One Man?s Struggle to Stay Alive
Over the years John Sidney McCain, the white haired Senator from Arizona has survived many things. He has endured three plane crashes, a firestorm at sea, and a North Vietnamese prison camp, to emerge as a major player in the national political scene. The Vietnam War had a significant impact on Senator McCain. McCain spent five and a half years in North Vietnamese prisons, thirty-one months in solitary and was brutally tortured. Yet, almost immediately upon his release in 1973, he began putting Vietnam behind him. This lighthearted man has rarely lost sight of what he has called ?the shadow of Vietnam? (Timberg 12). Due to his continuing contributions to the United States, John McCain has become a true American hero and would make an excellent president for our country.
. John McCain grew up in a family rich with Navy heritage. John McCain?s grandfather was one of the navy?s greatest commanders and led the strongest aircraft carrier force of the Third Fleet. McCain?s father who was a submarine commander during World War II was equally distinguished by heroic service in the navy. Both McCain?s father and grandfather rose to the rank of four-star admiral, making the McCain?s the first family in American history to achieve that distinction. John McCain III followed in his grandfather and father?s footsteps when he entered the U.S. Navy Academy in 1951. McCain struggled during his four years at the academy, but in June 1954, he graduated with 899 other young men. The Class of ?58 had been whittled down by 25 percent. Of the 899 who endured the four years at the U.S. Navel Academy, John McCain was one of them, standing fifth from the bottom. The Navel Academy was very rigid for McCain, but even as a teenager, he showed presidential traits, perseverance being one of them. This feature is extremely important for John McCain if he wants to be the man to lead our country.
John McCain continued to press on and in August 1958, McCain reported to flight school at Pensacola were he would begin his Navy career. Little did McCain know that his quick thinking would be tested not just once, but three times during his flying. One Saturday morning, as McCain was practicing landings, his engine quit and his plane plunged into Corpus Christi Bay. McCain survived with minor injuries but that would be his first of many brushes with death (Norman).
The fall of 1965, John McCain had his second encounter with death where again, his quick thinking would save him. He was flying solo to Philadelphia to watch the Army-Navy game when his engine died. At one thousand feet, he ejected, landing on a deserted beach moments before the plane slammed into a clump of trees. McCain?s perseverance and quick thinking has been tested and both times, he has shown true leadership qualities that every president needs (Norman).
Once again, John McCain?s skills would be tested. On July 29, 1967, he was where he wanted to be, on the flight deck of a Navy Aircraft. Before taking off to bomb Hanoi, McCain was going through his preflight checks, when a stray voltage from his plane blew apart the exterior fuel tank on McCain?s bomber. Two hundred gallons of highly flammable gas streamed onto the flight deck engulfing everything in its path. McCain still strapped in the cockpit of his plane was surrounded in a gulf of flames. McCain, quickly jumping out of his plane onto the flight deck, escaped just before the burning fuel set fire to his plane. When it was all over, 134 men were dead, missing, or injured. McCain and the other pilots in his squadron lost all hope in fighting the Vietnam War. All hope was restored when another Air Carrier had been losing pilots and where looking for volunteers to fill the ranks. John McCain signed on to the new squadron (Timberg).
John McCain?s new assignment had finally come on October 26, 1967, when he took flight to Vietnam to bomb a power plant in Hanoi. Little did McCain know that Hanoi was now more heavily defended against air attacks than any other city in history. Just as McCain had released his bomb, a missile locked onto his aircraft. The missile took out his right wing, sending his plane into a violent downward spiral. Ejecting before his plane spun wildly out of control, he smashed his right knee into the instrument panel shattering his kneecap. He also broke both arms due to the uneven air pressure in the cockpit and atmosphere. McCain landed in a small lake in the center of Hanoi. Before he had time to inspect his wounds, Vietnamese soldiers grabbed him and pulled McCain to shore. They then interrogated him and inflicted more wounds to his body. The uniform soldiers threw McCain in the back of a truck, headed for Hao Lo prison, North Vietnam?s largest Penitentiary. Once there, they bandaged his wounds and proceeded to interrogate him until he provided military information. Receiving none, the Vietnamese soldiers left McCain for dead. Aware that he might die, McCain struggled to stay alive. Then a glimmer of hope arose when the camp official walked in. The official asked McCain, ?Your father is a big admiral,? McCain replied, ?Yes, my father is an admiral.?
?Now we take you to the hospital,? said the camp official (Timberg 80).
After two weeks, McCain was shifted to another part of the hospital where a doctor attempted to set his right arm with out anesthesia with no luck. Giving up, the doctor placed a plaster cast on McCain that ran from his waist to his neck. After McCain was put in the cast, he was moved to Hanoi where he would spend the next five and a half years.
While in Hanoi, a French television crew interviewed him; it was later aired in America on CBS Television. McCain?s health was fading fast, until he was moved from the hospital to a plantation where fellow American prison inmates nursed McCain back to health. When McCain was finally able to get around by himself, his cellmate, Bud Day was removed from the cell and McCain was left alone for the next two years.
