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What John McCain Went Through as a POW
Trump’s comment at the Family Leadership Council summit in Iowa on Saturday — “I like people who weren’t captured” —
sparked a swift rebuke, including from McCain himself, who broke his silence on Monday
calling on Trump to apologize to military families, especially those of POWs.
Here’s a look at what McCain endured during his time in captivity, which began in October 1967
according to an interview with U.S. News shortly after his release.
THE MOMENT OF CAPTURE
McCain’s bomber was hit by a surface-to-air missile on Oct. 26, 1967, destroying the aircraft’s right wing.
According to McCain, the plane entered an “inverted, almost straight-down spin,” and he ejected.
But the sheer force of the ejection broke his right leg and both arms, knocking him unconscious, the report said.
McCain came to as he landed in a lake, but burdened by heavy equipment, he sank straight to the bottom.
Able to kick to the surface momentarily for air, he somehow managed to activate his life preserver with his teeth.
As his captors tore at his clothes in the wake of the crash, McCain recalls realizing the extent of his injuries.
When he noticed the injuries to his right leg –- which he says had fractured at the knee –-
one of his captors slammed a rifle butt into his right shoulder, shattering it, the account said.
He was then bayoneted in the abdomen and foot.
Over the next few days, he “lapsed from conscious to unconsciousness” while the North Vietnamese interrogated him, he said.
“I refused to give them anything except my name, rank, serial number and date of birth,” McCain said in the U.S. News report.
“I was in such a bad shape that when they hit me it would knock me unconscious,” he said.
Though initially refusing to give McCain medical treatment, the North Vietnamese, upon discovering that McCain’s father was an admiral in the Navy
decided to give him medical care, according to U.S. News. As word got around of McCain’s imprisonment
and his father’s high military rank several high ranking North Vietnamese officers came to the prison to observe McCain.
Vietnamese surgeons operated on McCain’s broken leg, damaging several ligaments in the process.
To this day, there is a noticeable limp in McCain’s step.
After receiving less than adequate treatment, McCain says he was moved to a prison camp known as “The Plantation”
and locked in a cell with George “Bud” Day and Norris Overly, two Air Force majors.
Day, who survived the ordeal, said of McCain: “He was in this great big white case, and his hair was snow white.
He just looked like he was absolutely on the verge of death,” the report quoted him as saying.
SOLITARY CONFINEMENT AND TORTURE
When he was moved into solitary confinement in March 1968 and when his father was named commander-in-chief of all US Pacific forces several months later
McCain’s troubles were just beginning. The North Vietnamese hoped to score a propaganda victory by offering McCain an early release.
McCain has said he refused the offer on the condition that he would only accept if every man captured before him was released as well.
When McCain was brought to the senior North Vietnamese officer -– a man he refers to as “The Cat” –-
he refused the offer of an early release yet again.
McCain says his torture began in August of 1968. “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,” he said according to U.S. News.
The North Vietnamese wanted a confession for crimes committed against the North Vietnamese people.
After holding out for four days, McCain, at the point of suicide, agreed to write a confession.
Looking back on his decision, McCain reflected “I felt just terrible about it… Every man has his breaking point.
I had reached mine,” he said, according to the report.
Though he made a recovery, many of McCain’s injuries have remained with him
– the combination of a hazardous ejection from his jet, torture and inadequate medical treatment have left him incapable of raising either arm above his shoulders.
Revisiting Hanoi, where John McCain was shot down and held as a POW
Sen. John McCain, who died Saturday at the age of 81, was tortured and held captive for five and a half years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, an experience that shaped the rest of his life. In Hanoi, McCain is etched in the city’s history, with a memorial at the lake where his plane crashed and at the prison — now a museum — where he was held captive.
McCain’s plane was shot down during a bombing run over North Vietnam in 1967, and he parachuted into a lake in what is now a busy part of Hanoi. Already badly injured, he was beaten and taken to a nearby prison called Hoa Lò, which the U.S. POWs nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. He was refused medical treatment and beaten with a bayonet.
Hanoi residents held a memorial at the lake on Sunday, leaving flowers to remember the man who “fought for peace in many countries, including Vietnam,” as one onlooker told The Associated Press.
While holding him as a prisoner of war, the North Vietnamese tried to exploit the fact that his father was a prominent admiral at the time. They offered McCain an early release. But he refused, adhering to the military code of “first in, first out.”
McCain was finally freed after five and a half years, two of which he spent in solitary confinement. He limped off the plane that returned him to the U.S. gripping a handrail and with hair that had turned white, according to a New York Times report from 1973 on his release. The injuries he sustained would affect his mobility for the rest of his life.
In June, Jared Dillingham of CBS Phoenix affiliate KPHO-TV visited the section Truc Bach Lake where McCain crashed and what remains of the prison complex, which is now a museum mainly focused on Vietnam under French colonial rule.
McCain’s flight suit and parachute are on display, damaged but still in tact. They’re encased in a room full of Vietnamese propaganda, including videos about the “kind treatment” of the POWs, and photos of American prisoners playing sports, Dillingham said. Dillingham noted the museum whitewashes over the torture at the prison.
Many of the prison cells were preserved and are still standing, although it’s unclear if the cell where McCain was held is still among them.
At Truc Bach Lake, which is situated in the middle of modern-day Hanoi, there is a memorial that bears McCain’s name. He told C-SPAN in 1992 he “never understood” why the monument is there. “Why they erected it and the significance it has to them, I have never quite figured out,” he laughed.
McCain returned to Vietnam a number of times, and has even visited the Hanoi Hilton. He told C-SPAN it isn’t difficult for him to go back.
“There is no reason for me to hold a grudge or anger,” McCain said. “There’s certainly some individual guards who were very cruel and inflicted a lot of pain on me and others but there’s certainly no sense in me hating the Vietnamese … I hold no ill will toward them.”
McCain’s experience as POW shaped lifelong opposition to torture
The torture McCain endured at the hands of his captors produced lifelong physical effects, including the inability to raise his arms above his head and a slight limp.
His experience also notably shaped his opposition to the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” while in Congress.
In a statement, McCain said he believed Haspel was a “patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense.”
“However,” McCain continued, “Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying.”
Haspel was ultimately confirmed as CIA director on May 17. McCain, still undergoing treatment for brain cancer as his home in Arizona, was not present for the Senate’s vote.
Understanding how McCain suffered as a POW provides a direct lens as to how he became such a strong advocate against the use of torture. Details of that account were taken from an interview he gave with U.S. News shortly after his release from captivity, as well as Robert Tinberg’s book, The Nightingale’s Song, which recounts the Vietnam experiences of five U.S. Naval Academy graduates including McCain.
Becoming a POW: “Dying was not his plan”
On Oct. 26, 1967, McCain was part of a 20-plane mission to bomb a power plant in Vietnam’s northern city of Hanoi. But in the midst of the mission, a surface-to-air missile struck his A-4 Skyhawk aircraft, taking off the plane’s right wing and forcing him to eject.
The sheer force of the ejection broke his right leg and both arms, briefly knocking him unconscious before he landed in a small lake. Burdened with heavy equipment, he sank to the bottom and had to kick to the surface for gulps of air.
Eventually, McCain used his teeth to activate his life preserver. But once on the surface, he was pulled ashore by a group of North Vietnamese who proceeded to attack him, tearing at his clothes and slamming a rifle butt into his right shoulder, shattering it. The group also bayoneted McCain in the abdomen and foot.