Who Was John McCain?
Heavy smoke filled the sky as Lieutenant Commander John McCain flew his A-4 bomber plane over Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam. The smoke came from large guns on the ground. They were firing at John’s A-4 and other US planes soaring over the city at more than five hundred miles per hour.
The United States had been at war with North Vietnam for several years. Now, in October 1967, the Americans were carrying out massive bombing raids on the city of Hanoi. John’s job on this day was to drop his bombs on a power plant. It was his twenty-third mission over North Vietnam. He and the other US pilots knew they faced death every time they flew. Despite the risk, they were proud to serve their country.
As John neared the target, the smoke grew thicker. An alarm went off inside his plane. The signal meant that enemy radar was following him. Then another signal went off. John knew that a missile was heading right for him! He was scared, but he was also determined to drop his bombs. A split second after he released them, the missile slammed into his plane. The A-4 spun toward the ground. John pulled a handle to eject his seat out of the plane. A parachute would carry him and the seat to the ground. But as he ejected, his body hit part of the A-4 plane. The impact broke both his arms and his right knee. He was also knocked out by the force of the ejection.
Luckily, he landed in water and was quickly alert again. But with his broken limbs, he struggled to inflate his life jacket. Then he blacked out again. When he came to a second time, North Vietnamese soldiers were pulling him out of the water. Others soon arrived and took John away. He was now a prisoner of war.
John McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner. At times, he was tortured. For the rest of his life, he felt the effects of that abuse and the injuries he received after being shot down. But his experience in North Vietnam convinced him that he wanted to continue to serve his country. He decided he could do that by entering politics.
After the war, he represented the state of Arizona in Congress. And in 2008, he ran for president of the United States. John lost the presidential race to Barack Obama, but he continued to serve in Congress. He was known for his “straight talk”—saying things some people did not like but that he believed to be true. To many Americans, he was a good example of how brave people with strong beliefs can work to make the country better. Chapter 1: A Military Family
The McCain family’s history of military service began long before John Sidney McCain III went to Vietnam. He was born on August 29, 1936. His father, John S. McCain Jr., was then serving in the navy and was based in the Central American country of Panama. At the time, the United States controlled the canal that cuts across the country of Panama. American troops protected what was called the Panama Canal Zone.
John III joined his sister, Sandy. A brother, Joe, was born after him. The McCain children and their mother, Roberta, rarely stayed in one place for long. Lieutenant Commander McCain was often sent to different navy bases.
During World War II, he commanded submarines. After the war, he eventually earned the rank of admiral. His father—John’s grandfather—had also earned that top rank in the navy. In fact, members of the McCain family had fought in every US war going back to the American Revolution.
Because the McCains moved so often, young John found it hard to make lasting friends. It didn’t help that he also tended to get angry easily. At two years old, if John didn’t get his way, he would hold his breath until he passed out! When he began attending school, he often got in trouble for fighting. John was small for his age, and he sometimes felt he had to prove how tough he was by starting these fights.
With his father often away for military duty, John grew close to his mother. From her, he learned to find pleasure whenever he could. Like her, he was outgoing and enjoyed meeting people. And while spending one summer at his grandmother’s house, John discovered that he loved to read. Many of the books were adventure tales, and from them John learned that to be a good person, he should treat people fairly.
At fifteen, John entered Episcopal High School, a private school for boys in Alexandria, Virginia. His parents wanted him to get a good high-school education that would prepare John to enter the US Naval Academy. From an early age, John knew he would attend the academy and then become a navy officer, just as his father and grandfather had.
John continued to get into trouble at Episcopal. The school had strict rules. Students had to wear a jacket and tie to class, and they were expected to keep their rooms clean. John broke the rules almost every chance he got. His room was often messy, and he wore jeans with an old jacket. At times, he broke another rule by leaving his room at night to go to nearby Washington, DC. First-year students at Episcopal were called “rats” by the older students. John earned the nickname “worst rat.”
Sports helped John win some friends at Episcopal. He was a good athlete and played three sports: tennis, wrestling, and football. He also became close with one of his coaches and teachers, William Ravenel. In Mr. Ravenel’s class, John deepened his love of reading. The teacher also taught John the importance of following the school’s code of honor. The code stressed that students should not lie, cheat, or steal. Following the code helped shape a person’s character, or how well or badly they acted. Later in life, John wrote, “It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy.”
In 1954, John graduated from Episcopal and entered the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The rules there were even stricter than they had been at Episcopal, and once again, John got into trouble. He often had to march for miles as punishment for being late to class, not keeping his room clean, or breaking other rules.
John also sometimes struggled with his studies. His favorite subjects were English and history. The academy, though, required many science and math classes—subjects John found difficult. He often asked other students to help him prepare the night before a test. He later said, “I got by, just barely at times, but I got by.” In 1958, he left the academy as an ensign—the lowest rank for an officer in the navy.
For the next several years, John learned how to fly planes. Most navy planes fly from large ships called aircraft carriers. John had to learn the difficult task of taking off and landing while the ship moved through rolling waves. Despite the challenges, he loved being a carrier pilot. During the early 1960s, he served on ships that cruised the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas. John also spent time working on naval bases. In Mississippi, he trained other pilots at a base called McCain Airfield, which had been named in honor of his grandfather.
