September 15, 2008
“THE MOST GUT-WRENCHING DECISION”
How John McCain Became a Hero
JOHN J. MILLER
On October 26, 1967, on his 23rd bombing raid over North Vietnam, John McCain was “killed.”
That’s what naval aviators, in their slang, called getting shot down. For a while, McCain’s family feared he really was dead. His father, an admiral, heard through back channels that two planes had been lost and that there probably weren’t any survivors.
But in the nick of time, McCain had pulled the ejection-seat handle of his A-4 Skyhawk and plummeted into Truc Bach Lake, near the center of Hanoi. The North Vietnamese soon announced that they had captured a man they described as “the fallen air pirate.”
So began McCain’s 65-month ordeal as a prisoner of war. He would endure torture, malnutrition, solitary confinement, and permanent injury. Photos taken around the time of his capture show a guy who looks his 31 years, with perhaps a little premature gray on the top of his head. Pictures taken around the time of his release, in 1973, show someone who appears to have aged much more than five and a half years. McCain had become the “white-haired dude.”
The story didn’t have to play out that way. After eight months in captivity, the North Vietnamese dangled an early-release offer in front of McCain. They understood the propaganda value of granting freedom to the son of an admiral who was soon to command U.S. forces in the Pacific. On August 16, during the candidate forum at Saddleback Church, Rick Warren asked McCain to identify “the most gut-wrenching decision you’ve ever had to make.” McCain replied that it was his choice to refuse the deal: “The high-ranking officer who offered it slammed the door and the interrogator said, ‘Go back to your cell. It’s going to be very tough on you now.’”
McCain went on to suffer terribly, as did hundreds of other POWs. In his 1999 memoir, Faith of My Fathers, the future GOP presidential nominee called the option of early release “powerfully tempting.” What gave him the strength to say no?
When McCain splashed into Truc Bach Lake, he probably would have drowned if the Vietnamese hadn’t pulled him out. During the violent ejection from his Skyhawk, McCain had broken a leg at the knee and both of his arms. He was certainly in no shape to swim. On the shore, a mob kicked him and stabbed him with a bayonet. Then he was sent to prison, where soldiers beat him more. They might have let him die but for a discovery. “Your father is a big admiral,” said one of his captors. “Now we take you to the hospital.” The conditions were filthy and primitive. A guard ate most of his food. A surgeon botched an operation on his leg.
After about six weeks, McCain was transferred to a prison camp. Still ailing, he wore a chest cast and lay in a stretcher. He was put in a cell with Bud Day and Norris Overly, a pair of Air Force officers. “I thought he was going to die,” says Day, a Medal of Honor recipient. “He had lost so much weight that the cast was too big for him — his body rattled around in it like a rock in a can.” McCain credits Day and Overly with saving his life.
Overly, however, had more on his mind than nursing McCain. He was deep in talks with the North Vietnamese about accepting an early release. This would have been a clear violation of the Code of Conduct for American Prisoners of War, which ordered prisoners to refuse special favors. That included accepting a release before that of another American who had been held longer. The North Vietnamese had been holding Everett Alvarez Jr., a Navy pilot, since 1964. He should have been first in line.
For a while, Overly kept Day and McCain in the dark about his negotiations. When he finally told them, Day urged Overly to back out, citing the Code of Conduct. McCain, too, thought Overly was making a mistake, but he was less insistent than Day. “I thought too well of him, and owed him too much to stand between him and his freedom,” wrote McCain in Faith of My Fathers. On February 16, 1968, the North Vietnamese released Overly and two other POWs.
Those who stayed behind fiercely resented the men who broke the Code of Conduct. To this day, NAM-POWs, an organization of former U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam, bans Overly and ten others from its rolls on the grounds that they betrayed their fellow prisoners by leaving out of turn.
In the prison, reports of comings and goings spread through the now-famous tap code, a simple cipher that allowed POWs to communicate covertly. Through a series of taps, the men spelled out words and traded information. They took a special interest in new arrivals. “When we learned a new name, we always told the Vietnamese about it,” says Leo Thorsness, another Medal of Honor recipient. “We figured that if they knew that we knew, the odds of their keeping a new guy alive were better.”
Relaying this information came with a price, however. Because communicating with other prisoners was forbidden, the American who passed the word to the Vietnamese could expect a beating. So they took turns doing it. “I don’t know a better way of creating loyalty — it’s like the cohesion you develop in combat, and a continuation of it,” says Thorsness.
For many prisoners — including McCain, when he was put in solitary confinement following Overly’s release — the tap code was virtually the only form of contact with other Americans. “Communicating not only affirmed our humanity,” wrote McCain. “It kept us alive.”
In the spring of 1968, prior to receiving that early-release offer, McCain sensed correctly that his captors were treating him with leniency. The North Vietnamese viewed McCain as a kind of “crown prince” because of his father’s high rank. They believed that granting him amnesty would demoralize Americans everywhere, including POWs who resisted interrogation.
In June, they brought McCain to a special room with upholstered chairs and a table with tea, cookies, and cigarettes. After about two hours of conversation, the prison’s commander made the offer: “Do you want to go home?”
McCain didn’t refuse immediately. He knew about the code. He knew that the North Vietnamese probably would demand that he make some kind of statement. But he also knew that he was in poor health — he had not recovered from his crash, remained badly underweight, and was plagued with dysentery. Would he even survive if he didn’t receive proper medical treatment from American doctors?
The North Vietnamese officer told McCain to go back to his cell and think it over.
Through the tap code, McCain raised Bob Craner, an Air Force major in the next cell. Craner encouraged McCain to accept the deal, in the belief that the seriously injured weren’t bound by the Code of Conduct. Not everybody held this view. Bud Day, who had been moved to another camp by the time McCain received the offer, thinks that this would have been improper. “You just knew that you didn’t go home when other people were still in prison,” he says.
At the Naval Academy, McCain hadn’t exactly been known for following the rules. He once said that by the end of his second year, he had “marched enough extra duty to take me to Baltimore and back 17 times.” In captivity, however, he had a lot of time to reflect upon his experience at Annapolis. “I regretted the foolishness that had characterized my youth,” he wrote in Faith of My Fathers. “I regretted that I hadn’t worked harder at the Academy, believing that had I done so, I might have been better prepared for the trial” of captivity.
In prison, McCain perhaps realized that he could still fight the system — the North Vietnamese one. He became a loudmouthed cripple, hollering insults at guards who couldn’t understand English. McCain biographer Robert Timberg described it this way: “His antagonism had a macabre looniness to it, like the game but overmatched Black Knight in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Squirming in the dirt, all four limbs lopped off, the Knight shouts after his departing adversary, ‘Oh, oh, I see. Running away, eh. You yellow bastard!’”
A few days after making the early-release offer, the prison-camp commander summoned McCain again. “What is your answer?”
McCain said no. He didn’t want to hand the Communists a propaganda victory. He didn’t want to let down the other prisoners. He didn’t want to embarrass his father. He didn’t want to break the Code of Conduct. Despite his poor health, he believed he could hang on and survive.
The commander was furious. He stood up, knocked over a chair, and sputtered: “They taught you too well, Mac Kane. They taught you too well.”
The worst part of McCain’s captivity was about to begin.