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In Ordeal as Captive, Character Was Shaped

The two men hauled McCain onto a raft and paddled toward the shore, shouting "haut les mains" at their bewildered captive. Lua had picked up the expression -- French for "hands up" -- from old war movies.

"I held the American firmly by the hair to prevent him from using his pistol," Lua recalled. "He was lucky because there was a police station nearby and we were able to take him there before anybody could hurt him."

McCain tells a somewhat different story in his memoir. He says a bystander smashed a rifle butt into his shoulder, breaking it, while someone else stuck a bayonet into his ankle and groin.

There was a small clinic at the back of the police station. The nurse there, Nguyen Thi Thanh, now an 81-year-old grandmother with twinkling eyes, said she yelled at everyone to get out of the room so that she could examine the American. By this time, he had been stripped to his underpants and his T-shirt. His face was white as a sheet, and Thanh thought he might be dead. There was no movement in his face and hands.

Checking his pulse, she saw that he was alive. Thanh bandaged his head and feet, and gave him some sugar water and a few sips of alcohol to revive his circulation.

A truck arrived. The future U.S. senator was loaded onto a stretcher, then deposited a few blocks away at a forbidding yellow building bearing the inscription "Maison Centrale," a French-built prison better known to a generation of American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton."

Reeducation vs. The Code of Honor

Article 5 of the code of conduct for American prisoners of war contains a very simple admonition: "I am required to give name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability."

Like the vast majority of American POWs in Vietnam, McCain did not live up to a narrow interpretation of the code. He ended up telling his captors much more than the four celebrated details that have become a staple of Hollywood movies.

Promulgated in 1955 in the wake of the Korean War, the code was an attempt by the Pentagon to counter the communist exploitation of American prisoners that had led to widespread charges of brainwashing and collaboration with the enemy. Unlike the Nazis in World War II, the communists sought to "reeducate" their captives. They used a variety of techniques, from incessant lectures to humiliation to outright torture. The code was designed to prepare U.S. servicemen for the trials they were likely to face as prisoners, and to preserve a sense of military discipline and cohesion.

While the Vietnamese were always anxious to obtain military information, an even more important goal was propaganda. They delighted in destroying the myth of the American "superman" by extracting "confessions" from POWs and getting them to violate their code. "I was what the Americans called a brainwasher," said former military interrogator Luu Dinh Mien, who participated in the initial questioning of McCain, soon after he was brought to the Hanoi Hilton. "We explained to the Americans why we had fought the French, why we were fighting them and why it was wrong for them to bomb us."

While acknowledging a concerted effort to indoctrinate the captives, Mien denies that they were ever tortured, a claim that conflicts with the testimony of numerous American POWs and a well-documented historical record going back to Vietnam's first "war of liberation" against the French in the early 1950s. He remembers McCain as a prisoner "who liked to talk" and who frequently boasted about his family's naval traditions.

At the time, the Americans were unaware of their interrogators' names and gave them nicknames based on their physical characteristics or personality, such as "Cat," "Slopehead," "Hitler," "Soft Soap," "Dum Dum" and "Frenchy." Judging from his slight build, facial features and early acquaintance with McCain, Mien appears to have been the interrogator known to the POWs as "Chihuahua."

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