During the first month alone in his cell, the camp officer asked McCain, ?Do you want to go home?? (Timberg 92) McCain denied the offer, realizing that there was going to be hell there on. McCain was correct, a week later fourteen guards beat him senselessly for several days until he had signed a confession. Feeling that he had dishonored his country, McCain tried to hang himself. Before he could get the rope around his neck a guard burst into his cell pulling McCain away from the window. Two decades later, McCain stated, ?I don?t know whether I would have actually gone through with it or not?? ?I have no idea. I kind of doubt it? (Howes 14). In the thirty-one months that McCain spent in solitary confinement, he was let out only once.
It was Christmas Eve 1968, and the prison guards set up a church service for the prisoners. After being ordered to participate, McCain spoiled the service because he knew that it was propaganda. Returning to his cell, he received the beating he knew would come. Then on Christmas Eve 1970, McCain was finally let out of solitary and placed with fifty other American soldiers. McCain could not believe his good fortune; it was the perfect Christmas present (Timberg 102). McCain spent most of his remaining imprisonment there, though he was moved for a time to a small camp near the Chinese border. Orson Swindle remembered the John McCain of this period:
He looked sort of funny when he talked to you. He just couldn?t move his arms very much, nothing above his shoulders. Yet, the rascal was over there doing push-ups. They were a funny sort of push-ups, sort of tilted. And he would run in place. We occupied a lot of our time with exercises, and he was stiff-legged, bouncing as best he could running in place. And an absolute chain-smoker. I?ve seen John have two or three cigarettes lighted at the same time. (Norman 189)
On March 14, 1973, John Sidney McCain was released from the POW camp. He had survived near death experiences and years of torture. Using the skills, he had learned, such as perseverance and quick thinking, and believing that the United States is the best country in the world, he was ready to put his dreams into action.
The war and its aftermath ushered in troubled times for those who served in Vietnam. Unlike veterans of other wars, many came home to hostility, hatred, laughter, and at best indifferences. Yet, thousands of men came home maimed or emotionally shattered by the war. In the confusing aftermath of the conflict, these veterans found little meaning in their lives. John McCain belongs to yet another group, probably the largest, and the one that waited patiently for America to come to its senses. Unlike most Vietnam veterans, McCain and other POWs were welcomed home as heroes. To many Americans they were. To others, they symbolized the national drama that effectively marked the end of the nation?s participation in the Vietnam War. As in Hanoi, McCain was also one of the best-known prisoners. McCain using his fame and fortune returning to the United States would use his POW experience as a stepping-stone to start his career in politics.
John McCain started the long process of a promising political career by taking odd jobs in Washington. For four years, McCain did the dirty work for Senators. Never the less, he gained the trust and admiration of the Senators, developing special relationships with some of the Senate?s most powerful figures. McCain?s popularity was wide and deep, and he was in demand for overseas escort duty of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.
In the spring of 1979, McCain became a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committee to represent the United States. While on one of his overseas trips, McCain met a beautiful woman by the name of Cindy. Cindy was the daughter of a wealthy Anheuser-Busch distributor, who was teaching disabled teenage children. Before John met Cindy, he had been previously married for fifteen years. McCain loved his first wife dearly, but he lost five and a half years of his life to Vietnam. In an interview with Sam Donaldson McCain said, ?I?m responsible for the breakup of my first marriage, and I will always bear that responsibility. And I am not proud of it? (McCain Interview). However, how understanding would voters be if McCain decided to run for a political office due to marital problems or would they not consider McCain as a hero, but rather, as just another Vietnam veteran?
McCain considered all the objectives, but he had decided to start his life over again. ?I think he was determined that his future was not going to be controlled by those five and a half years and his POW experience,? said former POW. ?He saw Cindy as the focus for his regeneration? (Timberg 132). After his Armed Services and Foreign Relations committee job came to a halt, McCain went on with his political career quietly but effectively assisting Senator Jim McGovern for the next two years.
After McCain?s two years with McGovern, he decided it was time for a change. Carol and John moved to Arizona to gain residency so he could run for Congress in 1982. The year leading up to McCain?s congressional victory in Tucson, Arizona, he took an active role in the state Republican Party. He helped with fund raising, local campaigns, and dinner speeches to raise his profile. McCain also led a grueling schedule of door-to-door campaigning six hours a day, six days a week. In the end the hard work paid off and on Election Day, McCain won. McCain had done it! Over the next sixteen years, John McCain would win two more elections, not as a congressional representative, but as a US Senator of Arizona. McCain?s political success does not end yet, on April 13, 1999, McCain announced that he was a candidate for President of the United States. Although McCain?s Presidential candidacy was short-lived, he continues to be a prominent figure on the American political landscape.
Through all of John McCain?s experiences in life, he exemplifies a true American hero. His resistances to complacency with the guards made all of the other POWs respect him. As the stories spread to the American people he went from a nobody at the bottom of his graduating class at the United States Naval Academy, to a United States Senator from Arizona, to a former candidate for the upcoming presidency. He has shown qualities like no other U.S. presidential candidate before him. He has turned his experiences into positives and has proven his leadership skills through each. Perseverance, quick thinking, and the love of his country are just a few. John McCain is not only an American hero but also the most qualified man for America as the next U.S. President.
McCain, John. Interview. 20/20. ABC News. 8 Sept. 1999
Norman Geoffrey. Bouncing Back: How a Heroic Band of POWs Survived Vietnam.
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Timberg, Robert. John McCain An American Odyssey. New York: Touchstone, 1999.