While in Mississippi, John sometimes traveled to Philadelphia to visit Carol Shepp. They had met in the 1950s when John was at the Naval Academy. In 1965, the couple married. John adopted Carol’s two sons from an earlier marriage, Douglas and Andrew. He and Carol then had a daughter, Sidney.
John loved his family and the good times he had with friends at the navy bases. But what he wanted most of all was to fly planes in combat. He got the chance at the end of 1966: He was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal
. The ship was soon on its way to Vietnam, where the United States was fighting a major war.
By the summer of 1967, John was thirty-one years old and had earned the rank of lieutenant commander. He had flown five bombing missions over North Vietnam. He almost never got the chance to fly his sixth. One day as he prepared to take off, a missile on a nearby plane accidently launched. It hit the fuel tank of another plane and sparked a fire. John jumped out of his plane and ran through the flames. His clothes caught fire, but he was able to put it out. Then, the fire blew up a bomb that had fallen from John’s plane. The blast knocked him back ten feet and pieces of metal pierced his body. All around him, the fire raged, and more bombs exploded.
John was lucky. He survived the terrible accident on the USS Forrestal.
But 134 sailors lost their lives, and the ship was badly damaged. Despite the accident, John wanted to fly again. By the fall of 1967, he was on the carrier USS Oriskany
, once again flying missions over North Vietnam. Chapter 2: Prisoner of War
On October 25, John McCain heard about a bombing mission planned for the next day. He begged to be part of it. He had no way of knowing it would be his last flight of the war.
On October 26, after a missile hit his A-4 bomber plane over Hanoi, John reached the ground and found himself surrounded by local people. He had been successful in dropping his bombs over the intended target. But now he was injured and alone. The North Vietnamese shouted angrily at him. Their city was being destroyed by American pilots, like John, dropping bombs on them. Some of the people hit and kicked him. He realized that he had been very badly hurt during the crash, and these attacks just made everything much worse.
He was taken to a prison that Americans had nicknamed “the Hanoi Hilton.” The name was a joke because the prison was nothing like a fancy Hilton hotel. John spent several days alone in a prison cell. At times, his Vietnamese guards took him to another room and questioned him. They promised him medical care if he told them what they wanted to know about the Americans’ military plans. John refused to talk, so his captors beat him, causing even more injuries.
International law requires that nations at war treat their prisoners well. The North Vietnamese often ignored these rules. Some prisoners were even tortured to death. Still, the North Vietnamese wanted to keep most American prisoners of war (POWs) alive. When the war ended, the North Vietnamese hoped they could get the US government to agree to some of their demands. In return, they would release their POWs.
John feared he would die from his injuries and the torture inflicted on him before the two warring countries ever discussed peace. Then, a stroke of luck saved him. The North Vietnamese learned that his father was a navy admiral. They took him to a hospital, where he received basic care for his wounds. They also did not beat him as severely as other prisoners. The North Vietnamese wanted to keep John alive. They wanted to show the world that they had captured the son of an important American. They nicknamed him “the Crown Prince.”
But keeping John alive didn’t mean the North Vietnamese treated him well. Doctors didn’t fix his broken arms properly, and his health continued to worsen. He had fevers and infections, and he lost weight, falling to less than one hundred pounds.
John asked to be kept with other American POWs, and the North Vietnamese agreed. At a new prison, another POW named Norris Overly helped take care of John. He fed him and helped him move around their cell. Perhaps just as important, John felt better having other Americans to talk to. He became close friends with another cellmate, Bud Day.
After six months as a prisoner, John was still in pain. He needed crutches to walk, and he could not pick up or carry anything. A disease called dysentery made it hard for him to eat, and he was constantly weak and tired. By then, he no longer shared a cell with Overly and Day. For two years, John was alone in his cell.
The North Vietnamese continued to ask John questions about the US military. He always refused to give them any answers or information, and they sometimes beat him because of it. At one point in 1968, the North Vietnamese offered John his freedom. Even though he was in very poor health, he refused to leave before prisoners who had been captured and imprisoned before him. When they heard this, the North Vietnamese beat him even more fiercely than before. The torture was so bad, John finally agreed to sign a confession saying he had committed crimes with his bombing raids. He didn’t believe he had actually committed crimes, but he felt he had reached a breaking point. The physical pain was just too much.
John’s time in prison lasted another four long years. By 1969, his dysentery started to improve. He regained some strength and could even do simple exercises in his cell. At times, he tapped out messages to other prisoners nearby. They created a code with a certain number of taps standing for different letters.
John discovered some important things during his time as a prisoner: He realized how much he loved the country he had been sent to fight for. And he thought about being back in the United States. John’s next goal was to serve his country in any way he could.
Freedom finally came in 1973. In January, US and North Vietnamese officials agreed to stop fighting. US troops would leave Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese would turn over the POWs they held. On March 14, John was released. He soon returned home to the United States and his family. Years later, John said that being a prisoner gave him time to think about what was good about his country: “I loved it for its decency, for its faith in the wisdom, justice, and goodness of its people.”
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