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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On Sunday we got what we called sweet bean soup. They would take some small beans and throw them in a pot with a lot of sugar and cook it up, with no meat whatsoever. A lot of us became thin and emaciated.

I had the singular misfortune to get caught communicating four times in the month of May of 1969. They had a punishment room right across the courtyard from my cell, and I ended up spending a lot of time over there.

It was also in May, 1969, that they wanted me to write—as I remember—a letter to U. S. pilots who were flying over North Vietnam asking them not to do it. I was being forced to stand up continuously—sometimes they'd make you stand up or sit on a stool for a long period of time. I'd stood up for a couple of days, with a respite only because one of the guards—the only real human being that I ever met over there —let me lie down for a couple of hours while he was on watch the middle of one night.

One of the strategies we worked out was not to let them make you break yourself. If you get tired of standing, just sit down—make them force you up. So I sat down, and this little guard who was a particularly hateful man came in and jumped up and down on my knee. After this I had to go back on a crutch for the next year and a half.

That was a long, difficult summer. Then suddenly, in October, 1969, there were drastic changes around the camp. The torture stopped. "The Soft-Soap Fairy" came to my room one day and told me that I would get a roommate. The food improved greatly and we started getting extra rations. The guards seemed almost friendly. For example, I had a turnkey who used to just bash me around for drill. The door would open— and he'd come in and start slugging me. They stopped that kind of thing. I attribute all this directly to the propaganda effort that was directed by the Administration and the people in the United States in 1969.

My younger brother, Joe, was very active in the National League of Families of American Prisoners of War and Missing in Action in Southeast Asia. That was the umbrella for all the POW family groups. So he has filled me in on why the North Vietnamese attitude toward the American prisoners changed, and given me this information:

As the bombing of the North picked up in 1965, 1966, Hanoi made its first propaganda display by parading beaten, subjugated American pilots through the streets. To their surprise, the press reaction around the world was generally negative.

Next, the North Vietnamese tried the tactic of forcing Cdr. Dick Stratton to appear and apologize for war crimes. But he had obviously been mistreated, and was doing this only under extreme duress. That backfired, too. They followed this by releasing two groups of three POW's in February and October, 1968. These men had been there less than six months and had suffered no significant weight loss and were in pretty good shape.

Until the Nixon Administration came to office in 1969, the Government back home had taken the attitude: "Don't talk about the prisoner-of-war situation lest you hurt the Americans still over there." Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, early in 1969, went over to the peace talks with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in Paris. [Talks had begun under President Johnson late in 1968.] Laird took pictures of severely beaten men, such as Frishman, Stratton, Hegdahl—all of whom had suffered extreme weight loss. He got the photos through foreign news services. He told the North Vietnamese: "The Geneva Convention says that you shall release all sick and wounded prisoners. These men are sick and wounded. Why aren't they released?"

In August, 1969, Hanoi let Frishman come home. He had no elbow—just a limp rubbery arm—and he had lost 65 pounds. Hegdahl came out and had lost 75 pounds. Also released was Wes Rumbull, who was in a body cast because of a broken back.

Frishman was allowed to hold a press conference and spilled out the details of torture and maltreatment. Headlines appeared all over the world, and from then on, starting in the fall of 1969, the treatment began to improve. We think this was directly attributable to the fact that Frishman was living proof of the mistreatment of Americans.