The ropes treatment is real torture. An unknown number of American POWs died from torture in the Hanoi Hilton. By contrast, waterboarding enemy combatants held in Guantanamo Bay, captured in their fight against American troops, was called torture by the pampered dummies on TV news and used for political finger-pointing. The truth is we were waterboarded as part of our military pilot training. It isn’t any fun, but I don’t call it torture. Some do.
During his presidential bid in 2008, John McCain publicly objected to waterboarding as torture and was celebrated for his “principled stand” as he spoke with the immense credibility of one who had withstood brutal torture many times. He also publicly “forgave” his North Vietnamese captors. Partially because I would never forgive those bastards, while the rest of the world took his positions as genuine, I thought he was selling out to political expediency in search of broad voter appeal. We’ll never know for sure.
One of John McCain’s friends and fellow POW, Jim Warner, became a friend of mine in 2004. Our enemy’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, died in the fall of 1969, and thereafter control of the Hanoi Hilton was passed from the Communist Party to the North Vietnamese military. They did away with solitary confinement and daily routine torture, though they did torture when they had a purpose.
Being together at last was a huge boost to POW morale. Warner and McCain shared a cell with some others for a while, and Warner confirmed that McCain upheld the highest POW standards of honor, which is good enough for me to disregard some critics who said otherwise.
When torture was still routine, the North Vietnamese accused Warner of planning an escape. Warner told me he would have been glad to, but had no idea how it could be done. Frustrated they couldn’t make him confess, Warner’s captors put him in a small tin shed in the sun, so hot he couldn’t touch the sides, so low he couldn’t stand, and he couldn’t sit because he had dysentery. They secured chains with leg irons around his ankles. They kept Jim in that shed for a month or so, taking him out every day to beat the hell out of him. When they decided to return him to the Hanoi Hilton, Warner said his ankles were swollen up like footballs and they pried the leg irons out of his inflamed flesh with steel bars. That is real torture.
I don’t know if the TV news echo chamber of gossip will ever do serious research to tell you a notable event before McCain was captured. On July 29, 1967, McCain was aboard the carrier USS Forrestal, at Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin. Strapped into his single-seat A-4E Skyhawk, McCain waited with his strike for their turn at the launch catapult for a bombing mission against targets in North Vietnam.
A malfunction fired an air-to-ground MK-32 Zuni five-inch rocket from another aircraft across the flight deck into McCain’s group of aircraft, turning fuel tanks into an inferno. McCain escaped by crawling out onto the nose of his aircraft and jumping to the deck. He ran back into the flames to help a fellow pilot on fire when, 94 seconds after flames ignited, he was blown backward and wounded by shrapnel in his legs and chest when the first 1,000-pound bomb detonated in the fire.
Bombs blew holes in the flight deck and holes in decks several levels below. 40,000 gallons of ignited fuel poured down to start fires everywhere below. The fire on several decks nearly sank the carrier, killed 134 men and injured 161.
One of McCain’s POW experiences prompted him often in later years to tell a story of the Pledge of Allegiance, a story of honor worth repeating to every American. After they were allowed to bunk together, one of McCain’s fellow POWs named Mike Christian fashioned a bamboo needle. From a dirty red rag and scraps of cloth he scrounged thread and slowly, painstakingly, sewed a rough likeness of an American flag.
POW Leo Thorsness, Medal of Honor recipient, adds to McCain’s story that Christian spent days cleaning up that rag, extracting threads, and using blue ink and ground up red roof tiles for color. Christian hid the flag cloth inside the sleeve of his POW pajamas, and took it out every afternoon to hang it up for the highlight of their day, when they took strength from each other by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
One day the guards found Christian’s flag cloth. They took him away and beat him for a couple of hours then threw him back in their cell. The POWs cleaned Mike up as best they could, then with battered eyes swollen almost shut, Mike hobbled over to a corner under one of the four bare light bulbs in the cell, extracted his needle from its hiding place, and started to work on another flag cloth, because he knew how much the Pledge meant to his fellow POWs.
These men were brothers in a connection so tight the rest of us will never know. McCain spent 5 1/2 years with them.
At McCain’s Sept. 1 televised memorial service, Henry Kissinger recounted how he and McCain had become lifelong friends in the aftermath of Kissinger representing the U.S. at negotiations of the Paris peace accords, withdrawal of American troops and release of POWs. When they first met, Kissinger said, he told McCain on the day in late January 1973 when he signed the final accords and was returning to the U.S., the North Vietnamese, knowing it would take weeks to prepare the POW release, offered to bring McCain to Kissinger’s aircraft so Kissinger could take him home that day, and that after a moment’s thought, Kissinger had said no. Kissinger said McCain’s response was, “Thank you for saving my honor.”
All these things are true. If I could talk to McCain, I would tell him: “I know you are a bundle of virtues and flaws like the rest of us, but especially hardheaded and inflexible; I respect you a ton; I could argue with you for a month about being a Republican but acting like a Democrat; you did it your way and left large footprints; like me, you found the joy of international, interracial adoption; and finally, John, Bravo Zulu!”
(In U.S. Navy signal flag terms, BZ or Bravo Zulu means “well done,” high praise in the Navy.)
[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 firstname.lastname@example.org.]