Whether or not you agree with John McCain’s politics, there’s one thing about the 80-year-old Arizona lawmaker—who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer—that seems indisputable: the man is tough as nails.
The former Navy pilot is often described as a “war hero” in the media on account of the horrors he braved after his A-4 Skyhawk was shot down in October 1967 during a bombing run over Hanoi and taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese.
But the story of his capture and his five and a half years he spent fighting for his life and defying his captors in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp are even more inspiring when you hear the gritty details of what McCain endured—and his account of how he managed to survive.
“The plane was gyrating violently and heading straight down, very fast, at about 500 knots,” McCain told PEOPLE during a lengthy interview in 1992 on the back porch of his home in Arizona, describing the hellish moments that elapsed after a surface-to-air missile blasted the wing off his jet.
It was his 23rd bombing mission over Hanoi and the 30-year-old lieutenant commander knew his only hope of survival was to bail out of the burning, doomed aircraft as it plummeted straight toward the ground. “When I ejected, the pressure flailed my arms back and that’s what broke my arms,” he recalled. “My knee obviously hit something on the way out and I ended up breaking my leg, too.”
His parachute opened and, as fate would have it, he drifted down into a lake in the middle of the city he’d been sent to bomb. “When they pulled me up on the bank, lots and lots of people started coming around,” he said. “They were pretty steamed, which is understandable since we’d just finished bombing the place. They bayoneted me in the foot and the crotch and were spitting at me, hollering and shouting.”
A group of soldiers finally arrived as locals were in the midst of beating him with a rifle butt, dumped him onto a stretcher, which was loaded on the back of a truck. He was eventually driven to the massive prison complex built by the French in 1945 where numerous American pilots were tortured and interrogated during the Vietnam War.
‘They got nothing out of me’
“They left me on the floor of a cell for four days, during which time I lapsed in and out of consciousness,” McCain said. “Their policy was that they wouldn’t provide any medical treatment unless you gave them military information. I would only give them my name, rank, serial number and date of birth. And so, after about four days on the floor of the cell, they got nothing out of me because I kept passing out.”
His captors eventually took him to a run-down hospital and operated on his knee, cutting most of his ligaments and cartilage, and placing his right arm in a chest cast. “The important thing they gave me was blood, ” he said. “I was in shock and they gave me transfusions, which gave me strength. But I wasn’t well-treated by the guards, who ate all my food and I slowly started getting worse.”
One afternoon, one of his interrogators appeared in his room and said, “‘The doctors tell me you aren’t getting well.’ I told him the only way I’d survive is if they put me in with some Americans,” he recalled. “That night they took me out of the hospital and put me in a cell with two other prisoners. Those two guys took care of me.”
After six months, the badly-injured flyer was able to walk with crutches—which inadvertently made life worse for him. “Letting them see I could walk was a mistake on my part,” he said. “They put me in solitary confinement for more than two years after that.”
McCain’s windowless ten-foot-by-ten-foot cell had a sheet metal roof that was transformed into a scorching oven in Hanoi’s sweltering summer heat. By mid-1968, his father was named commander of all U.S. Forces in Vietnam and his captors offered to send him home. Despite his desperation, McCain realized the gesture was purely a ploy meant to demoralize his fellow prisoners. After a bit of soul searching, he told the Vietnamese he was staying put and refused to leave the prison.
“They were astounded that I would refuse,” he said. “I’m not downplaying how difficult that decision was for me, but I did it because I thought I could survive—even though I was in pretty bad shape. 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.”
Life got even more difficult after he spurned their offer. “After I refused to go home, they treated me pretty badly,” recalled McCain, who by then had begun suffering from dysentery and was being beaten every two hours in order to get him to sign confessions and make audio recording trashing America. “That was a pretty tough period. They were going after me pretty hard.”
In order to keep his sanity, McCain, like other POWs, took great risks tapping out messages to fellow prisoners on the prison walls. When caught, he paid a heavy price with additional beatings and removal to even worse prison camps. “I was put in another prison we called ‘The Plantation,'” he recalls. “And for seven or eight months I was sent to a really crummy prison outside of Hanoi for punishment that was known as ‘Skid Row.'”
‘Three things kept me going’
Despite the lack of food, recurring dysentery, his various injuries, and the uncertainty of when his next beating might occur, McCain managed to stay alive. “Three things kept me going,” he said. “Faith in God, faith in my fellow prisoners and faith in my country.
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Of his five and a half years in captivity, one event that has remained forever etched in McCain’s mind, he says, occurred in December 1972 when U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers roared over Hanoi and other parts of the country, and began dropping over 20,000 tons of explosives. “That’s when we knew one of two things,” he said. “Either we weren’t going to get out of there at all, or the war was reaching its conclusion.”
When he was finally released in March 1973, McCain earned the dubious distinction of being the most injured pilot to have survived the North Vietnamese prison camps. The ordeal, he insisted, didn’t impact him the way it did so many other former POWs from the Vietnam War. By 1982, he’d begun his political career and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Unlike some, I was fortunate that I was able to put it all behind me when I came home,” he said. “People ask me how long did it take to readjust? It took me about 45 minutes. I never had a nightmare or a flashback or anything like that. I know a lot of my friends were not so fortunate, who never fully came back from that experience. But I did.”
His physical injuries are another matter. Asked if he still suffered pain from his various broken bones, McCain, whose injuries left him unable to raise his arms above his head, just shrugged. “Probably my shoulder hurts me more than my knee does,” he said. “I’ve definitely got some arthritis from the damage that was done. But I can get around fairly well. And I can always tell when it’s going to rain.”
With that, he flashed a mischievous grin and, in what seems ironic given the climate in Washington, D.C., of late, replied: “Luckily, in my line of work, there’s not a lot of heavy lifting.”