On a late hot, humid, fetid summer day in downtown Hanoi’s Hoa Lo Prison [The Hanoi Hilton] a guard banged on our door, kicked it open and gestured us to follow him It was about nine months after the Son Tay Raid, were a joint service team of commandos tried to rescue some of the Vietnam POW’s and treatment started to improve. Certainly the torture as a general rule and the starvation were over for the most of us. Ron Webb, USAF, my current cellmate and I were intrigued by this new development.
We were led to another cellblock, met by an English speaking interrogator
and informed that “through the forgiving generosity of the Vietnamese people”
we were going to be permitted to visit some of the other “black criminals”.
We were supposed to be on our best behavior or we would be “severely
punished” [their codeword for torture]. With that we were pushed into a
6x6x12 foot cell, having two other prisoners and two bunk beds against
each wall leaving about 8 inches between the bunks in the center of the
The were two “Yankee Air Pirates” resident in the cell: Robert Craner USAF and John Sidney McCain III USN.
Now McCain III was some kind of a celebrity in the prison system. The day he was captured one of the senior interrogators went from cell to cell, opening the Judas Door [a primitive peep hole in the cell door] and gleefully shouting “We have caught the Crown Prince! We have caught the Crown Prince!” We had no idea what he meant. We didn’t know whether he had caught a sexually transmitted disease or Prince Philip. And we really didn’t care.
As time went on we figured it out especially after they had exploited John for propaganda, tortured him and then cast him off into our “Plantation” prison camp. Ulysses S. Grant Sharp was Commander in Chief Pacific [CINCPAC] when the original group of us were shot down. As such CINCPAC was, as far as the Communists were concerned, the Chief War Lord. Unbeknownst to us, Admiral Sharp was relieved by Admiral J. S. McCain II.
It turns out that as in all Communist classless societies there were a whole set of classes more appropriately called casts. Those families who were in power, politicians, generals and party members, had special privileges including the ability to favor, trade, ransom or hold hostage each other’s children - an ancient and honorable Eastern custom. John McCain III, as the son our new Chief War Lord, was indeed a prize of great value taking all the aforementioned into consideration.
John III is an interesting character as was disclosed in an A&E Biography of him broadcast of TV February 1999. A colorful character since his days of trying to get into the book of records the achievement of being the Midshipman to garner the highest number of demerits and still be graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy [he missed by just a few demerits]. The airplane he lost over Vietnam and which made him a POW was the fifth aircraft he had destroyed. Which, if they had been five enemy aircraft, would have made him an Ace.
Those of you who saw the Discovery Channel Documentary on the USS Forrestal fire, may have missed John II’s fleeting appearance. He was in the A4 Skyhawk which was hit by the errant rocket cooked off by random radiation on the flight deck. That rocket hit John III’s fuel tanks which started off the conflagration. John hopped our of the aircraft, ran across the deck hauling two wounded enlisted men to the safety of the catwalk and the tree of them survived the fire. The damage to the Forrestal and her embarked Air Wing was so great that they were turned around to head back to the States for repair and regrouping. Their sister ship on Yankee Station in the South China Sea, the USS Oriskany was short of pilots and requested some volunteers to cross deck from Forrestal to Oriskany to replenish their squadron ready rooms. There was no pressure. The Forrestal pilots were entitled to go home; they had taken their share of grief and misery. But, you guessed it, John Sidney McCain III volunteered to stay in the combat zone.
There are basic rules in the military like “Don’t share a foxhole with a hero.” & “Don’t volunteer for nuthin!” These rules are written in blood. There is a fine line between heroism and insanity, like a Medal of Honor or a Dishonorable Discharge. One fine day John III was flying over downtown Hanoi when his luck really ran out. Not only did he literally get blown out of the sky, but he also landed in the middle of town in Sword Lake if full view of the whole city. Additionally, there being a drought, the lake was very shallow which guaranteed him a violently sudden and painful stop. Parts of his body did not want to stop, so various and sundry bones and joints got displaced and broken.
Supposedly you only give you captors your name, rank, serial number and date of birth. [This of course is stupid for many reasons. For example, MacNamara made us convert our file numbers to our social security numbers which in turn have a 90% chance of disclosing what state we were born in.] John II was smart enough to not tell them anything. They withheld medical care for military information, which of course he in turn withheld from them. John II was clever enough to know that they would try to use his name against his father and in their propaganda to demoralize the troops down in South Vietnam. Eventually they check his dog tags and ID cards, checked out his background [yes the peacenicks gave them dossiers on all of us] and figured out that they had the CROWN PRINCE!
Immediately he was rushed off to the hospital, was given medical care [for only those things that showed], put in a body cast and subjected to days of exposure to the Hanoi foreign press corps who of course lapped up the irony of Admiral McCain III having to bomb the city in which his son was held captive. Frustrated by John III’s lack of cooperation, they tortured him for token propaganda statements [the experience of 95% of the POW’s] to humiliate him and then cast him aside. Later on they tried to get him to volunteer to go home early lest he die on their watch and he refused while perfectly healthy POW’s betrayed us and accepted early propaganda releases. I actually saw with my own eyes, a healthy POW literally step over John III on his stretcher and accept the early release offer.
You can imagine what fun it was after years of solitary confinement and isolation to be with McCain III, Webb, and Craner. Webb was an English major, a voracious reader and a great story teller. Craner was one of those high IQ geniuses with a photographic memory who was well versed in International Relations, politics and government. McCain III had all the stories of the high, mighty and wealthy, political, military and civilian that orbit about the Flag Mess and the Congressional Liaison Office. Our days of “visiting” took on a structure of topical seminars, lectures and literary entertainment’s.
At one point Bob Craner gently commented on the dissolute course of John III’s life to date saying what a shame it was that John III had and was still wasting the advantages he had. Bob had come from a dirt poor blue collar family and the Air Force had become for him the avenue to intellectual stimulation and economic security. Bob had a hard time understanding why anyone would turn their back on such opportunity as the service and this country offered anyone with the will to turn to.
Over a course of time John III reflected on Bob’s comment, asking for observations and input. The three discussed options for John III upon his release. [I was awful quiet in the presence of these intellectual giants. Bedsides, my Daddy cautioned me: “If your talking, you aren’t learning.”.] Bob and Ron opined that John III was a shoe in for Flag Rank, that despite his early transgressions the Navy would see in him the seeds of Admiral McCain I the WWII surface hero, Admiral McCain II, the Submarine hero and promote him to the Flag Mess. From there was a reasonable shot at Chief of Naval Operations [CNO] and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. John III said “no”, CNO was just a staff paper pusher, the real power position in the Navy was CINCPAC and that JCS was just an political anomaly at least that was what his Daddy said.
A few weeks later, John III was finally prepared to respond to Bob’s gentle chiding and prodding. “What do you want to be when you grow up, John?” John Sidney McCain III, sitting in his skivvy shorts on a wooden bunk, in a communist prison 10,000 miles from home, answers in a soft firm voice without any hesitation: “I AM going to be the President of the United States.
All I can do is report to you what I have seen and heard in Southeast
Asia. I do not know John III except for this one exposure for a few
months. I do not know John III as a man, husband, father, or politician.
If he wants to run for office, that is his business. If he wants
to be President, and I don’t know why anyone would want that job, I
wish him well. But I do know John Sidney McCain as a warrior
and I will say this - I will fly on his wing in combat any day.