Recently, I have seen several allegations that condemn Senator John McCain for his behavior as a prisoner of war. I believe that these allegations are false. I am in a better position than the Senator’s accusers to know the truth since I was a prisoner with him, having been captured a little over a month before him. I have contacted hundreds of my comrades on our e-mail list and not one of them can confirm anything that has been alleged against McCain.
Let me tell you what they have told me and what I saw myself, and answer some of the charges. First, I should say that I have great respect for Senator McCain, even though I am at odds with him on many issues and have remained distant from his campaign. I say this up front because I think that a defense mounted by one of his supporters would be less credible.
The first allegation is that the Soviets directed our interrogations and that John McCain gave up valuable intelligence during his interrogations. We doubt this. The Communists were not very skilled at keeping secrets from us and to my knowledge only one man saw someone whom he could identify as a Russian in any camp – a female “journalist’ who claimed to have been wounded as a tank commander in WWII. When the prisoner she was interviewing demanded that she show him her scars she knocked him off of his stool.
Everyone, when interrogated under torture, lied to the interrogators. Surely Soviet intelligence knew, as should any intelligent being, that there are no swimming pools on the decks of American aircraft carriers. Yet this lie was told and believed. One man was beaten for refusing to tell where the Navy keeps pigs and chickens on an aircraft carrier. Surely Soviet military intelligence knew that our ships have refrigeration and do not need to carry livestock. There are countless other such stories which cast doubt on the participation of the Soviets.
In any case, McCain was only a pilot. I cannot think of any tactical information which a Navy pilot could have which would be of any value to an enemy who lacked the capacity to attack an aircraft carrier. Nor can I think of much strategic information which any sensible person would give to a pilot who might be shot down and captured.
There are exceptions to this, of course. In any military or naval hierarchy, it is sometimes necessary, for day to day operations under unusual circumstances, for some men to be trained in various skills which may become useful should those circumstances arise. Even the existence of such skills should remain a secret as closely held as possible.
A few men in the camps had such a secret. Had it been disclosed by anyone, we would have known it instantly. It never was.
Someone has circulated a transcript of a radio broadcast made on June 2, 1969, in which McCain says that he received medical treatment and that we were being well treated. If it is authentic, it reads like a statement that he might have made when first captured. It did not take long for men to learn that they could manipulate language when tortured to make statements. Thus, at the Stockholm “War Crimes Tribunal,” the Vietnamese Communist government offered a statement from an American who confessed that Clark Kent (Superman’s alter ego) and Ben Casey (a character in a television show) ordered him to do terrible things. The Vietnamese only realized that they had been snookered when they saw Soviet journalists laughing at the joke the American had played on them. To John McCain’s critics I promise that I can get you, too, to make a statement on any subject I wish.
We have no evidence that Sen. McCain received special treatment. Since he was as thin as the rest of us, if he did, it was not in the form of decent food. It is alleged that he was taken into Hanoi and put up in a hotel with prostitutes. This is an improvement on the allegation spread during the 2000 campaign that he was given a Vietnamese woman to live with him in his cell, an allegation that led me to ask why, if he was my friend, didn’t he ask if she had a sister? Even when he was in solitary confinement, he was constantly in contact with others. Further, we always knew about movements within the camps, because the Communists simply were not competent at preventing us from gaining intelligence. Men who were in the camps with him agree that they are not aware of a single night that he spent out of his cell.
A friend, whom I know to be reliable, was across the hall and one door down from McCain’s cell when McCain was first captured. He has told me that he saw Communist officers enter the cell where the wounded John McCain lay, incapacitated. He heard them offer McCain early release and heard John answer that he would go home when we all go home. He heard the voices of the officers rising until they were shouting angrily at McCain and threatening him. This was followed by screams of agony from John McCain, and a stream of obscenities from him. He could not see what they did to him and I never heard from John McCain what it was. This does not sound like a collaborator.
In the spring of 1971, I personally witnessed evidence of John McCain’s loyalty. After the attempted rescue of POWs at the camp at Son Tay, in November of 1970, almost all Americans were moved to Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” The Communists felt so threatened by the raid that, for the first time, they concentrated us in large cells with as many as sixty men in a cell.
One of the first things we did was to institute regular religious services in our cells. On January 1, 1971, we were told that all religious activity was forbidden. This led to a long series of increasingly hostile confrontations, which someone has labeled “the Church Riots.” I was in a cell next to John McCain’s cell. In early March, the four senior men in his cell were removed and for some time we lost contact with them. Then the four senior men in my cell were removed, and we lost contact with them, also. The confrontations rapidly escalated.
My recollection is that John McCain was now the senior man in his cell. In any case, I know that he was deeply involved with what followed. The senior men in our two cells kept us under tight control, but carefully staged demonstrations of our anger over the religious ban and the removal of our cell mates. On March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, I remember the men in McCain’s room singing, at the top of their lungs, first “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” then “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
We knew that this could not go on. The night before, when men from our cell went out to wash dishes, the largest men in the cell, me included, were sent out and told the stand a few inches in front of each guard, cross our arms, and stare angrily into their eyes. The guards were nervous. After 10 minutes the one I was staring at began crying and ran away. Shortly thereafter a platoon of armed guards returned with him. A Vietnamese officer nervously ordered us to return to our cell. We stood fast. Finally, after we had repeatedly disobeyed the orders of the Vietnamese officer, the senior man in our cell stepped out and quietly told us to go inside.
The Communists were thoroughly frightened. Given the history of Communism, we had no illusions as to what might come from this. They had killed 100 million people to maintain their control. What would a few American pilots mean to people like that? For much of our incarceration they had threatened to execute some of us.
John McCain was involved in planning and carrying out these confrontations in order to gain the right to worship in our cells. He knew what we were risking. At sundown, on March 19, they came, first to McCain’s cell, then to ours. A total of 36 of us were taken, at gunpoint, out of the cells. Outside our hands were tied, then our elbows tied behind our back, and we were blindfolded. We did not know what was about to happen, but I am certain that none of us thought we were being taken to a hotel to have a party with Vietnamese girls. To our relief, we were taken to a camp where we were put in solitary confinement for the next seven months.
I may not agree with John McCain on some policies. However, I will go to my grave remembering the American officer who helped organize men to defy an enemy who wish to deprive us of religious observance. Even today I cannot hear “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” without tears, as I am still moved by the courage of the singers and the leadership of John McCain.