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In Ordeal as Captive, Character Was Shaped

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

HANOI The lake into which John McCain parachuted after his Navy plane was shot down is now surrounded by chic restaurants, cellphone stores and motorcycle dealerships. The prison camp where he confessed to being a "black criminal" has been turned into a multiplex cinema showing garish American movies. A five-star hotel occupies the site of the "Hanoi Hilton" jail, where he spent more than three years. The surface-to-air missile sites that once circled Hanoi have been replaced by sprawling industrial parks churning out sneakers and television sets for the U.S. market.

Hanoi and Vietnam have changed dramatically since the war with the United States ended 33 years ago. But for the Republican presidential nominee, the 5 1/2 years he spent as a prisoner of war had an indelible impact, not just because of the terrible injuries he suffered but because of how the ordeal shaped his worldview.

In hushed conversations with his fellow POWs four decades ago, he developed firm beliefs about how the United States should use its military power, lessons that he has sought to apply to the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His resistance of his captors -- especially his refusal to accept an offer that would have freed him before his comrades -- forged his character, taught him the meaning of honor and, eventually, launched him on a meteoric political career.

Before his final, fateful bombing mission, McCain had been a gregarious flyboy "whose ambitions did not go much beyond being a commander of a squadron," according to Joe McCain, his younger brother. The decision to reject early release, Joe McCain believes, was "the most important single moment of his entire life" and turned him into a potential commander in chief. "It showed," his brother said, "that he can make tough decisions in tough times."

Although the story of his imprisonment has been told many times, including by the candidate, a review of tens of thousands of documents and interviews with several dozen Vietnamese and former POWs yields fresh insights into McCain's experience.

For McCain, communism was not a theoretical abstraction; it was an oppressive reality he endured every minute from his capture in October 1967 until his release in March 1973. As the son of a top Navy admiral, who became commander in chief of U.S. forces in Asia in 1968, he was known as the "Crown Prince" and subjected to special attention from his captors. The Vietnamese used McCain and other prisoners to try to convince Americans that their leaders were fighting an unjust war that could not be won.

By his own account, McCain eventually "broke" under torture, a blow to his sense of military honor and self-esteem that led to suicide attempts and hardened his hatred for the communists. Though he shunned efforts by his interrogators to persuade him to accept early release, which would have violated his obligations under the code of conduct for American prisoners, he was nevertheless pushed into making statements critical of the United States and thanking his captors for their "humane" treatment.

Reconstructing the crucial early phase of McCain's imprisonment is complicated by the lack of independently verifiable documentary evidence. He spent much of that time in solitary confinement, able to communicate with his fellow prisoners only sporadically, by whispering messages in shower stalls and tapping laboriously through a thick brick wall. Accounts of his torture by the Vietnamese are largely based on his own reminiscences, particularly his 1999 memoir, "Faith of My Fathers."

The North Vietnamese kept detailed records on individual prisoner interrogations, known as the blue files, but these have never been released. Official U.S. documentation of the abuses suffered by the prisoners is also unavailable. Extensive debriefs of returning POWs remain classified because of privacy restrictions. The McCain campaign did not respond to requests for access to the candidate's postwar intelligence debriefs and his Navy personnel file. Unlike both George W. Bush and John F. Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, McCain has come under little outside pressure to release his military records.

This account is based on a review of records at the National Archives in College Park and the POW-MIA database at the Library of Congress, as well as interviews with former POWs and Vietnamese who had contact with McCain during his captivity.

McCain's Final Mission Over Vietnam

McCain's last mission over Vietnam could serve as an almost perfect illustration of the futility of President Lyndon B. Johnson's bombing campaign known as Operation Rolling Thunder. The target on Oct. 26, 1967, was a thermal power plant in the center of Hanoi. The net result of the raid was three U.S. Navy planes down, minimal disruption of electricity supplies in the North Vietnamese capital and a propaganda windfall for the Vietnamese. The American bombs all fell wide of their target.

"He probably killed a few fish," said retired Maj. Nguyen Lan, the commander of the surface-to-air missile battery that brought down McCain, telling his story in public for the first time. "The Americans never did destroy that power plant," he said laughing.

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.

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."

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.

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."

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