ST. PAUL—They are John McCain's ultimate wing men—the handful of old soldiers who served with him in the military a lifetime ago, especially those who were prisoners of war with McCain during his five years of captivity in North Vietnam. One can scarcely imagine a more devoted band of brothers, all of them absolutely committed to the man who so deeply impressed them with his courage, character, and sense of honor under the most harrowing of circumstances.
U.S. News sat down with four of these old war buddies for breakfast Thursday in conjunction with the Republican National Convention, where McCain was nominated as the party's presidential nominee—an honor that they say he richly deserves. They are grey-haired and in some cases balding now, in their late 60s to early 80s, and some of the details of their war stories elude them. But the memories of McCain's will and his amazing ability to stand up to punishment remain sharp in their minds.
They recalled how competitive and rambunctious they were in those days, and how those traits helped them survive the horrors of torture and abuse by their captors and to persevere despite the feeling that each day might be their last. McCain is their hero, the pilot they describe as one of the toughest and bravest of all.
George "Bud" Day, now a lawyer in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., remembers seeing McCain for the first time in 1967, when he was dragged into the same prison where Day was being held. McCain, shot down on a bombing run over Hanoi, arrived with fractured arms and a broken knee, was in terrible shape, and appeared to be near death. "But John refused to die," Day recalled, explaining that he helped nurse McCain back to better health despite the wretched conditions and abuse from the guards.
Day also related the now-familiar story of how McCain refused to accept release until those captured before him were freed—an amazing commitment to honor and duty.
John Borling, a businessman from Rockford, Ill., said, "You want someone with character and leadership" as president, and he said McCain would be an excellent commander in chief.
Added Day: "Character is what you do when someone is not watching."
Frank Gamboa, now a retired Navy captain in Fairfax, Va., had a different story to tell. He was not a POW with McCain but was his roommate at the Naval Academy. But like the others, he was in town to help McCain in whatever way he could and to add to the narrative of character and integrity.
Gamboa said he was a rarity in those days—a Mexican American at Annapolis, in an all-male, nearly all-white environment. "The testosterone level was through the roof," Gamboa recalled with a smile. It was a very competitive, tough environment, and the upperclassmen made it doubly hard on the newcomers. But McCain would defend those who he felt were being unfairly picked on, including stewards in the dining room, even if it resulted in harsher treatment for himself.
"He became our moral compass," Gamboa said.