|Page 2 of 5 < >|
In Ordeal as Captive, Character Was Shaped
Like many of his fellow pilots, McCain was intensely frustrated by the carefully calibrated bombing of North Vietnam. In his view, the war-fighting strategy was "maddeningly illogical." Launching off aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin, the airmen would see Soviet ships unloading missiles in Haiphong Harbor but were forbidden to hit the SAM sites unless they opened fire on American planes.
On this particular day, McCain had taken off from the aircraft carrier Oriskany in an A-4 light bomber, part of a 20-plane strike force that included fighter escorts, electronic jammers and antiaircraft flak suppressors. The U.S. warplanes made a wide detour around the south of Hanoi, approaching the city from the west, so they could fly straight east to the gulf after bombing the power plant.
Nearing Hanoi, the U.S. planes ran into thick, black clouds of antiaircraft fire. Warning lights flashed in McCain's cockpit, signaling that he was being tracked by enemy radar. The pilots maneuvered furiously to avoid the incoming missiles, which resembled long telephone poles hurtling through the sky.
Navy Lt. Verlene Daniels, flying an A-4 bomber like McCain, was the first to go down, about 20 miles southwest of Hanoi. Moments later, one of the F-8 fighter escorts, piloted by Lt. Charles Rice, was hit by another missile half a dozen miles west of the capital. Both Daniels and Rice ejected and were promptly captured by angry Vietnamese peasants.
Terrified by the ordnance exploding around him, McCain pressed onward toward the target, diving from 9,000 to 4,000 feet to release his bombs as he spotted the power plant on the eastern bank of a small lake in the center of the city.
Nguyen Lan's unit, the 61st Missile Battalion, was camouflaged in a grove of wispy casuarina trees 13 miles south of Hanoi, near the Red River. Lan, an army captain at the time, had received his initial training in 1965 from Soviet military advisers and had downed more than a dozen U.S. planes. This day, he had already used up two of his five functioning missiles, missing the target both times, and was desperate for a "kill."
"We were not permitted to fire our missiles over the city except in an emergency," Lan recalled. "We received an order to down the enemy plane at the very moment it was about to attack the power plant."
The order to fire over "the forbidden sector" of the city -- which contained the residences of Ho Chi Minh and other top Vietnamese officials -- reached Lan's unit at 11:49 a.m. Hanoi time. The captain tracked McCain's A-4 from 12 miles away, identifying it on his radar screen as the plane made its final approach to the target. Seconds later, he ordered his fire control officer, Lt. Nguyen Xuan Dai, to fire a single missile.
An Agence France-Presse reporter, Bernard-Joseph Cabanes, one of the very few foreign correspondents in Hanoi, was watching the fireworks from a nearby rooftop. Every so often he would observe "an orange ball of fire in the sky," followed by the appearance of "a black speck -- a pilot being ejected with his parachute still unopened." Flying over Hanoi was "almost a suicide mission," Cabanes concluded. On the ground, meanwhile, there was "no sign of collapse or any attitude or gesture to indicate nerves have given way."
A huge cheer went up at Lan's command post as the radar screen flashed red to indicate a successful shootdown of McCain's plane. Lan had resisted the temptation to fire a second missile, fearing that it might destroy the headquarters of "Uncle Ho."
McCain was knocked unconscious as he ejected at more than 500 miles an hour, breaking both his arms and his right knee. He came to as he plunged into Truc Bach Lake, less than half a mile from the presidential palace. He twice sunk to the bottom of the shallow water before he managed to inflate his life vest with his teeth, giving him enough buoyancy to remain on the surface.
A paper factory worker, 19-year-old Tran Lua, watched the American pilot fall into the lake. The crowd was yelling "He's got a gun," so Lua ran into his house to grab a meat cleaver before jumping into the water. Together with an older neighbor, he pushed two bamboo rafts toward the center of the lake. The water had turned a bright blue from the pilot's emergency identification dye.