Paul Galanti, who was held as a POW with John McCain during the Vietnam War, recalls the ailing senator as "one of the most courageous men I've known, with a hilarious sense of humor"

By Jordan Runtagh and Susan Keating
August 25, 2018 12:22 PM

Ailing Sen. John McCain has received well wishes and tributes from friends and colleagues amid his decision to cease treatment for stage-four brain cancer. One notable salute comes from Paul Galanti, a former Navy pilot who was held alongside McCain in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp.

Despite the fact that the two men shared the most difficult and traumatic period of their lives, Galanti remembers the future legislator as a beacon of strength — and wit.

“John McCain is an incredible guy,” Galanti tells PEOPLE. “He is one of the most courageous men I’ve known, with a hilarious sense of humor.”

McCain, now 81, spent five years as a POW after his A-4 Skyhawk was shot down in October 1967 during a bombing run over Hanoi. Over the course of his internment, he was beaten, tortured, starved, and battled recurring bouts of dysentery. When he was finally freed in March 1973, McCain earned the dubious distinction of being the most injured pilot to have survived the North Vietnamese prison camps.


Despite these extreme hardships, Galanti said it never diminished the spirit of the man known to his service buddies as “JSM” — John Sydney McCain. Decades later, he saw McCain’s sense of humor shine through in a somewhat unexpected manner. “Google ‘McCain Sings Streisand’ for one of the greatest skits in SNL history,” he says. “It’s hilarious.”

Barbra Streisand and John McCain.
| Credit: Jason Merritt/Getty Images; Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis/Getty Images

In the 2002 sketch, McCain pokes fun at Barbra Streisand‘s left-leaning political activism by crooning some of her best-known songs.

“I’ve been in politics for over 20 years, and for over 20 years, I’ve had Barbra Streisand trying to do my job,” the senator quips in the skit. “So I decided to try my hand at her job.”

Laughter aside, Galanti says he will never forget the man whose endurance and leadership made him an inspiration to other prisoners. “John McCain is one genuine tough guy,” he shares.

In a statement released on Twitter on Friday, the McCain family explained that the politician — who was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer with a median survival rate of just 15 months, in July 2017 — made the decision to stop medical treatment.

“Last summer, Senator John McCain shared with Americans the news our family already knew: he had been diagnosed with an aggressive glioblastoma, and the prognosis was serious,” the statement said. “In the year since, John has surpassed expectations for his survival. But the progress of disease and the inexorable advance of age render their verdict. With his usual strength of will, he has now chosen to discontinue medical treatment.”

“Our family is immensely grateful for the support and kindness of all his caregivers over the last year, and for the continuing outpouring of concern and affection from John’s many friends and associated, and the many thousands of people who are keeping him in their prayers,” the statement continued. “God bless and thank you all.”

Daughter Meghan McCain, 33, tweeted the statement, adding, “My family is deeply appreciative of all the love and generosity you have shown us during this past year. Thank you for all your continued support and prayers. We could not have made it this far without you – you’ve given us strength to carry on.”

Added wife Cindy McCain, 64, on Twitter: “I love my husband with all of my heart. God bless everyone who has cared for my husband along this journey.”