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.

By SHARE

I woke up a couple of times in the next three or four days. Plasma and blood were being put into me. I became fairly lucid. I was in a room which was not particularly small—about 15 by 15 feet—but it was filthy dirty and at a lower level, so that every time it rained, there'd be about a half inch to an inch of water on the floor. I was not washed once while I was in the hospital. I almost never saw a doctor or a nurse. Doctors came in a couple of times to look at me. They spoke French, not English.

For a guard, I was assigned a 16-year-old kid—right out of the rice fields. His favorite pastime was to sit by my bed and read a book that had a picture in it of an old man with a rifle in his hand sitting on a fuselage of an F-105 which had been shot down. He would point to himself, and slap me and hit me. He had a lot of fun that way. He fed me because both my arms were broken. He would come in with a cup that had noodles and some gristle in it, and fill a spoon and put it in my mouth. The gristle was very hard to chew. I'd get my mouth full after three or four spoonfuls, and I'd be chewing away on it. I couldn't take any more in my mouth, so he'd just eat the rest himself. I was getting about three or four spoonfuls of food twice a day. It got so that I kind of didn't give a damn—even though I tried as hard as I could to get enough to eat.

After I had been there about 10 days, a "gook"—which is what we called the North Vietnamese—came in one morning. This man spoke English very well. He asked me how I was, and said, "We have a Frenchman who is here in Hanoi visiting, and would like to take a message back to your family." Being a little naive at the time—you get smarter as you go along with these people—I figured this wasn't a bad deal at all, if this guy would come to see me and go back and tell my family that I was alive.

I didn't know at the time that my name had been released in a rather big propaganda splash by the North Vietnamese, and that they were very happy to have captured me. They told a number of my friends when I was captured, "We have the crown prince," which was somewhat amusing to me.

"It Looked to Many as if I Had Been Drugged"

 They told me that the Frenchman would visit me that evening. About noon, I was put in a rolling stretcher and taken to a treatment room where they tried to put a cast on my right arm. They had great difficulty putting the bones together, because my arm was broken in three places and there were two floating bones. I watched the guy try to manipulate it for about an hour and a half trying to get all the bones lined up. This was without benefit of Novocain. It was an extremely painful experience, and I passed out a number of times. He finally just gave up and slapped a chest cast on me. This experience was very fatiguing, and was the reason why later, when some TV film was taken, it looked to many people as if I had been drugged.

When this was over, they took me into a big room with a nice white bed. I thought, "Boy, things are really looking up." My guard said, "Now you're going to be in your new room."

About an hour later in came a guy called "The Cat." I found out later that he was the man who up until late 1969 was in charge of all the POW camps in Hanoi. He was a rather dapper sort, one of the petty intelligentsia that run North Vietnam. He was from the political bureau of the Vietnamese Workers Party.

The first thing he did was show me Col. John Flynn's identification card—now Gen. John Flynn—who was our senior officer. He was shot down the same day I was. "The Cat" said—through an interpreter, as he was not speaking English at this time—"The French television man is coming." I said, "Well, I don't think I want to be filmed," whereupon he announced, "You need two operations, and if you don't talk to him, then we will take your chest cast off and you won't get any operations." He said, "You will say that you're grateful to the Vietnamese people, and that you're sorry for your crimes." I told him I wouldn't do that.