John McCain:
Leadership and Courage
for More than Forty Years

October 26, 2007 -- Forty years ago today, Arizona Senator and Presidential hopeful John McCain was shot down on a bombing mission over Hanoi. McCain had just released his bombs over the power plant when his A-4 was hit by a surface-to-air missile, ripping off one of the wings.

As the jet spiraled out of control, McCain was forced to eject over downtown Hanoi. He broke both arms and one leg when the ejection seat fired, leaving him completely defenseless. He was lucky enough to land in a lake in downtown Hanoi, and after sinking all the way to the bottom, was somehow able to inflate his life vest by pulling on the fitting with his teeth.

He was immediately surrounded by Vietnamese, who bayonetted him before transporting him to Hao Lo Prison, the infamous "Hanoi Hilton."

John McCain as a POW in Vietnam, after attempt to reset his broken right armAfter an unsuccessful attempt to reset his right arm, without benefit of anesthesia, McCain was fitted with a plaster cast from the waist up, holding his arm up at an awkward angle. (If you watch when McCain lifts his arm, you can tell that something is not quite right, because it raises from a point below the shoulder, as a result of those injuries and the lack of proper medical care.)

Certain that McCain would not survive his injuries, prison officials placed him in the care of USAF Col. George (Bud) Day, a move which would allow them to say he died in American hands.

But McCain was determined not to die, and Medal of Honor recipient Bud Day was determined not to let him. Day nursed McCain back to health, at least as close as they could come, and as soon as McCain was able to walk on crutches, Day was removed from his cell.

McCain would spend the next 31 months in solitary confinement. That gives a man plenty of time with his own thoughts, to learn who he really is. And John McCain was, and is, a man of faith, integrity, and courage.

When his captors learned that the 31-year-old McCain was the son of a high-ranking Navy Admiral, he became eligible for "special treatment." He was routinely tortured, brutally.

The only time he was allowed out of his solitary cell was to attend a Christmas Eve service. After being ordered to participate, and despite the knowledge that it would result in a severe beating, McCain spoiled the service because he realized it would be used as propaganda, as "proof" of their humane treatment.

As a result of his father's rank, McCain was offered early release. Again, determined not to be a propaganda tool for the Communists, he refused to leave before the men who had been captured earlier than he was.

When he was shot down, McCain's mother and wife both believed he had died, because no one had seen a parachute. Roberta McCain, known as "Johnny's mother," says learning that her son was a prisoner of war was "the best news she'd ever received."

A stirring tribute to McCain by fellow POWs, including Medal of Honor recipient Bud Day.

Back to top of Leadership for more than 40 years

The 2008 Presidential Election

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