Ex-POW John McCain tells the story of his captivity in Vietnam (1973)

John McCain after being released in 1973

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John McCain giving an interview to the press on April 24, 1973

Ex-POW Johnny McCain tells story of captivity (1973)

From the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (Honolulu, Hawaii) – April 10, 1973 / By Jeremiah O’Leary

WASHINGTON – “I think of you often in your birthday suit. Don’t let it get wrinkled,” POW Johnny McCain wrote his wife, Carole, from his prison cell in Hanoi.

This was his way of outwitting his North Vietnamese guards in one of the letters he was allowed to write each month during his more than five years of imprisonment. It was a fervent love letter disguised as birthday greetings, and slipping such forbidden messages into his letters was one of the few pleasures Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III, ever knew while in captivity.

He also managed to advise his wife on how he thought she ought to vote last November, and he said the guards never caught on.

“I wrote her that I wanted her to have a Grand Old Party in November, and I made capital letters of G, O and P,” McCain said in an interview. “She got the point.”

McCain medical exam 1973

McCAIN, WHO spent much of his youth living with his family on Capitol Hill and as a boarding student at the Alexandria (Va.) Episcopal High School, was freed with the last group of U.S. prisoners last month. He is on a 90-day leave in Orange Park, Fla. with his wife and three children, Doug, 13, Andy, 10 and their daughter, Sidney, who was a babe in arms when he was shot down in 1967,

McCain also faces considerable orthopedic surgery because he broke his right arm in three places, left arm in one and also fractured a leg when be ejected from his burning jet on Oct. 26, 1967.

His father, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., became commander of the Pacific Fleet and all U.S. forces in the Far East while he was a prisoner.

MORE: The Vietnam War, as seen on Newsweek covers (1964-1973)

“They thought that as an admiral’s son, I ought to know everything there was to know,” McCain said of his captors. It never did him much good to tell the interrogators that he was only a squadron pilot from the carrier Oriskany, living from day to day like any other flier.

March 14 1973 - John McCain - Hanoi

ON McCAIN’S last mission, a strike against the Hanoi thermal power plant, he was going in over the North Vietnamese capital at an altitude of 10,000 feet, “not too high for the SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) but low enough to pinpoint the target.

“I went into a dive in my A4, and I had just pickled (dropped) my two 1000-pound bombs when something hit my right wing. I was going at 500 knots, inverted, and my plane was a spinning fireball. At 4,000 feet, I ejected.”

McCain said it was the ejection at high speed that broke his arms and leg.

“It was like running top speed into a wall. The gravity and atmospheric resistance ripped off my hard hat. Thank God the chute opened and I saw that I was dropping toward one of the only two lakes in that part of the country, the western lake in the center of Hanoi.

“I ALMOST drowned, but landing in the water saved my life. The trouble was, with both my arms broken, I couldn’t pull the toggle to inflate my life preserver. I finally did it with my teeth after going down to the bottom of the lake twice.”

He said that after about five minutes, a group of North Vietnamese pulled him ashore.

“They dragged me to the bank and a huge crowd gathered. They took off all my clothes except my underwear. The people were kicking, biting and cursing at me. A woman put a cup of tea to my lips, but that was only for a picture.

“While I was still there on the shore, one soldier jabbed his bayonet into my bare left foot, and another one slammed me in the shoulder with his rifle butt and broke my shoulder.

March 17 1973 - John McCain - Honolulu

“BY THAT TIME, I was going into shock. I spent four days in a prison cell without medical treatment. A guard fed me, but I vomited everything, even the water. I held out for four days on resisting their questions. I gave them only name, rank and serial number. They said I’d get no treatment unless I answered questions.”

McCain said he realized he was dying when he saw that one of his knees was swollen like a football and a North Vietnamese doctor kept saying, “Too late. Too late.”

“Take me to a hospital,” McCain said he told them. “I’ll make it.”

Finally, McCain said he told them the number of his squadron, the name of his ship and a few innocuous details. He said he decided he could get away with some lies and he did. But he said he couldn’t have answered the dominant questions about the next targets under any torture because he didn’t know.

John McCain after being released in 1973

ABOUT THAT time, the North Vietnamese told him they had found out his father was a “big admiral” and he got medical care. He was put in the plantation camp with Col. George Day and Col. Norris Overly, to take care of him in his slow convalescence.

McCain was put into solitary confinement in February 1968 for refusing to meet “foreign visitors” or to accept freedom offered him because of his father’s position. That lasted until Christmas 1969, and McCain said he was subjected to almost daily beating, sometimes three and four a day.

March 12 1973 - John McCain - 3 generations

John McCain: POW comes home to father who led bombing of Hanoi

From The Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia) – Wednesday, March 13, 1973

SAIGON (AP) – A Navy pilot out of the Hanoi Hilton this week is the son and namesake of the admiral who directed some of the heaviest bombing raids over North Vietnam.

Lt. Cmdr. John S. McCain III, 36, was shot down in his Skyhawk jet by a SAM missile over North Vietnam on Oct. 26, 1967, eight months before his father, Adm. John S. McCain Jr., took over in Honolulu as commander of US forces in the Pacific.

His grandfather, Vice Adm. John Sidney McCain, was a top carrier commander in World War II, who died of a heart attack four days after witnessing the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri.

The third-generation carrier sailor parachuted into Truc Ban Lake northwest of Hanoi while his stricken jet plunged into a factory compound. He was captured by women and teenagers of “the people’s security service.”

McCain captured by Vietnamese 1967
McCain captured by Vietnamese in 1967

His captors, who waded into the lake after him, had his leg wounds treated by a nurse before leading him off to prison.

Young John McCain previously had narrowly escaped death in the inferno of fire and explosions that swept the flight deck of the carrier Forrestal on July 29, 1967, as he was about to be catapulted off for a raid against North Vietnam. The blasts set off by faulty rockets, killed 132 of his shipmates. But McCain leaped from his smoking plane and scrambled to safety below decks.

“After seeing all that burning napalm,” the admiral’s son later told newsmen, “and the carnage that those bombs left on the deck, I am not sure that I want to drop any more of that stuff on North Vietnam.” Apparently, duty and family heritage overcame his doubts; within three months he was ejecting from his A4 Skyhawk and parachuting into Truc Ban Lake.

John McCain in military uniform late 1950s

The complete bombing halt of the North ordered by the late President Lyndon B. Johnson was in effect when Adm. McCain took over as boss in the Pacific. So for almost two years, he never had to make a decision that might affect the safety of his son. John S. McCain III wasn’t even known to be alive until his name turned up among 59 prisoners listed for an antiwar group visiting Hanoi in November 1969.

MORE: Vietnam War map: Corps to corps (1968)

Throughout his tour in Honolulu, the admiral refused to discuss his son’s capture publicly. His silence was most noticeable on Thanksgiving Day, 1970, when Joe McCain, another son who had served on the Enterprise off Vietnam, ate pig fat, mashed pumpkin and dried rice in a bamboo cage in Los Angeles’ Pershing Square, with the relatives of 100 other captured pilots.

The demonstration ended with a message Joe knew would never reach his brother: “Keep the faith, John. We’ll not rest until you get out. After years of silence, we’re going to the American people, and not quit until every man is home.”

McCain and NIxon - 1973

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. Although this kind of treatment was given daily to African-American’s in the USA at that time, this still brings me to tears. How anyone could survive that is astounding.

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