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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Communication Was Vital "for Survival"

As far as this business of solitary confinement goes—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—we were never allowed to have writing materials. 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, figuring out where this country or that country went wrong, what the U. S. should do in the area of foreign affairs. 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, but I doubt that any of them would have been above the level of the cheapest dime novel.

People have asked me how we could remember detailed things like the tap code, numbers, names, all sorts of things. The fact is, when you don't have anything else to think about, no outside distractions, it's easy. Since I've been back, it's very hard for me to remember simple things, like the name of someone I've just met.

During one period while I was in solitary, I memorized the names of all 335 of the men who were then prisoners of war in North Vietnam. I can still remember them.

One thing you have to fight is worry. It's easy to get uptight about your physical condition. One time I had a hell of a hemorrhoid and I stewed about it for about three days. Finally, I said, "Look, McCain, you've never known of a single guy who died of a hemorrhoid." So I just ignored it as best I could, and after a few months it went away.

The story of Ernie Brace illustrates how vital communication was to us. While I was in the prison we called "The Plantation" in October, 1968, there was a room behind me. I heard some noise in there so I started tapping on the wall. Our call-up sign was the old "shave and a haircut," and then the other guy would come back with the two taps, "six bits."

For two weeks I got no answer, but finally, back came the two taps. I started tapping out the alphabet--one tap for "a," two for "b," and so on. Then I said, "Put your ear to the wall." I finally got him up on the wall and by putting my cup against it, I could talk through it and make him hear me. I gave him the tap code and other information. He gave me his name--Ernie Brace. About that time, the guard came around and I told Ernie, "O.K., I'll call you tomorrow."

It took me several days to get him back up on the wall again. When I finally did, all he could say was, "I'm Ernie Brace," and then he'd start sobbing. After about two days he was able to control his emotions, and within a week this guy was tapping and communicating and dropping notes, and from then on he did a truly outstanding job.

Ernie was a civilian pilot who was shot down over Laos. He had just come from 3 1 /2 years' living in a bamboo cage in the jungle with his feet in stocks, and an iron collar around his neck with a rope tied to it. He had nearly lost use of his legs. He escaped three times, and after the third time he was buried in the ground up to his neck.

In those days—still in 1968—we were allowed to bathe every other day, supposedly. But in this camp they had a water problem and sometimes we'd go for two or three weeks, a month without a bath. I had a real rat for a turnkey who usually would take me out last. The bath was a sort of a stall-like affair that had a concrete tub. After everyone else had bathed, there usually was no water left. So I'd stand there for my allotted five minutes and then he'd take me back to my room.

For toilet facilities, I had a bucket with a lid that didn't fit. It was emptied daily; they'd have somebody else carry it, because I walked so badly.

From the time that Overly and Day left me—Overly left in February of 1968, Day left in March—my treatment was basically good. I would get caught communicating, talking to guys through the wall, tapping—that kind of stuff, and they'd just say, "Tsk, tsk; no, no." Really, I thought things were not too bad.

Then, about June 15, 1968, I was taken up one night to the interrogation room. "The Cat" and another man that we called "The Rabbit" were there. "The Rabbit" spoke very good English.

"The Cat" was the commander of all the camps at that time. He was making believe he didn't speak English, although it was obvious to me, after some conversation, that he did, because he was asking questions or talking before "The Rabbit" translated what I had said.

The Oriental, as you may know, likes to beat around the bush quite a bit. The first night we sat there and "The Cat" talked to me for about two hours. I didn't know what he was driving at. He told me that he had run the French POW camps in the early 1950s and that he had released a couple of guys, and that he had seen them just recently and they had thanked him for his kindness. He said that Overly had gone home "with honor."