Life as a Vietnam prisoner of war, in the words of John McCain

By Lynn R. Mitchell

John McCain 1

Navy Pilot John McCain was captured after his plane crashed in 1967 and held as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese for 5.5 years. This photo was taken of him after his capture in a Hanoi hospital with a fractured right leg and both arms.

 “For those who have fought for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know.” – Unknown

~~~

“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
– Donald Trump, speaking about Senator John McCain, 7/18/2015

I’m tired of Donald Trump. His 15 minutes of fame are over as far as the 2016 presidential convention, in my opinion, but I feel it’s important to contrast a life of privilege — Trump — with a life of service to country — John McCain, his father, and grandfather.

If you don’t read anything else about the debacle that is Trump bashing Senator John McCain’s service as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War and his five-plus years as a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton with men like Richmond’s Paul Galanti, read this Washington Post article (see What Donald Trump was up to while John McCain was a prisoner of war):

As McCain remained in solitary confinement, tapping messages on the filthy walls to his fellow POWs in Morse code, Trump was out partying at legendary nightclubs. … On March 14, 1973, McCain arrived back in America a physically broken man, but also a hero. That word has yet to be applied to Trump.

As reported in the US News and World Report, “John S. McCain III, 37, is a 1958 graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy and a trained Navy pilot. His father, Adm. John S. McCain, Jr., was commander in chief of all U. S. forces in the Pacific during the Vietnam war. His grandfather also was a four-star admiral, his great-uncle an Army general during World War I. Lieut. Commander McCain is married, with three children. Their permanent home is in Orange Park, Fla. During captivity his weight dropped as low as 100 pounds. He still walks with a limp from his injuries. He plans to stay in the Navy, has been assigned to attend the National War College this August.”

Here are excerpts of what happened during those 5.5 years in captivity, in John McCain’s own words (see John McCain, Prisoner of War: A First Person Account):

The date was Oct. 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 inverted, 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 didn’t realize it at the moment, but I had broken my right leg around the knee, my right arm in three places, and my left arm. I regained consciousness just before I landed by parachute in a lake right in the corner 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.

Some North Vietnamese swam out and pulled me to the side of the lake and immediately started stripping me, which is their standard procedure. Of course, this being in the center of town, a huge crowd of people gathered, and they were all hollering and screaming and cursing and spitting and kicking at me.

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. The mob was really getting up-tight.

About this time, a guy came up and started yelling at the crowd to leave me alone. A woman came over and propped me up and held a cup of tea to my lips, and some photographers took some 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. I was taken into a cell and put on the floor. I was still on the stretcher, dressed only in my skivvies, with a blanket over me.

For the next three or four days, I lapsed from conscious to unconsciousness. During this time, I was taken out to interrogation—which we called a “quiz”—several times. That’s when I was hit with all sorts of war-criminal charges. This started on the first day. I refused to give them anything except my name, rank, serial number and date of birth. They beat me around a little bit. I was in such bad shape that when they hit me it would knock me unconscious. They kept saying, “You will not receive any medical treatment until you talk.”

I didn’t believe this. I thought that if I just held out, that they’d take me to the hospital. I was fed small amounts of food by the guard and also allowed to drink some water. I was able to hold the water down, but I kept vomiting the food.

They wanted military rather than political information at this time. Every time they asked me something, I’d just give my name, rank and serial number and date of birth.

I think it was on the fourth day that two guards came in, instead of one. One of them pulled back the blanket to show the other guard my injury. 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 surprise 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.” An officer came in after a few minutes. It was the man that we came to know very well as “The Bug.” He was a psychotic torturer, one of the worst fiends that we had to deal with. I said, “O.K., I’ll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital.” He left and came back with a doctor, a guy that we called “Zorba,” who was completely incompetent. He squatted down, took my pulse. He did not speak English, but shook his head and jabbered to “The Bug.” I asked, “Are you going to take me to the hospital?” “The Bug” replied, “It’s too late.” I said, “If you take me to the hospital, I’ll get well.”

