“I reacted automatically the moment I took the hit and saw my wing was gone. I radioed, ‘I’m hit,’ reached up, and pulled the ejection seat handle. I struck part of the aeroplane, breaking my left arm, my right arm in three places, and my right knee, and I was briefly knocked unconscious by the force of the ejection.”
Writing in 2000 memoir “Faith Of My Fathers,” this is how US Senator John McCain describes the moment his Navy A-4 Skyhawk was shot down over Vietnam leading to his capture and nearly 6-year imprisonment. He continues:
“I landed in the middle of the lake (Truc Bach Lake), in the middle of the city, in the middle of the day. An escape attempt would have been challenging.”
Wearing approximately 50 pounds of gear and not being able to use either of his broken arms to deploy his life vest, McCain sank to the bottom of the shallow lake. He managed to inflate his life vest by pulling the plastic toggle with his teeth and shot to the surface. Floating in the lake, McCain fell in and out of consciousness until a group of Vietnamese villagers pulled him out of the water.
“Several hundred Vietnamese gathered around me, shouting wildly, stripping my clothes off, spitting on me, kicking and striking me repeatedly. When they had finished removing my gear and clothes, I felt a sharp pain in my right knee. I looked down and saw that my right foot was resting next to my left knee, at a 90-degree angle … Someone smashed a rifle butt into my shoulder, breaking it. Someone else stuck a bayonet in my ankle and groin.”
Before the angry mob could do more harm, Vietnamese soldiers arrived and transported McCain to Hoa Lo, a French-built prison.
“As the massive steel doors loudly clanked shut behind me, I felt a deeper dread than I have ever felt since … for the next few days I drifted in and out of consciousness. When awake, I was periodically taken to another room for interrogation. “
McCain was accused of being a war criminal and tortured until he shared classified military information in exchange for medical attention. As he refused to reveal more than his name, rank, and date of birth, his condition steadily worsened.
“For four days I was taken back and forth to different rooms. Unable to use my arms, I was fed twice a day by a guard. I vomited after the meals, unable to hold down anything but a little tea. I remember being desperately thirsty all the time, but I could drink only when the guard was present for my twice-daily feedings.”
McCain, who was forced to lay in a puddle of his own vomit and other bodily wastes, became feverish and lost consciousness frequently and for longer periods of time.
One day the camp officer, who the POWs called Bug and who McCain referred to as “a mean son of b—-,”
entered his filthy cell to examine his injuries.
“Are you going to take me to the hospital? I asked.
“No,” he replied. “It’s too late.”
“Take me to the hospital and I’ll get well.”
“It’s too late,” he repeated.
Hopeless, McCain assumed we would die and began mentally prepping himself of his approaching death; but a few hours later, Bug rushed into his cell and shouted: “Your father is a big admiral. Now we take you to the hospital.”
“A couple of days later I found myself lying in a filthy room about twenty by twenty feet, lousy with mosquitoes and rats. Every time it rained, an inch of mud and water would pool on the floor … I recieved no treatment for my injuries. No one even bothered to wash the grime off me.”
Meanwhile, McCain’s interrogators continued to pressure him for more information and threatened to terminate his medical treatment if he did not cooperate.
“I gave them the names of the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line, and said they were members of my squadron. When asked to identify future targets, I simply recited the names of a number of North Vietnamese cities that had already been bombed.”
Since McCain could not feed himself, a young boy was assigned to feeding him. The boy forced three spoonfuls of food down McCain’s throat twice a day. There were usually leftovers, which the boy helped himself to in front of McCain.
Two months into his captivity, McCain underwent an operation on his leg.
“The Vietnamese filmed the operation, I haven’t a clue why. Regrettably, the operation wasn’t much of a success. The doctors severed all the ligaments on one side of my knee, which has never fully recovered.”
Shortly after his surgery, McCain was moved into a cell with two other American Air Force POWs. They took care of each other and McCain notes that his condition improved.
The darkest moments of his capture occur when guards place him in solitary.
“It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
A year later, several guards brought a resistant McCain to the camp commander in order to formally charge him of his war crimes.
“Knowing that I was in serious trouble and that nothing I did or said would make matters any worse, I replied: ‘F— you.'”
McCain was beat up, tied up for a night, and then dragged to an empty room for 4 days.
“At two-to-three intervals, the guards returned to administer beatings … still I felt they were being careful not to kill or permanently injure me.”
The worst beating came on the third night.
“I lay in my own blood and waste, so tired and hurt that I could not move…he slammed his fist into my face and knocked me across the room towards the waste bucket. I fell on the bucket, hitting it with my left arm, and breaking it again. They left me lying on the floor, moaning from the stabbing pain in my refractured arm.”
It was after this night, that McCain tried to commit suicide twice. He was stopped by the guards and recieved more beatings. Shortly after, he confessed to whatever war crimes he was accused of and was left alone in his cell for 2 weeks.
“They were the worst two weeks of my life … I was ashamed … I shook, as if my disgrace were a fever.”
This was 2 years into McCain’s almost 6 year imprisonment. He was released as a POW in March of 1973.
These book excerpts are from John McCain’s memoir “Faith Of My Fathers.”
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