On Oct. 26, 1967, Sen. McCain was on
his 23rd mission and his first attack on the enemy capital, Hanoi. He dove his
A-4 on a thermal power plant near a lake in the center of the city.
As he released his bombs on the
target, a Russian-made missile the size of a telephone pole blew off his right
wing. The lieutenant commander pulled his ejection-seat handle and was knocked
unconscious by the force as he was hurled from the plane. He came to when he
hit the lake, where a mob of Vietnamese had gathered.
With both arms and his right knee
broken, he was dragged from the lake, beaten with a rifle butt and stabbed in
the foot with a bayonet. Then Sen. McCain was taken to the French-built prison
that American POWs had dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton."
So began 5 1/2 years of torture and
imprisonment, nearly half of it spent in solitary confinement. During that
time, his only means of communicating with other prisoners was by tapping out
the alphabet through the walls.
At first, his family was told that
he was probably dead. The front page of the New York Times carried a headline:
Adm. McCain's Son, Forrestal Survivor, Is Missing in Raid.
The North Vietnamese, however,
perceived that there was propaganda value in the prisoner. They called him the
"crown prince" and assigned a cellmate to nurse him back to health.
As brutal as his treatment was, Sen. McCain later said, prisoners who lacked
his celebrity endured worse.
Shortly before his father assumed
command of the war in the Pacific in 1968, Sen. McCain was offered early
release. He refused because it would have been a violation of the Navy code of
conduct, which prohibited him from accepting freedom before those who had been
"I knew that every prisoner the
Vietnamese tried to break, those who had arrived before me and those who would
come after me, would be taunted with the story of how an admiral's son had gone
home early, a lucky beneficiary of America's class-conscious society,"
Sen. McCain recalled. "I knew that my release would add to the suffering
of men who were already straining to keep faith with their country."
His lowest point came after
extensive beatings that broke his left arm again and cracked his ribs.
Ultimately, he agreed to sign a vague, stilted confession that said he had
committed what his captors called "black crimes."
"I still wince when I recall
wondering if my father had heard of my disgrace," Sen. McCain wrote.
"The Vietnamese had broken the prisoner they called the 'Crown Prince,'
and I knew they had done it to hurt the man they believed to be a king."
In March 1973, nearly two months
after the Paris peace accords were signed, Sen. McCain and the other prisoners
were released in four increments, in the order in which they had been captured.
He was 36 years old and emaciated.
The effects of his injuries lingered
for the rest of his life: Sen. McCain was unable to lift his arms enough to
comb his own prematurely gray hair, could only shrug off his suit jacket and
walked with a stiff-legged gait.
In his final book, reflecting on his life
as it came to an end, McCain wrote: "It's been quite a ride. I've known
great passions, seen amazing wonders, fought in a war, and helped make a peace.
I made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my