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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"I Was Down to 105 Pounds"

Aside from bad situations now and then, 1971 and 1972 was a sort of coasting period. The reason why you see our men in such good condition today is that the food and everything generally improved. For example, in late '69 I was down to 105, 110 pounds, boils all over me, suffering dysentery. We started getting packages with vitamins in them—about one package a year. We were able to exercise quite a bit in our rooms and managed to get back in a lot better health.

My health has improved radically. In fact, I think I'm in better physical shape than I was when I got shot down. I can do 45 push-ups and a couple hundred sit-ups. Another beautiful thing about exercise: It makes you tired and you can sleep, and when you're asleep you're not there, you know. I used to try to exercise all the time.

Finally came the day I'll never forget—the eighteenth of December, 1972. The whole place exploded when the Christmas bombing ordered by President Nixon began. They hit Hanoi right off the bat.

It was the most spectacular show I'll ever see. By then we had large windows in our rooms. These had been covered with bamboo mats, but in October, 1972, they took them down. We had about a 120-degree view of the sky, and, of course, at night you can see all the flashes. The bombs were dropping so close that the building would shake. The SAM's [surface-to-air missiles] "were flying all over and the sirens were whining—it was really a wild scene. When a B-52 would get hit—they're up at more than 30,000 feet—it would light up the whole sky. There would be a red glow that almost made it like daylight, and it would last for a long time, because they'd fall a long way.

We knew at that time that unless something very forceful was done that we were never going to get out of there. We had sat there for 3 1 /2 years with no bombing going on--November of '68 to May of '72. We were fully aware that the only way that we were ever going to get out was for our Government to turn the screws on Hanoi.

So we were very happy. We were cheering and hollering. The "gooks" didn't like that at all, but we didn't give a damn about that. It was obvious to us that negotiation was not going to settle the problem. The only reason why the North Vietnamese began negotiating in October, 1972, was because they could read the polls as well as you and I can, and they knew that Nixon was going to have an overwhelming victory in his re-election bid. So they wanted to negotiate a cease-fire before the elections.

"I Admire President Nixon's Courage"

I admire President Nixon's courage. There may be criticism of him in certain areas—Watergate, for example. But he had to take the most unpopular decisions that I could imagine—the mining, the blockade, the bombing. I know it was very, very difficult for him to do that, but that was the thing that ended the war. I think the reason he understood this is that he has a long background in dealing with these people. He knows how to use the carrot and the stick. Obviously, his trip to China and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with Russia were based on the fact that we're stronger than the Communists, so they were willing to negotiate. Force is what they understand. And that's why it is difficult for me to understand now, when everybody knows that the bombing finally got a cease-fire agreement, why people are still criticizing his foreign policy—for example, the bombing in Cambodia.

Right after the Communist Tet offensive in 1968, the North Vietnamese were riding high. They knew President Johnson was going to stop the bombing before the 1968 elections. "The Soft-Soap Fairy" told me a month before those elections that Johnson was going to stop the bombings.

In May of 1968 I was interviewed by two North Vietnamese generals at separate times. Both of them said to me, in almost these words:

"After we liberate South Vietnam were going to liberate Cambodia. And after Cambodia we're going to Laos, and after we liberate Laos we're going to liberate Thailand. And after we liberate Thailand we're going to liberate Malaysia, and then Burma. We're going to liberate all of Southeast Asia."

"North Vietnamese Believe 'Domino Theory'"

They left no doubt in my mind that it was not a question of South Vietnam alone. Some people's favorite game is to refute the "domino theory," but the North Vietnamese themselves never tried to refute it. They believe it. Ho Chi Minh said many, many times, "We are proud to be in the front line of armed struggle between the socialist camp and the U. S. imperialist aggressors." Now, this doesn't mean fighting for nationalism. It doesn't mean fighting for an independent South Vietnam. It means what he said. This is what Communism is all about—armed struggle to overthrow capitalist countries.

I read a lot of their history. They gave us propaganda books. I learned that Ho Chi Minh was a Stalinist. When Khrushchev denounced Stalin in the late 1950s, Minh did not go along with it. He was not a "peaceful coexistence" Communist.

At this particular juncture, after Tet in 1968, they thought they had the war won. They had gotten General Westmoreland [commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam] fired. They were convinced that they had wrecked Johnson's chances for re-election. And they thought that they had the majority of the American people on their side. That's why these guys were speaking very freely as to what their ambitions were. They were speaking prematurely, because they just misjudged the caliber of President Nixon.

