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In Ordeal as Captive, Character Was Shaped
Shortly before Overly's departure, McCain and Day were transferred to a cell in the "Chicken Coop," a block on the south side of the camp. A staple topic of conversation was the 1968 presidential campaign. Both men liked the Republican governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who was emerging as Richard M. Nixon's chief rival and had a reputation for being firmly anti-communist. The fact that Reagan was regularly denounced by English-language Radio Vietnam, which was piped into the prisoners' cells, only increased his appeal.
By putting a reverse spin on their captors' propaganda, the two pilots guessed that the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive was being beaten back. At the same time, the antiwar movement in the United States was gathering momentum, causing Johnson to suspend the bombing of North Vietnam. Day traces his old friend's decision to support the "surge" in Iraq back to his dismay at the way, in their view, Johnson allowed himself to be browbeaten by domestic critics. "We got the opportunity to watch a really inept president screw up a war," Day said.
At the end of March, Day was moved out of the Plantation, and McCain found himself in solitary confinement, in a long block on the eastern side of the camp dubbed the "Warehouse," which backed onto a railway trestle. He was placed in Cell 13. The toughest endurance test of his life was about to begin.
'Now It Will Be Very Bad for You'
In his memoir, McCain writes that he was offered early release by the prison system commander, a man known to the POWs as "Cat," and his interpreter, "Rabbit," whom he depicted as "an experienced torturer." He declined the offer on July 4, 1968, on the grounds that he would be violating the code of conduct. His captors were furious. "Now it will be very bad for you, Mac Kane," Rabbit warned.
Former POWs have identified Rabbit as a retired Vietnamese colonel named Nguyen Y. Approached through intermediaries, Y declined to be interviewed, saying he did not want to interfere in the U.S. presidential election.
After being left alone for nearly two months, McCain was accused of "black crimes against the people," left overnight in ropes in stress positions, and beaten and kicked. When he refused to confess, he was thrown into a punishment cell at the back of the Warehouse, where guards returned to administer beatings every two to three hours. After two attempts to commit suicide, McCain signed a "confession," thanking the Vietnamese people for saving his life and describing himself as a "black criminal."
Recommending McCain for a medal after the war, Day would claim that his former cellmate forced his interrogators to "drug him and torture him to get any cooperation," according to a letter on file at the National Archives. Day wrote that McCain suffered "torturous abuse and attempted drugging with what I believe was sodium pentathol," commonly known as a truth serum, "to get him to make propaganda tapes." Day now says he cannot remember the letter and has no evidence that the Vietnamese drugged American POWs.
McCain's refusal of early release is confirmed by a State Department cable dated Sept. 13 from W. Averell Harriman, the head of the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks. The North Vietnamese had told Harriman that they intended to free "Admiral McCain's son" but that he was afraid people might think he had been "brainwashed," thus causing difficulties for his father. Harriman replied that it was more likely that he simply "wanted to be loyal" to his fellow pilots.
Some former POWs say McCain was simply doing his duty. "Refusing early release does not qualify him as a hero," said Michael Benge, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development who spent time in the Plantation after being captured in South Vietnam. "It qualifies him as a military person, following orders."
Alone in his cell, McCain shared his humiliation at being forced to "confess" his crimes with his neighbor, Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Craner. In his acceptance speech to the Republican convention last month, McCain credited Craner with restoring his self-esteem, saying, "Through taps on a wall, he told me I had fought as hard as I could."
Before his death from a heart attack in 1980, Craner told an interviewer that he was sure the Vietnamese could have tortured McCain "right out of the country," forcing him to accept early release, "but I'm sure that's not what they had in mind." That would have defeated the purpose of the releases, which was to demonstrate how well the Americans were being treated.
McCain and Craner earned reputations as "real pains in the neck" to the prison authorities, said Craner's cellmate, Capt. Guy Gruters. "They spent many, many hours on that wall, tapping and talking. It was a wonderful friendship."
While torture was unusual at the Plantation, it was not unknown. Air Force Capt. Ronald Webb, who also ended up in the Warehouse, said guards broke his front teeth and both his wrists because he communicated with his fellow prisoners, in violation of rules. He remembers the boastful claim by one of his interrogators that American prisoners could be divided into the "willing" and "partially willing." The "unwilling" did not survive.
