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In Ordeal as Captive, Character Was Shaped
In his memoir, McCain says he was denied medical treatment for four or five days until his captors discovered that his father was "a big admiral" and took him to a hospital. In fact, it seems likely that the Vietnamese understood the propaganda value of their new prisoner even earlier. Radio Hanoi was boasting about the capture of "John Sidney McCain" within hours of his shootdown. By the following day, Oct. 27, American news agencies had confirmed that the son of Adm. John S. McCain II, the commander of U.S. forces in Asia, had been taken down over Hanoi.
The "Crown Prince" received a steady stream of curious visitors during his first few weeks in Hanoi. Everyone wanted to take a look at him, from Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the vanquisher of the French at Dien Bien Phu, to a famous Vietnamese writer, Nguyen Tuan. Tuan later described a rambling conversation with the captured pilot in his hospital bed in which they talked about Ernest Hemingway, McCain's dream of writing a book someday and his near-escape from death months earlier in an accident onboard the USS Forrestal. Tuan, who died in 1987, said he left the hospital room in disgust when McCain began talking about his "family honor."
A lengthy article in the Vietnamese Communist Party newspaper, Nhan Dan, on Nov. 9 quoted the "piratical pilot" with a "pretty good-looking face" expressing admiration for Hanoi's "extremely powerful" antiaircraft defenses. "It's obvious that the spirit of the Vietnamese people is very high," McCain was quoted as saying. "The United States is isolated."
Around this time, a French television reporter, Francois Chalais, recorded a five-minute interview with McCain in his hospital bed. Snippets of the interview, in which the injured pilot is shown providing his name, rank and serial number, have been aired in McCain campaign advertisements. The most emotional exchange came at the end when Chalais invited McCain to send a message to his family. Clearly in great pain from his injuries, McCain choked up and seemed to have trouble getting out the words: "I would just like to tell . . . my wife . . . I'm gonna get well . . . I love her."
McCain later wrote that "Chihuahua," who was observing off-camera, was unhappy with his answers. He wanted McCain to express gratitude to his captors, but McCain refused, saying only that he was being "treated well." Chalais helped the prisoner by saying that he was happy with his answer. McCain later expressed regret that he had violated the code of conduct by talking about his ship and squadron number.
Other POWs say McCain had little choice. "You didn't get a vote on it when they took you to these interviews," said retired Air Force Col. George "Bud" Day, who later shared a cell with McCain. "Somebody with a rifle marched you into a quiz, and you had no idea what you were getting into before you got there."
Propaganda At the 'Plantation'
The prison camp that served as the backdrop for McCain's greatest trials in Vietnam was not the Hanoi Hilton, but a place known to the Americans as the "Plantation." A former military film studio, it was the stage for what another POW, Sam Johnson, called "the best-orchestrated propaganda show this century has beheld."
McCain was sent to the Plantation around Dec. 8 after a clumsy operation in the hospital to reset his arm. He was placed in a room with Day and another recent shootdown, Air Force Maj. Norris Overly, in a block the Americans called the "Gun Shed."
The new arrival seemed "on the verge of death" to Day. He was "extremely skinny, his eyes were feverish, and he was absolutely filthy." His right arm poked out of a body cast that had not been aligned properly, he was unable to feed himself, and he stank terribly.
Since Day was also in bad shape, Overly had the job of cleaning McCain up and nursing him back to health. McCain would later credit Overly with saving his life, but their paths diverged in February 1968, when Overly accepted a Vietnamese offer of early release. The code of conduct forbade POWs from accepting amnesty or other "special favors" from their captors; commanders insisted that prisoners should be released in order of capture. The Vietnamese sought to gain maximum propaganda from the releases by handing over carefully selected POWs to American peace groups. McCain would never speak to Overly again.
Conditions at the Plantation were somewhat better than at some of the other camps, including the Hanoi Hilton. According to Day, there was "very little obvious torture going on." Many of the prisoners, including McCain, were candidates for early release. The camp authorities wanted to ensure that they spoke positively of their treatment once they returned to the United States.
The camp was also used as a movie set for propaganda films, including a two-hour East German documentary called "Pilots in Pajamas" that featured seemingly contrite American officers criticizing the war and denouncing the Johnson administration.