“Zorba” took my pulse again, and repeated, “It’s too late.” They got up and left, and I lapsed into unconsciousness.

Sometime later, “The Bug” came rushing into the room, shouting, “Your father is a big admiral; now we take you to the hospital.”

I tell the story to make this point: There were hardly any amputees among the prisoners who came back because the North Vietnamese just would not give medical treatment to someone who was badly injured—they weren’t going to waste their time. For one thing, in the transition from the kind of life we lead in America to the filth and dirt and infection, it would be very difficult for a guy to live anyway. In fact, my treatment in the hospital almost killed me.

I woke up a couple of times in the next three or four days. Plasma and blood were being put into me. I became fairly lucid. I was in a room which was not particularly small—about 15 by 15 feet—but it was filthy dirty and at a lower level, so that every time it rained, there’d be about a half inch to an inch of water on the floor. I was not washed once while I was in the hospital. I almost never saw a doctor or a nurse. Doctors came in a couple of times to look at me. They spoke French, not English.

For a guard, I was assigned a 16-year-old kid—right out of the rice fields. His favorite pastime was to sit by my bed and read a book that had a picture in it of an old man with a rifle in his hand sitting on a fuselage of an F-105 which had been shot down. He would point to himself, and slap me and hit me. He had a lot of fun that way. He fed me because both my arms were broken. He would come in with a cup that had noodles and some gristle in it, and fill a spoon and put it in my mouth. The gristle was very hard to chew. I’d get my mouth full after three or four spoonfuls, and I’d be chewing away on it. I couldn’t take any more in my mouth, so he’d just eat the rest himself. I was getting about three or four spoonfuls of food twice a day. It got so that I kind of didn’t give a damn—even though I tried as hard as I could to get enough to eat.

After I had been there about 10 days, a “gook”—which is what we called the North Vietnamese—came in one morning. This man spoke English very well. He asked me how I was, and said, “We have a Frenchman who is here in Hanoi visiting, and would like to take a message back to your family.” Being a little naive at the time—you get smarter as you go along with these people—I figured this wasn’t a bad deal at all, if this guy would come to see me and go back and tell my family that I was alive.

I didn’t know at the time that my name had been released in a rather big propaganda splash by the North Vietnamese, and that they were very happy to have captured me. They told a number of my friends when I was captured, “We have the crown prince,” which was somewhat amusing to me.

After about two weeks, I was given an operation on my leg which was filmed. They never did anything for my broken left arm. It healed by itself. They said I needed two operations on my leg, but because I had a “bad attitude” they wouldn’t give me another one. What kind of job they did on my leg, I do not know. Now that I’m back, an orthopedic surgeon is going to cut in and see. He has already told me that they made the incision wrong and cut all the ligaments on one side.

I was in the hospital about six weeks, then was taken to a camp in Hanoi that we called “The Plantation.” This was in late December, 1967. I was put in a cell with two other men, George Day and Norris Overly, both Air Force majors. I was on a stretcher, my leg was stiff and I was still in a chest cast that I kept for about two months. I was down to about 100 pounds from my normal weight of 155.

I was told later on by Major Day that they didn’t expect me to live a week. I was unable to sit up. I was sleeping about 18 hours, 20 hours a day. They had to do everything for me. They were allowed to get a bucket of water and wash me off occasionally. They fed me and took fine care of me, and I recovered very rapidly.

I remained in solitary confinement from that time on for more than two years. I was not allowed to see or talk to or communicate with any of my fellow prisoners. My room was fairly decent-sized—I’d say it was about 10 by 10. The door was solid. There were no windows. The only ventilation came from two small holes at the top in the ceiling, about 6 inches by 4 inches. The roof was tin and it got hot as hell in there. The room was kind of dim—night and day—but they always kept on a small light bulb, so they could observe me. I was in that place for two years.

