther, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., was named the Pen­tagon’s com­man­der in chief for the Pa­cific, a job that es­sen­tially put him in charge of run­ning the Viet­nam War. His fa­ther in­sisted that his change-of­com­mand cer­e­mony be held aboard the USS Oriskany, the car­rier from which his son had flown.

Through­out McCain’s im­pris­on­ment, his fa­ther never wrote him a let­ter, know­ing that the en­emy would use it for pro­pa­ganda. But ev­ery Christ­mas, the el­der McCain would fly to Viet­nam and visit Marines near the demil­i­ta­rized zone that then sep­a­rated North and South Viet­nam. At some point, the ad­mi­ral would walk off by him­self and look out to the north over the fron­tier, as if search­ing for his son.

Early in McCain’s cap­tiv­ity, the North Viet­namese, well aware of who their prisoner was, of­fered to re­lease him. He re­fused, sens­ing it would shame his fa­ther and de­mor­al­ize his com­rades.

In 1972, the ad­mi­ral was called on to im­ple­ment B-52 bombing raids on Hanoi, where he knew his son was be­ing held. “B-52s in those days were not ex­actly to­tally pre­ci­sion bombing,” McCain said. “There was never a doubt in his mind what he would do. But still, you know your kid’s there, and you’re or­der­ing the bombing of the area.”

McCain and his fel­low POWs re­joiced at the bomb­ings. “Thank you!” the Amer­i­cans shouted as the ground shook and their guards scram­bled for cover.

By then, their or­deal was al­most over.

Peace ac­cords end­ing the war were signed in Jan­uary 1973, and McCain was re­leased in March. His fa­ther, who had al­ready re­tired and was in fail­ing health, was in­vited to the wel­come-home cer­e­mony in the Philip­pines. He asked whether the par­ents of other POWs were in­vited. Told they were not, he de­clined.

Fa­ther and son were re­united a few weeks later in Jack­sonville, Fla. “It was a very touch­ing re­union,” McCain said, be­tween the war-weary, old-school ad­mi­ral and the son he might have killed.

On May 26, 1993, McCain spoke to the Naval Academy’s grad­u­at­ing class. He had just been elected to a sec­ond term in the Se­nate. Friends from around the coun­try were there to hear his speech at the Navy-Ma­rine Corps Me­mo­rial Sta­dium in An­napo­lis, Md.

It was a warm, breezy day and a tri­umphant mo­ment.

“For much of my life,” McCain told the crowd, “the Navy was the only world I knew. It is still the world I know best and love most.

“Here we learned to dread dis­honor above all other temp­ta­tions,” he said. He reviewed the achieve­ments of past Navy he­roes, pi­lots and gunners and sub­mariners, and then spoke of his own or­deal.

“I have watched men suf­fer the an­guish of im­pris­on­ment, defy ap­palling hu­man cru­elty … break for a mo­ment, then re­cover inhuman strength to defy their en­e­mies once more. All these things and more, I have seen,” he said. “And so will you. My time is slip­ping by. Yours is fast ap­proach­ing. You will know where your duty lies. You will know.”

Photo cour­tesy Li­brary of Congress

North Viet­namese civil­ians cap­ture John McCain (cen­ter) in Truc Bach Lake near Hanoi af­ter his fighter jet was shot down Oct. 26, 1967. McCain broke both arms and a leg, then was bay­o­neted and beaten.

AP file photo

Prisoner of war John McCain lies in a hos­pi­tal af­ter his cap­ture in 1967. A few months into McCain’s im­pris­on­ment, his fa­ther, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., be­came com­man­der of the U.S. war ef­fort in Viet­nam.

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