In a way, John McCain trained in the art of defiance years before his de-winged aircraft cratered into a Hanoi lake.
His Vietnamese captors pulled him from the water, stabbed him repeatedly with a bayonet and crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt. His right knee was twisted at a 90-degree angle. Provide helpful information, they told him, and medical care for his shattered body would be provided. McCain refused, and was beaten unconscious.
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Prison guards were in charge at that moment, and some semblance of that violent cause and effect — McCain’s refusal to abide, leading to anguishing torture — would be a recurring feature of his more than five years of imprisonment until his release with hundreds of other prisoners in March 1973.
The senator from Arizona died Saturday at his ranch in Sedona. His family announced Friday that he had discontinued medical treatment for brain cancer.
The guards in Hanoi were in a long line of disciplinarians who tried and failed to corral McCain for decades, stretching from his maverick persona cemented at the Naval Academy to his rebellious streak as a senator against the leader of his party, President Trump.
Yet McCain’s infamous streak of bucking authority at Annapolis may have prepared him to defy his captors and survive the physically and psychologically harsh conditions of confinement at Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton.
“Saying no to his captors came easily and naturally to John McCain,” said Alvin Townley, author of “Defiant,” a history of the most die-hard American prisoners of the Vietnam War.
McCain, the worst of the Annapolis ‘Bad Bunch’
Before his captivity, McCain honed the art of insubordination at a place created to pulverize individualism into obedience.
“I was really rebellious,” McCain said of his time as a midshipman at the Naval Academy, class of 1958. “I mean, really rebellious.” Years later, he said he resented the academy and hazing rituals that haunted him and his father.
His father, John S. McCain Jr., was an undersized but scrappy “middie” who himself earned poor marks at the academy before he commanded all forces in Vietnam during his son’s captivity. The family’s naval patriarch, John S. “Slew” McCain Sr., was posthumously awarded the rank of full admiral. He died in 1945, four days after he witnessed the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri.
He was also a mediocre midshipman who surpassed fellow graduates who’d had much higher grades, as if success following a tumultuous period at Annapolis was hereditary.
John S. McCain III quickly took up that mantle. He developed a reputation for partying and defying authority as he struggled to reconcile how much a career in the Navy was by his own design.
“There were times in my youth when I harbored a secret resentment that my life’s course seemed so preordained,” he wrote in his 1999 memoir, “Faith of My Fathers.”
McCain published a new memoir in the spring, “The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations.”
Sarcastic yet iron-willed, McCain wrote in his 1999 book that he scaled the academy’s wall (a serious infraction) countless times to drink and flirt with women in town. A group of rabble-rouser middies, the “Bad Bunch,” coalesced around McCain. To be around McCain away from school grounds, one classmate said, “was like being in a train wreck,” biographer Robert Timberg wrote in “John McCain: An American Odyssey.”
The pseudonymous Capt. Ben Hart, described in McCain’s memoir as the “bull-necked Marine” company officer who oversaw him, was obsessed with catching McCain in the act of serious infractions. He resorted to stiff punishment for minor offenses, McCain wrote, in an effort to drum him out of the academy with piecemeal violations.
Demerits piled up faster than the homework assignments McCain often ignored. Marks on the record are given to midshipmen for everything from substandard appearance to arriving late to formation. McCain was among a few proud members of “the Century Club” — middies who earned more than 100 demerits in a year, and McCain constantly tap-danced on the line between perpetual misconduct and expulsion.
In one escapade, Hart poached a contraband TV hidden in a crawl space and circulated among the middies. He wrote up McCain for the infraction: 30 demerits, almost certain to send McCain home. A game similar to rock-paper-scissors was played to see which middie would take the fall for McCain.
A well-behaved comrade absorbed the demerits, and the TV, McCain wrote.
McCain’s unrelenting behavior earned the derision of his superiors but the respect of his classmates. In one notable incident during his sophomore year, McCain saw a senior dress down a Filipino steward as if he were a first-year plebe. McCain forcefully stood up to the senior in the cafeteria — a serious and public breach of academy hierarchy.
