PART 1 — The televised outpouring of admiration for Sen. John McCain after his recent death might make some wonder if his feet quite touched the ground. The TV chattering class are getting a few things wrong, things that matter.
For 50 years, Vietnam veterans have been the target of false stereotypes that assume we are monolithic. But we are as diverse as, well, John McCain and me. I do know one very widespread sentiment among us. We don’t want or need sympathy or apologies for lousy treatment long ago. What we do want is the truth told about us.
So, instead of joining the media’s flower-throwing contest, I’ll honor John McCain with a little truth – grimy edges and all – mostly about his formative military years.
McCain deserves a sharp salute for his sacrifice as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, and for being a major player in American politics, though I often thought he acted like a Democrat plant among his fellow Republicans. I never did like the news coverage that implied McCain spoke for all Vietnam vets. He didn’t, and I never saw him disclaim that false impression.
His critics say McCain graduated 5th from the bottom of his class in the Naval Academy, which reminds me of what we call those who graduate last in their class at medical school – doctor! As an aviator his pilot skills got a slow start; he was careless enough to cause several minor aircraft accidents. But anyone who takes off from and lands on a carrier, especially at night or in heavy weather, gets another sharp salute, at least from me.
As a carrier combat pilot, McCain got the job done but his peers doubted he would be promoted beyond his lieutenant commander rank. He wasn’t Mr. Popularity, long before he became the Maverick of the Senate.
In October 1967, on his 23rd bombing mission in his A-4E Skyhawk, McCain’s aircraft was hit by shrapnel from a SAM missile roughly the size of a telephone pole, and he had to eject. Both his arms and one leg were fractured in the violence of ejection. He and his parachute landed in a small lake where he nearly drowned before he was quickly captured by North Vietnamese, who crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt and stabbed him with a bayonet.
When he arrived at the Hoa Lo prison where POWs were kept, known to Americans by the sarcastic nickname “Hanoi Hilton,” instead of receiving treatment by a doctor, his wounds were beaten for interrogation purposes, and that was just the beginning of the torture he would endure.
When our enemies discovered McCain’s pedigree, his father an important four-star Navy admiral, as his grandfather had been, and considering McCain’s injuries, they wanted to release him to appear merciful to the world. McCain refused, and TV talking heads have made much since his death of the “heroism” in his refusal. There is so much they could learn if they ever took the trouble to scratch below the surface.
As I was reminded by my fellow Vietnam vet and fighter pilot George Harrison, McCain was no more heroic in his refusal to be released than other POWs doing their duty under hard conditions. It wasn’t a matter of heroism, it was a matter of duty and honor, ideas not very widely known these days.
Here’s what the media mavens aren’t telling you because they don’t know anything about it and are too busy following each other to research their story. Every U.S. military service member is trained in the United States Military Code Of Conduct, including Military Rules For Prisoners Of War.
An excerpt from Article III reads: “I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.” Further, in the Hanoi Hilton, the POW chain of command had established policy to maintain discipline, spread through solitary confinement cells by tapped codes. One policy was that nobody goes home out of order, that the first one captured would be the first to go, etc.
Doing his duty was particularly hard for McCain because he was suffering, because he was being pressured to go home, and because his wounds would make the torture soon to come that much worse for him.
Another POW who dealt with duty, honor and out of order release was a very important sailor named Doug Hegdahl, a 20-year-old Navy ammunition handler aboard the cruiser USS Canberra in the South China Sea.
On the night of Apr 6, 1967, on deck at the wrong moment, Hegdahl was knocked overboard by the shock wave of a five-inch-gun muzzle blast and swam for a few hours before he was picked up and turned over to the North Vietnamese. He was taken to the Hanoi Hilton where his interrogators didn’t believe his true story, thinking he was an agent or commando.
Hegdahl sensed and took his opportunity to play an illiterate, dimwitted fool. The North Vietnamese thought he was harmless, nicknamed him “the incredibly stupid one,” and let him stumble freely around the camp. Playing his role well in what appeared to be a demented stupor, Hegdahl quietly spoke through cell doors to POWs in solitary. Meanwhile, back in the USA nobody knew which missing Americans were dead or POWs; the North Vietnamese refused to allow the release of names.
Hegdahl began to memorize POW names to the cadence of the nursery rhyme “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” He memorized 256 names using that rhythm, and when his superiors suggested an early release since the North Vietnamese thought him harmless, he resisted because, like McCain, he wanted to honorably comply with the POW code.
Ordered to accept an early release, on Aug 5, 1969, Hegdahl took home with him vital information: POW names and the first eyewitness accounts of the torture inflicted on them. One of his de-briefers interrupted his recitation of names to ask him if he could slow it down or adjust the order of names. He said “No,” and started his memorized cadence over at the beginning.
After refusing release out of order, McCain was tortured in many ways while suffering dysentery from the starvation diet. He lost 50 pounds and nearly died.
The POWs seemed to most dread a torture method they called “the ropes.” The North Vietnamese would tie a POW’s hands and elbows behind his back, throw the long rope over an overhead beam, then haul him off the floor by his arms being pulled backwards high enough to force shoulders out of sockets, let him hang there for a long time and beat him with fan belts, all to elicit a signed confession of being a war criminal.
Another order, recognizing the reality that every POW breaks at some point, was to hold out as long as possible, in every torture session.
Next time in Part 2, McCain and his fellow captives secretly recite the Pledge of Allegiance to a clandestine flag.
[Terry Garlock in Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. He was a Cobra helicopter gunship pilot in the Vietnam War, shot down and severely wounded. He can be reached at email@example.com.]