By Elizabeth M. Collins
Defense Media Activity
Senator and retired Capt. John S. McCain III, former prisoner of war, passed away Aug. 25, 2018, at the age of 81. McCain had been battling an aggressive type of brain tumor known as a glioblastoma since at least the summer of 2017.
Born in the Panama Canal Zone, Aug. 29, 1936, the son and grandson of men who would become four-star admirals, McCain’s future seemed preordained. He resisted it, “from time to time,” he said in an oral history for the Veterans History Project, “but I was pretty sure that’s what was going to happen.”
He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958 – fifth from the bottom of his class – and headed for flight school, according to a Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) biography.
“I thought it was the most glamorous and exciting life anyone could choose,” he said of his decision to become a pilot. “And my grandfather had been a Navy aviator.”
As a new pilot, McCain was guilty of self-confessed “daredevil clowning.” He had several misses and near misses, and once knocked out power lines in Spain. A “small international incident” resulted, according to his memoir, “Faith of my Fathers.”
But when war came, he was ready. McCain deployed to Vietnam in 1967 as an A-4 Skyhawk pilot with VA-46. There, in addition to his bombing runs, McCain was witness to one of the Navy’s most devastating fires, which occurred aboard USS Forrestal (CVA 59), July 29, 1967, when a rocket misfired, then hit a fuel tank. This set off a chain of explosions that eventually resulted in the loss of 134 lives.
Then-Lt. Cmdr. McCain’s plane was next to the initial explosion: “In a very short period of time, there was a huge conflagration. … I shut down the engine on my airplane, felt the shock, saw the fire, jumped out by going down the refueling probe … and rolled through the fire and went across the other side of the flight deck,” he recalled. “I saw the pilot in the plane next to mine jump out of his airplane, only he didn’t jump as far and when he rolled out, he was on fire. I started toward him and just as I did, the first bomb blew off and knocked me back.”
Reluctant to cut his tour short, McCain volunteered to transfer to USS Oriskany (CV 34), which he said had the highest losses of any air wing in Vietnam. That October, he “pleaded with the squadron operations officer to put him on the roster for a large Alpha strike scheduled the next day. Four Navy squadrons participated in the raid [on a thermal power plant]. It was McCain’s 23 mission and his first attack on Hanoi,” according to NHHC.
McCain and his fellow pilots took off Oct. 26, 1967, and were picked up by North Vietnamese radar almost immediately. McCain soon had an SA-2 Guideline missile “the size of a telephone pole” on his tail.
As he released his own bomb, the missile “blew the right wing off my Skyhawk dive bomber,” he told U.S. News & World Report in 1973. “It went into an inverted, almost straight-down spin.”
McCain bailed out upside down at a high speed. The force of the ejection broke his right leg, both arms, tore his helmet off and knocked him unconscious. He landed in a lake.
“I hit the water and sank to the bottom,” McCain wrote in his U.S. News account. “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. … I reached down with my mouth … and inflated the preserver and finally floated to the top.”
A mob of angry civilians attacked McCain, stripping and beating him. He was quickly transported to Hỏa Lò Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton. His captors refused to take him to a hospital unless he divulged military secrets. McCain declined, so his injuries went untreated for days. It wasn’t until the North Vietnamese realized his father was Adm. John S. McCain Jr., soon to be commander of U.S. Forces in the Pacific, that they relented. The hospital was primitive, filthy and prone to flooding, and McCain received only the most rudimentary of care. Doctors spent hours attempting to set his bones without giving him painkillers, for example. He eventually underwent a botched operation on his leg as well.
For the next five and a half years, McCain, who frequently suffered from dysentery, would be starved, beaten, tortured and put in solitary confinement where he spent two of his five and a half years in captivity.
“As far as this business of solitary confinement goes,” he recalled, “the most important thing for survival is communication with someone, even if it’s only a wave or a wink, a tap on the wall, or to have a guy put his thumb up. It makes all the difference.”
“It’s vital to keep your mind occupied, and we all worked on that. Some guys were interested in mathematics, so they worked out complex formulas in their heads. … Others would build a whole house, from basement on up. I have more of a philosophical bent. I had read a lot of history. I spent days on end going back over those history books in my mind. … I thought a lot about the meaning of life. It was easy to lapse into fantasies. I used to write books and plays in my mind,” he continued, later adding that humor was essential to survival as well.
His captors, hoping to capitalize on the propaganda value of releasing the son of Adm. McCain, offered him the chance to go home early. His senior ranking officer recommended that he accept the offer because his injuries qualified McCain for early release.
“McCain refused because he worried about the propaganda value that North Vietnam might derive from the release,” said NHHC historian John Sherwood, Ph.D.
His refusal infuriated his jailor, who said, “Now, McCain, it will be very bad for you.”
Finally, brutalized by four days of near constant torture, McCain reached the end of his rope. He signed a confession “about black crimes and other generalities. … I felt just terrible about it. … I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.”
Horrified by what he had done, McCain was able to find new inner strength and continue resisting.
“When the pressure was on, you seemed to go one way or the other. Either it was easier for them to break you the next time, or it was harder. In other words, if you are going to make it, you get tougher as time goes by. … You get to hate them so bad that it gives you strength.”
That strength sustained him, and conditions gradually improved as the war dragged on. He was finally released in 1973 after the U.S. and North Vietnam signed peace agreements.
“To him, it’s as if that time is a chapter of a book that has already been read, the pages turned, and now it is just another lesson imparted by life,” McCain’s son, Lt. John “Jack” McCain IV wrote in “The Sextant,” NHHC’s blog, in 2017. “He does not talk about it unless asked – not out of unwillingness, but rather a lack of fixation. He holds no malice about his captivity or even his torture. … It was the separation from his country … which truly brought him to understand the United States, and to love it with a ferocity that I have never experienced elsewhere.”
McCain spent almost five months receiving medical treatment. He then attended the Naval War College, commanded VA-174 and served in the Navy’s Office of Legislative Liaison in the Senate.
According to NHHC, he knew his injuries meant his chances of promotion to admiral were slim. He decided he could better serve his country in politics, and retired from the Navy as a captain in 1981, with numerous awards and decorations. They included the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with “V” device and two gold stars, the Legion of Merit with a “V” and gold star, the Purple Heart with star, a Distinguished Flying Cross, the Prisoner of War Medal and a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a “V” and a star.
McCain was first elected to the House of Representatives for the state of Arizona in 1982, and to the Senate in 1986. He won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 2008, but lost the election to Barack Obama. He remained in the Senate and eventually became the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a position he held until his death.
McCain, who once described himself as “very fortunate” and the “luckiest person,” is survived by his second wife, Cindy, and seven children, including two naval officers and a Marine.
“Since my father’s diagnosis of glioblastoma, there has been a reflex to speak in terms of legacies,” Jack McCain, wrote. “Legacies are important, remembering is important, but it is not forgetting the human that matters most. No one is born great. Instead, it is the assimilation of all of our experiences, and what we choose to do with those experiences that has the capacity to make us great.”