"There was no one in the system who ever resisted completely by giving only name, rank, serial number and date of birth," Webb said. He put McCain into the category of the "partially willing . . . those of us who did the very best we could to resist exploitation by the communists." Every prisoner would "break" eventually; the more important question was whether the cooperation was voluntary or forced, and how much pressure interrogators had to apply to get the answers they wanted.
By the interrogator's definition, the "willing" included prisoners who accepted early release and the "peace clowns," mainly noncommissioned officers, who were given preferential treatment in return for denouncing the war in propaganda broadcasts.
Rather than make immediate use of McCain's "confession," the North Vietnamese waited a year, until June 1969, after Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird denounced the treatment of American POWs. Rebutting Laird's charges, Radio Hanoi broadcast an "interview" with McCain acknowledging his "crimes against the Vietnamese country and people" and praising "the very good medical treatment" he had received from Vietnamese doctors. "Reds Say PW Songbird Is Pilot Son of Admiral" was the headline in the New York Daily News.
In a New Vietnam, Some Subjects Still Closed
In December 1972, the walls of the Hanoi Hilton reverberated with the sound of a massive bombing campaign ordered by President Nixon to force the communists back to the suspended Paris peace talks. The POWs greeted the roar of B-52s with undisguised glee. "There was a lot of yelling and screaming," recalled Lt. Cmdr. Richard Stratton, one of McCain's cellmates at the prison, where McCain was moved three years earlier. "We knew we were going home."
The bombing produced the desired result. One month later, the North Vietnamese agreed to release the POWs and sign a peace settlement. A total of 591 Americans, including McCain, were repatriated in Operation Homecoming in the spring of 1973.
For all the changes that have taken place in Vietnam in the 3 1/2 decades since the war, the torture of American POWs remains a taboo subject for the communist regime. Tran Trong Duyet, the last commander of the Hanoi Hilton, says the Americans "invented" torture stories to win extra compensation from the U.S. government. He claims that the strongest punishment meted out to disobedient prisoners was to order them to face the wall. Such denials fly in the face of the personal experiences of McCain and many of his fellow POWs.
Modern-day Vietnam is a reminder that history can take surprising turns. With its vibrant consumer culture, it is a vastly different country than the grim, repressive society that McCain fought against. Domino theories have given way to Domino's Pizza franchises. The monolithic "Red Menace" has been replaced by a motley assortment of regimes that are more nationalist than Marxist and whose primary goal is the pursuit of wealth.
Fate has been kind to many of the Vietnamese whose lives brushed up against that of the cocksure naval aviator who was shot down over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967, on his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam. The missile commander who targeted him lives in happy retirement in a village outside Hanoi. The nurse who tended to his wounds after he was pulled out of the lake dreams of visiting her daughters and grandchildren in Canada. His onetime interrogator runs a veterans' organization. The Hanoi Hilton's last chief has taken up ballroom dancing.
Vietnamese historians dispute McCain's argument that the United States could have prevailed had it not been for the antiwar movement back home. Nguyen Tung, a researcher at the Vietnamese Institute for International Relations, says Americans were fighting a "limited war" in Vietnam, while Ho Chi Minh and his followers were fighting a "total war." People who fight a limited war tend to think in terms of a "limited time frame," Tung said, while people who fight a total war are willing to "fight forever."
"You could call it a happy ending," Tung said. "What has happened in Vietnam is the best-case scenario for the United States."
McCain has disagreed. While he was willing to provide political cover for President Bill Clinton to restore diplomatic relations with Hanoi in 1995 by calling for reconciliation with the former enemy, he has drawn the line at accepting the Vietnamese version of history.
Making a return visit to Vietnam in 2000, the former resident of the Plantation and the Hanoi Hilton shocked his hosts by saying the "wrong guys" won the war. He reminded reporters that the "hammer and sickle" were still part of the Vietnamese flag and that millions of South Vietnamese had become "boat people" rather than live under a communist regime.
Asked if he stood by the claim that he and other POWs had been brutally tortured, the senator said: "Facts are facts. Truth is truth. History is history. I always tell the truth. I've fought against communism all my life."