John McCain, Hero

Cassy’s piece got me going on the topic.

Many on the Left have been attacking John McCain viciously. Not his Senate record or positions on the major issues so much, as they have been attacking him for his service in Vietnam. Given Barack Obama’s lack of significant accomplishment in anything other than selling books and making speeches, it is hardly surprising that he and his followers would regard McCain’s most distinctive service as a threat to Obama’s ambition. It is also apparent that most Obama supporters have no real idea of what McCain did as a Navy officer that sets him apart from so many of his fellow veterans. I have written before that I disagree with a number of McCain’s political positions, and I dislike the way he has treated fellow Republicans, especially President Bush. None of that, however, diminishes what John McCain accomplished as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

On October 26, 1967, Lieutenant Commander John McCain was shot down during his twenty-third mission in an A-4 Skyhawk bomber over Hanoi. Commander McCain was on that mission as part of his long service to the United States; he graduated from the US Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1958, and remained on active duty despite having his plane literally shot out from under him in an accidental missile discharge from another plane on the deck of the USS Forrestal earlier that year.

The destruction of his jet caused McCain serious injuries. He broke bones in both arms, one leg, and landed in a lake. Once he reached shore, the already injured McCain was attacked and beaten by North Vietnamese soldiers, one using a rifle butt to dislocate hs shoulder while another bayonetted him. He was denied medical treatment for four days, during which time he was beaten and interrogated using real torture methods, not the stuff liberals like to call ‘torture’ now. McCain refused to give information beyond his name, rank, and serial number. It was only when the North Vietnamese realized that McCain’s father was a senior Admiral that he received medical treatment, and it was not much even there. No anesthesia or antibiotics were used, and the bones were not even set for another half-week.

Up to this point, John McCain’s story is that of an honorable man who suffered from conditions of war and cruel abuse. What follows is where we see his heroism.

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The North Vietnamese understood that Commander McCain’s father was Admiral McCain, and from the beginning tried to use this for propaganda purposes. While men like John Kerry played the system in order to go home early from the war, Commander McCain repeatedly refused special treatment and offers to be set free ahead of men he knew had been longer in captivity. He also refused attempts by the North Vietnamese to use him in propaganda films, and for this was designated for “special treatment”, a regimen of regular torture and deprivation that killed most men who suffered it. In the first six weeks of his imprisonment, McCain lost 50 pounds and temporarily the use of his arms and legs; when he was finally allowed to share a cell with two other officers, his condition was so grave that they did not expect him to survive for more than a week. His fellow officers nursed McCain to somewhat better health, and for this were assigned to different quarters. McCain again refused to cooperate with the North Vietnamese and he was locked in a muddy room with no windows, a tin roof and only two holes drilled in to keep him from suffocating, and McCain was kept there for two years.

Unknown to the Communists, McCain had already started his work from the inside. He had memorized the names of all 335 men he knew to be prisoners in North Vietnam, and when Major Norris Overly, USAF, was released he carried McCain’s information with him. Even in prison, John McCain continued to serve his country.

In mid-1968, the North Vietnamese decided that if they released McCain, it would not only show them as merciful but suggest that American ‘elites’ expected to be treated better than ordinary soldiers. But Commander McCain consistently refused to play along, refusing to be released unless every man who had served as long as him was also released, and refusing on all occasions to say a single bad thing about the United States or the war effort. Despite his solitary confinement, McCain used a tap code to make contact with Ernie Brace, a civilian pilot shot down over Laos. Brace had been badly abused by the Communists and was in bad shape emotionally. McCain worked to restore Brace’s spirit and confidence, and in so doing bolstered his own.

In June of 1968, the Communists again tried to talk McCain into accepting special treatment, and in return McCain said he’d be glad to go – after all the men he knew had been waiting longer. They tried again in July, after Mccain’s father became CINCPAC. McCain again refused, for which he was beaten, his ribs cracked and one of his arms rebroken, and after which he was left bound between beating sessions for another four days. To shame him, the Communists left McCain naked and unfed.

McCain knew what could happen in the prisons, like Dick Stratton’s being burned with cigarettes and his fingernails pulled. He knew men who had been beaten to death, like Ed Atterberry. Punishment in a Communist prison was brutal and swift, yet even so McCain continued to resist his captors, tapping out communication and encouragement to other prisoners, as a true officer leads his men. Commander McCain was beaten for refusing to lie about conditions in the prison, for resisting the Communists’ propaganda programs, for communicating with other prisoners, and often for no reason other than he was a man they could not defeat, could never own. McCain refused to meet with antiwar delegations, refused to cooperate with nations like France who supported the Communists, and always – always – refused to accept anything that was not provided for all his fellow prisoners. McCain was tortured for holding church services, for praying, for singing the National Anthem, for refusing to admit “war crimes”, and for cheering when Nixon ordered the bombing of Hanoi. McCain was no Superman, he felt every burn and cut and bruise and scrape of bone and tearing of ligament. Yet over and over and over again, he chose to accept torture rather than put himself ahead of his fellow prisoners, or his country.

On March 14, 1973, John McCain was finally released by North Vietnam, as one of the final prisoners to return home. He faced months of surgery and physical therapy to rebuild his body, but his spirit was unbroken and his mission fulflled. Whatever one thinks of John McCain’s politics, he was and is a hero, and anyone who cannot admit that is a poor shell of a human being, too dismal to count as a true person, let alone an American.

Sources: Wikipedia, “John McCain: An American Odyssey” by Robert Timburg, US News & World Report (May 14 1973 issue)

Better dead than red
Today's lesson in Irony II