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.


Finally, the Frenchman came in, a man named Chalais—a Communist, as I found out later—with two photographers. He asked me about my treatment and I told him it was satisfactory. "The Cat" and "Chihuahua," another interrogator, were in the background telling me to say that I was grateful for lenient and humane treatment. I refused, and when they pressed me, Chalais said, "I think what he told me is sufficient."

Then he asked if I had a message for my family. I told him to assure my wife and others of my family that I was getting well and that I loved them. Again, in the background, "The Cat" insisted that I add something about hoping that the war would be over soon so that I could go home. Chalais shut him up very firmly by saying that he was satisfied with my answer. He helped me out of a difficult spot.

Chalais was from Paris. My wife later went to see him and he gave her a copy of the film, which was shown on CBS television in the U. S.

As soon as he left, they put me on the cart and took me back to my old dirty room.

After that, many visitors came to talk to me. Not all of it was for interrogation. Once a famous North Vietnamese writer—an old man with a Ho Chi Minh beard—came to my room, wanting to know all about Ernest Hemingway. I told him that Ernest Hemingway was violently anti-Communist. It gave him something to think about.

Others came in to find out about life in the United States. They figured because my father had such high military rank that I was of the royalty or the governing circle. They have no idea of the way our democracy functions.

One of the men who came to see me, whose picture I recognized later, was Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the hero of Dienbienphu. He came to see what I looked like, saying nothing. He is the Minister of Defense, and also on North Vietnam's ruling Central Committee.

After about two weeks, I was given an operation on my leg which was filmed. They never did anything for my broken left arm. It healed by itself. They said I needed two operations on my leg, but because I had a "bad attitude" they wouldn't give me another one. What kind of job they did on my leg, I do not know. Now that I'm back, an orthopedic surgeon is going to cut in and see. He has already told me that they made the incision wrong and cut all the ligaments on one side.

I was in the hospital about six weeks, then was taken to a camp in Hanoi that we called "The Plantation." This was in late December, 1967. I was put in a cell with two other men, George Day and Norris Overly, both Air Force majors. I was on a stretcher, my leg was stiff and I was still in a chest cast that I kept for about two months. I was down to about 100 pounds from my normal weight of 155.

I was told later on by Major Day that they didn't expect me to live a week. I was unable to sit up. I was sleeping about 18 hours, 20 hours a day. They had to do everything for me. They were allowed to get a bucket of water and wash me off occasionally. They fed me and took fine care of me, and I recovered very rapidly.

We moved to another room just after Christmas. In early February, 1968, Overly was taken out of our room and released, along with David Matheny and John Black. They were the first three POW's to be released by the North Vietnamese. I understand they had instructions, once home, to say nothing about treatment, so as not to jeopardize those of us still in captivity.

That left Day and me alone together. He was rather banged up himself—a bad right arm, which he still has. He had escaped after he had been captured down South and was shot when they recaptured him. As soon as I was able to walk, which was in March of 1968, Day was moved out.

I remained in solitary confinement from that time on for more than two years. I was not allowed to see or talk to or communicate with any of my fellow prisoners. My room was fairly decent-sized—I'd say it was about 10 by 10. The door was solid. There were no windows. The only ventilation came from two small holes at the top in the ceiling, about 6 inches by 4 inches. The roof was tin and it got hot as hell in there. The room was kind of dim—night and day—but they always kept on a small light bulb, so they could observe me. I was in that place for two years.