by Virginia Fuss
John McCain in 1965.
Senator John McCain, respected politician and war veteran, died from brain cancer on August 25, 2018. This man is so much more than a news story, or a senator tied down by the preconceived bias against all American politicians. His valor and integrity shown during his wartime years influenced all his life choices and led to his recognition as the humble American hero that he is known as today.
It began before the photo shown here, which was taken in 1965, when he graduated from the US Naval Academy. Sam Hawkins, a squadron comrade of McCain’s, told the Los Angeles Times, “The edges are where you get the maximum out of yourself and out of your plane. That’s where John operated.”
His confident and indestructible demeanor is shown in the right corner of the photo, with his casual stance leaning on the plane’s metal side, eyes glittering as if he never thought he could be wounded.
However, on October 26th, 1967, during one day of the Vietnam War he would never forget, McCain was forced to eject from his A-4 Skyhawk while flying over Hanoi in Vietnam. A missile hit the wing of his plane. He landed in the lake, sustaining serious injuries which were then worsened when North Vietnamese men wrenched him out of the water.
“When I ejected, the pressure flailed my arms back and that’s what broke my arms,” McCain told People Magazine. “My knee obviously hit something on the way out and I ended up breaking my leg, too.” He recalled that nothing would ever resemble the pain he felt as he underwent the process of moving from the lake to the prison.
Standard procedure: a phrase that seems harmless or even beneficial in any other context. Unfortunately for McCain, this phrase meant the stripping of his weapons and armor and, even worse, a turned cheek to the beatings and abuse he received from the Vietnamese townspeople as he was dragged to the POW prison.
But the prison was worse.
He was constantly tortured. To try to extract information, enemy soldiers would break his arms, then, weeks later after allowing them to heal incorrectly, rebreak them as an assurance of ‘no hope’ for McCain. “They got nothing out of me,” he coldly stated. “They left me on the floor of a cell for four days, during which time I lapsed in and out of consciousness. Their policy was that they wouldn’t provide any medical treatment unless you gave them military information.” He relayed later that he only gave them his date of birth, name, rank, and serial number.
After the first few days, he was taken to an old hospital to be operated on—his injuries prevented him from being conscious for more than hours at a time. This gave him little strength, and the treatment he received from guards wasn’t helping. “I told him the only way I’d survive is if they put me in with some Americans,” he said. They put him with some Americans. Sure enough, he was able to walk with crutches within six months.
“Letting them see I could walk was a mistake on my part,” he painfully recollected. He was subjected to solitary confinement for two years after that.
Unbeknownst to the North Vietnamese for most of his sentence there, he was the son of a very influential admiral in the Navy. But when the Vietnamese found out that his father was named commander of all U.S. Forces in Vietnam in 1968, they offered to send him—and him alone—home.
McCain’s true integrity shown through when he said, “They were astounded that I would refuse.” He continues, “But our code of conduct clearly states, ‘You do not accept parole. Sick and injured prisoners must be released first, and others are to be released only by order of capture.”
Battered and crippled, McCain refused to escape the equivalent of hell for his own home because of the Navy’s code of conduct. He compared the value of his life to something that can be written on paper. His valor shone through his life in this way. Even through starvation, disease, creeping insanity, and the constant threat of beatings, McCain survived, living to become one of the most influential American politicians of his years.
Years later, one citizen recalled a small action of McCain’s that spoke volumes. “He was giving a thumbs-up to the crowd and, I don’t know, you could still see the effects that the North Vietnamese had imposed on him,” Steve Fuss remembers. “It was kind of interesting to see the evidence of that low point in his life, his limited use of his arms, and yet there he was at this high point in his Congressional career.”
McCain’s perseverance and influence has made a difference in many Americans’ lives. His book, The Restless Wave, details his journey, from training in the Naval Academy to fighting past and current Presidents on national issues.
“Three things kept me going,” McCain said. “Faith in God, faith in my fellow prisoners and faith in my country.”
His story is like no other, and valor and character shine through his life work.