The senior backed down and left. His roommate, Frank Gamboa, said McCain was the only one in the company who would have stood up for the steward.
“Give me a couple weeks to think about it, and I might have been that brave,” Gamboa said of the incident, Timberg wrote.
McCain successfully outfoxed Hart and graduated in 1958. Only five other midshipmen out of 899 ranked lower.
A defiant prisoner
Nine years later, after he nearly drowned in Truc Bach Lake, McCain would finally be ahead of his colleagues — no American prisoner arrived at the Hanoi Hilton in worse condition than he, John Hubbell wrote in the book “P.O.W.”
His smashed knee ballooned to the size of a football and was the same shade of brown, and multiple limbs were mangled. Blood pooled in his knee, provoking a fear of sepsis. His captors demanded intelligence in exchange for medical care.
McCain refused, and for days he languished in and out of consciousness before he decided to buy time by giving them information. But it was too late and his state too grave to help him, his captors said. He was left for dead until one of the men discovered that McCain was the son of an admiral, Timberg wrote.
The propaganda value of releasing a prominent captive was attractive to the Vietnamese, who went to lengths to portray their treatment as humane.
But McCain was adamantly opposed to early release, spewing expletives at his captors, who beat him in response, Timberg wrote. He adhered to the code of conduct: Only leave the prison together, or in order of capture. Do not accept early release.
The North Vietnamese had removed 11 particularly unruly captives from the Hanoi Hilton and isolated them in a prison they dubbed “Alcatraz” at the North Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense, Townley told The Washington Post. That group included future Medal of Honor recipient James B. Stockdale, who led the men alongside fellow captive Jeremiah Denton.
Their crafted mission — “to return with honor” — included an edict that said unity and resistance were expected of the men.
They were dragged from the Hanoi Hilton and shackled at Alcatraz in late October 1967, just before an antiaircraft missile brought down McCain’s aircraft. The “Alcatraz Gang” was gone, but their code to defy their Vietnamese captors lingered in the decrepit cells of Hoa Lo Prison.
“John McCain put those edicts on like armor,” Townley said.
It became a routine for McCain. No to early release. No to special treatment. The defiance incensed the guards, who met his refusals with more beatings. “Fighting back, even as an exercise in impotence, did a lot for McCain. It got him through the night, kept him sane, helped him maintain his self-respect,” Timberg wrote.
But the guards found an instrument to finally bend McCain. The ropes.
The guard cinched McCain’s shattered arms behind his back for hours at a time, arriving on a schedule to tighten them. His limbs cracked and popped under the favored method of extracting bogus confessions of war crimes. “Nobody beat the ropes,” Townley said.
McCain signed a statement calling himself an “air pirate.” After that, McCain tried to hang himself with his shirt before a guard intervened.
Many POWs feel a distinct shame in surrendering or breaking while in captivity, said Hampton Sides, author of “Ghost Soldiers,” a chronicle of the mission to rescue prisoners who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II.
“It’s deeply embedded in human DNA, and perhaps more in American DNA, that you don’t surrender,” he told The Post.
Survival and defiance, and the link between them, seemed intuitive for McCain.
In one instance as spring 1968 approached, visiting North Vietnamese dignitaries toured the prison grounds and encountered McCain. His language was so forcefully obscene it repulsed and blew them from the prison “like tumbleweeds.” McCain yelled that he would reject early release and amnesty. It earned McCain solitary confinement for two years.
“You can’t imagine the example John set for the rest of the camp by doing that,” former prisoner Jack Van Loan told Timberg.
The moment was reminiscent of an earlier era of McCain in the academy dining hall: rebuking authority in defense of his values, with an outcome far from certain.
In 1973, in a moment that marked the end of the Vietnam War for many, 591 prisoners were released as part of Operation Homecoming.
Despite his captors’ offers of early release, McCain remained a prisoner until then. To return with honor, the prisoner edict said, you must return together.
It was perhaps one of few moments when John S. McCain III followed the rules.
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