To go back to the December bombing: Initially, the North Vietnamese had a hell of a lot of SAM's on hand. I soon saw a lessening in the SAM activities, meaning they may have used them up. Also, the B-52 bombings, which were mainly right around Hanoi in the first few days, spread out away from the city because, I think, they destroyed all the military targets around Hanoi.

I don't know the number of B-52 crewmen shot down then, because they only took the injured Americans to our camp. The attitude of our men was good. I talked to them the day before we moved out, preparing to go home, when they knew the agreements were going to be signed. I asked one young pilot—class of '70 at West Point—"How did your outfit feel when you were told that the B-52s were going to bomb Hanoi?" He said, "Our morale skyrocketed."

I have heard there was one B-52 pilot who refused to fly the missions during the Christmas bombing. You always run into that kind. When the going gets tough, they find out their conscience is bothering them. I want to say this to anybody in the military: If you don't know what your country is doing, find out. And if you find you don't like what your country is doing, get out before the chips are down.

Once you become a prisoner of war, then you do not have the right to dissent, because what you do will be harming your country. You are no longer speaking as an individual, you are speaking as a member of the armed forces of the United States, and you owe loyalty to the Commander in Chief, not to your own conscience. Some of my fellow prisoners sang a different tune, but they were a very small minority. I ask myself if they should be prosecuted, and I don't find that easy to answer. It might destroy the very fine image the great majority of us have brought back from that hellhole. Remember, a handful of turncoats after the Korean War made a great majority of Americans think that most of the POW's in conflict were traitors.

If these men are tried, it should not be because they took an antiwar stance, but because they collaborated with the Vietnamese to an extent, and that was harmful to the other American POW's. And there is this to consider: America will have other wars to fight until the Communists give up their doctrine of violent overthrow of our way of life. These men should bear some censure so that in future wars there won't be a precedent for conduct that hurts this country.

By late January of this year, we knew end of the war was near. I was moved then to the "Plantation." We were put together in groups by the period when we were shot down. They were getting us ready to return by groups.

By the way—a very interesting thing—after I got back, Henry Kissinger told me that when he was in Hanoi to sign the final agreements, the North Vietnamese offered him one man that he could take back to Washington with him, and that was me. He, of course, refused, and I thanked him very much for that, because I did not want to go out of order. Most guys were betting that I'd be the last guy out—but you never can fathom the "gooks."

It was January 20 when we were moved to the "Plantation." From then on it was very easy—they hardly bothered us. We were allowed out all day in the courtyard. But, typical of them, we had real bad food for about two weeks before we left. Then they gave us a great big meal the night before we went home.

There was no special ceremony when we left the camp. The International Control Commission came in and we were permitted to look around the camp. There were a lot of photographers around, but nothing formal. Then we got on the buses and went to Gia Lam Airport. My old friend "The Rabbit" was there. He stood out front and said to us, "When I read your name off, you get on the plane and go home."

That was March 15. Up to that moment, I wouldn't allow myself more than a feeling of cautious hope. We had been peaked up so many times before that I had decided that I wouldn't get excited until I shook hands with an American in uniform. That happened at Gia Lam, and then I knew it was over. There is no way I can describe how I felt as I walked toward that U. S. Air Force plane.

Now that I'm back, I find a lot of hand-wringing about this country. I don't buy that. I think America today is a better country than the one I left nearly six years ago.

The North Vietnamese gave us very little except bad news about the U. S. We didn't find out about the first successful moon shot [in 1969] until it was mentioned in a speech by George McGovern saying that Nixon could put a man on the moon, but he couldn't put an end to the Vietnam war.

They bombarded us with the news of Martin Luther King's death and the riots that followed. Information like that poured continuously out of the loud-speakers.

I think America is a better country now because we have been through a sort of purging process, a re-evaluation of ourselves. Now I see more of an appreciation of our way of life. There is more patriotism. The flag is all over the place. I hear new values being stressed—the concern for environment is a case in point.

I've received scores of letters from young people, and many of them sent me POW bracelets with my name on it, which they had been wearing. Some were not too sure about the war, but they are strongly patriotic, their values are good, and I think we will find that they are going to grow up to be better Americans than many of us.

This outpouring on behalf of us who were prisoners of war is staggering, and a little embarrassing because basically we feel that we are just average American Navy, Marine and Air Force pilots who got shot down. Anybody else in our place would have performed just as well.

My own plans for the future are to remain in the Navy, if I am able to return to flying status. That depends upon whether the corrective surgery on my arms and my leg is successful. If I have to leave the Navy, I hope to serve the Government in some capacity, preferably in Foreign Service for the State Department.

I had a lot of time to think over there, and came to the conclusion that one of the most important things in life—along with a man's family—is to make some contribution to his country.


See photos of John McCain's prison cell here.