In those days—still in 1968—we were allowed to bathe every other day, supposedly. But in this camp they had a water problem and sometimes we’d go for two or three weeks, a month without a bath. I had a real rat for a turnkey who usually would take me out last. The bath was a sort of a stall-like affair that had a concrete tub. After everyone else had bathed, there usually was no water left. So I’d stand there for my allotted five minutes and then he’d take me back to my room.

For toilet facilities, I had a bucket with a lid that didn’t fit. It was emptied daily; they’d have somebody else carry it, because I walked so badly.

“Do you want 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.

But I knew that the Code of Conduct says, “You will not accept parole or amnesty,” and that “you will not accept special favors.” For somebody to go home earlier is a special favor. There’s no other way you can cut it.

I went back to him three nights later. He asked again, “Do you want to go home?” I told him “No.” He wanted to know why, and I told him the reason. I said that Alvarez [first American captured] should go first, then enlisted men and that kind of stuff.

“The Cat” told me that President Lyndon Johnson had ordered me home. He handed me a letter from my wife, in which she had said, “I wished that you had been one of those three who got to come home.” Of course, she had no way to understand the ramifications of this. “The Cat” said that the doctors had told him that I could not live unless I got medical treatment in the United States.

What they wanted, of course, was to send me home at the same time that my father took over as commander in the Pacific. This would have made them look very humane in releasing the injured son of a top U. S. officer. It would also have given them a great lever against my fellow prisoners, because the North Vietnamese were always putting this “class” business on us. They could have said to the others “Look, you poor devils, the son of the man who is running the war has gone home and left you here. No one cares about you ordinary fellows.” I was determined at all times to prevent any exploitation of my father and my family.

“Why are you so disrespectful of 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. Then I was taken to a small room. For punishment they would almost always take you to another room where you didn’t have a mosquito net or a bed or any clothes. For the next four days, I was beaten every two to three hours by different guards. My left arm was broken again and my ribs were cracked.

They wanted a statement saying that I was sorry for the crimes that I had committed against North Vietnamese people and that I was grateful for the treatment that I had received from them. This was the paradox—so many guys were so mistreated to get them to say they were grateful. But this is the Communist way.

I held out for four days. Finally, I reached the lowest point of my 5½ years in North Vietnam. I was at the point of suicide, because I saw that I was reaching the end of my rope.

I said, O.K., I’ll write for them.

They took me up into one of the interrogation rooms, and for the next 12 hours we wrote and rewrote. The North Vietnamese interrogator, who was pretty stupid, wrote the final confession, and I signed it. It was in their language, and spoke about black crimes, and other generalities. It was unacceptable to them. But I felt just terrible about it. I kept saying to myself, “Oh, God, I really didn’t have any choice.” I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.

Then the “gooks” made a very serious mistake, because they let me go back and rest for a couple of weeks. They usually didn’t do that with guys when they had them really busted. I think it concerned them that my arm was broken, and they had messed up my leg. I had been reduced to an animal during this period of beating and torture. My arm was so painful I couldn’t get up off the floor. With the dysentery, it was a very unpleasant time.

Thank God they let me rest for a couple of weeks. Then they called me up again and wanted something else. I don’t remember what it was now—it was some kind of statement. This time I was able to resist. I was able to carry on. They couldn’t “bust” me again.

The North Vietnamese may not have been able to “bust” John McCain again but they never gave up, torturing and beating him over and over and over.

To truly get a sense of what life was like for our prisoners of war, read the entire very long article, all of it a first-person account by McCain, from US News and World Report. It is eye-opening, and be sure to compare it to the Washington Post article that revealed what playboy Donald Trump was doing at the same time. Then decide for yourself if it was honorable of Trump to say of McCain, ““He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

See also:
Richmonder Phyllis Galanti: Quiet POW crusader passes away, leaves legacy
Talking over iced tea with living history … former POW Paul Galanti
Phyllis Galanti will be laid to rest today in Arlington Cemetery
– Honoring Virginia War Heroes

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