John McCain, Prisoner of War: A First-Person Account

John McCain spent over 5 years in captivity as a POW in North Vietnam, and wrote about it in May 1973.

John McCain lies in a hospital bed in Hanoi, North Vietnam, after being taken prisoner of war.

John McCain lies in a hospital bed in Hanoi, North Vietnam, after being taken prisoner of war.

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John McCain spent 5½ years in captivity as a POW in North Vietnam. His first-person account of that harrowing ordeal was published in U.S. News in May 1973. Shot down in his Skyhawk dive bomber on Oct. 26, 1967, Navy flier McCain was taken prisoner with fractures in his right leg and both arms. He received minimal care and was kept in wretched conditions that he describes vividly in the U.S. News special report:

This story originally appeared in the May 14, 1973, issue of U.S.News & World Report. It was posted online on January 28, 2008.

Of the many personal accounts coming to light about the almost unbelievably cruel treatment accorded American prisoners of war in Vietnam, none is more dramatic than that of Lieut. Commander John S. McCain III—Navy flier, son of the admiral who commanded the war in the Pacific, and a prisoner who came in "for special attention" during 5½ years of captivity in North Vietnam.

Now that all acknowledged prisoners are back and a self-imposed seal of silence is off, Commander McCain is free to answer the questions many Americans have asked:

What was it really like? How prolonged were the tortures and brutality? How did the captured U.S. airmen bear up under the mistreatment—and years spent in solitary? How did they preserve their sanity? Did visiting "peace groups" really add to their troubles? How can this country's military men be conditioned to face such treatment in the future without crumbling?

Here, in his own words, based on almost total recall, is Commander McCain's narrative of 5½ years in the hands of the North Vietnamese.

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.

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.