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John McCain refused early release as a POW in Vietnam

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John McCain in captivity in Hanoi, Vietnam in 1967.
John
McCain in captivity in Hanoi, Vietnam in 1967.

Anonymous/AP

  • Sen. John McCain, a giant of American politics who died
    on Saturday at 81, was perhaps most profoundly shaped by his
    military service and nearly six years as a prisoner of war
    during the Vietnam War.
  • After nearly a year of imprisonment in Hanoi, McCain
    was offered release. But the POW refused to leave his fellow
    prisoners behind. 
  • McCain’s subsequent torture and false confession, which
    provoked him to attempt suicide twice, earned him special
    respect in the eyes of many Americans. 

Sen. John McCain, a giant of American politics who died
on Saturday at 81
, was perhaps most profoundly shaped by his
military service and nearly six years as a prisoner of war during
the Vietnam War.

And McCain’s survival through years of near-fatal torture and
hardship in a Hanoi prison, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton,”
was made more impressive by his refusal to be repatriated before
all of the American POWs captured before him were released. 

President Donald Trump, whom McCain criticized extensively, has
repeatedly disparaged McCain’s military service, suggesting at a
July 2015 rally that the senator didn’t deserve the title of war
hero. 

“He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who
weren’t captured,” then-candidate
Trump said

But McCain’s military service and suffering has marked him as
something of an anomaly in American political history, and made
him a hero in the eyes of many.

McCain was offered an early release — but he refused it

A graduate of the US Naval Academy, McCain followed both his
father and grandfather, both four-star admirals, into the Navy,
where he served as a bomber pilot in the
Vietnam War. 

On October 26, 1967, then-US Navy Lieutenant Commander McCain’s
Skyhawk dive bomber was shot down over the enemy capital, Hanoi.
Shattering his leg and both arms during his ejection from the
fighter plane, McCain was captured by the North Vietnamese
and spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war.

Less than a year into his imprisonment, McCain’s father
was named commander of US forces in the Pacific and the
North Vietnamese saw an opportunity for leverage by offering the
younger McCain release — what would have been both a propaganda
victory and a way to demoralize other American POWs. 

But McCain refused it, sticking to the POW code of conduct in
which soldiers accept release in the order in which they are
captured. 

“I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break, those
who had arrived before me and those who would come after me,
would be taunted with the story of how an admiral’s son had gone
home early, a lucky beneficiary of America’s class-conscious
society,” McCain later recalled.

The North Vietnamese reacted with fury and escalated McCain’s
torture.

‘Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.’

McCain soon reached what he would later describe as his lowest
point in Vietnam, and after surviving intense beatings and two
suicide attempts, signed a “confession” to war crimes written by
his captors. 

“I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his
breaking point. I had reached mine,”
McCain wrote
 in a first-person account published in US
News & World Report in May 1973. 

For the next two weeks, McCain was allowed to recover from his
debilitating injuries, and he later described that time as the
worst in his life.

“I was ashamed,” he wrote in his 1999 memoir “Faith Of My
Fathers.” “I shook, as if my disgrace were a fever.” 

For the next several years, the high-profile POW was subjected to
a prolonged period of brutal treatment and spent two years in
solitary confinement in a windowless 10-by-10-foot cell. 

McCain’s courage bolstered his political bona fides


McCain is escorted by Lt. Cmdr. Jay Coupe Jr. to the Hanoi airport after McCain was released from captivity in 1973.
McCain
is escorted by Lt. Cmdr. Jay Coupe Jr. to the Hanoi airport after
McCain was released from captivity in 1973.

Horst Faas/AP

In March 1973, two months after the Paris Peace Accords were
signed, McCain and his fellow prisoners were released in the
order in which they were captured. An emaciated 36-year-old with
a head of white hair, McCain returned home to continue his
service in the Navy. 

McCain retired from the Navy in 1981, moved to Arizona, and began
his political career in the Republican party, serving two terms
in the House of Representatives. In 1986, he won a landslide
election to the Senate, where he served for 30 years, during
which time he launched two unsuccessful presidential bids.

McCain’s courage during his brutal captivity bolstered his
political bona fides. As the late writer David Foster Wallace
wrote
in a 2000 profile
of the then-presidential candidate, the
former Navy captain commanded the kind of moral authority and
authentic patriotism that eludes the average politician.

“Try to imagine that moment between getting offered early release
and turning it down,” Wallace wrote of McCain’s decision to
remain in Vietnamese captivity. “Try to imagine it was you.
Imagine how loudly your most basic, primal self-interest would
have cried out to you in that moment, and all the ways you could
rationalize accepting the offer. Can you hear it? If so, would
you have refused to go?” 

McCain, a military hawk, forever remained a staunch supporter of
the Vietnam War, during which 58,000 Americans and nearly 3
million Vietnamese were killed. But he worked closely with John
Kerry, a Democrat and fellow Vietnam veteran who advocated
against the war, to normalize relations between the US and
Vietnam in the 1990s, bringing the devastating conflict to a
final close. 

Amanda Macias contributed to this report. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.

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