Sorry, Trump: The Story of John McCain the War Hero

John McCain's war record
The story of John McCain's war record and Donald Trump's attack. Yuri Gripas/Reuters

One can't help but wonder what it would take to get Donald Trump to call someone a war hero. He says John McCain is no hero, that all he did in Vietnam was to get captured, and called him a "loser" because he failed to win the Presidency of the United States in 2008.

On October 26, 1967, McCain's A4 Skyhawk was hit by a North Vietnamese surface-to air-missile and was upside down and out of control by the time he was able to eject into a lake in the middle of Hanoi. His limbs flailed so wildly as he fell  that both arms and one leg were broken. After he was pulled ashore by the North Vietnamese, a rifle butt was slammed into his left shoulder, breaking it, and a bayonet was stabbed into his left foot. He was in the worst physical condition of any of the hundreds of Americans sent to Hanoi's Hoa Lo prison – the words Hoa Lo translate into "fiery furnace." Its American guests dubbed it "The Hanoi Hilton." It wasn't much like a Hilton.

Like most Americans who entered Hoa Lo, McCain, despite his severe injuries, was immediately brutalized. Ordered to identify future American targets for bombing, he replied with name, rank and serial number.  The Geneva Convention requires nothing more of prisoners of war, and that is all that the U.S. Code of Conduct allows of its own military if captured, or requires of any prisoners it takes. Following McCain's answer, two of the interrogators' large assistants took several turns encouraging him to cooperate by grabbing the front of his T-shirt and smashing their fists into his face.

RTR3H44 Vietnam war veteran and former Republican presidential frontrunner, Senator John McCain of Arizona peeps through a hole in a prison cell door at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" jail. Reuters

McCain was in terrible pain, but believed that since Hanoi was a Geneva signatory, he would be taken care of until he was taken to a hospital. It didn't happen. He received no medical attention, and the interrogation and the brutalities continued. Days passed. Increasingly weak and feverish, McCain says he was forced to lay in his own waste. He was unable to use his hands, so occasionally guards were ordered to feed him. Still, he gave his captors only his name, rank and serial number. He was told that he was not a prisoner of war but a criminal, and that he had no rights.

In the spring of 1968, McCain's father, Admiral John S, McCain, Jr., was appointed CinCPAC, Commander-in-Chief Pacific, Commander of all U.S. military forces from the west coast of the Americans to the Indian Ocean. By this time, Hanoi's propaganda tactics included the occasional release of American captives who had agreed to go home and speak well of Hanoi's "humane" and "lenient" treatment. When Hanoi learned the identity of McCain's father they crowed, "We have the crown prince!" and he was asked, "Do you want to be released?"

RTR3JBU A black and white photograph taken in 1967 of then captured navy pilot John McCain is shown as part of an exhibit on American prisoners of war in Hanoi's Hoa Lo prison April 28. Reuters

McCain admits that he was tempted. He was in dire need of serious medical attention, he had dysentery and was rapidly losing weight he could not afford to lose. His chances of surviving this seemingly endless war were diminishing. He said he'd have to think about it.

A few days later he says his interrogator said, "The senior officer wants to know your answer."

"My answer is no," McCain said.

"Why?"

"Our Code of Conduct says we must not accept parole, amnesty or special favors."

McCain says his captors said they were anxious to demonstrate their good will. "President Johnson has ordered that you go home."

"Show me the orders."

They couldn't; there were no such orders.

"The doctors say you cannot live if you do not go home."

"The prisoners must be sent home in the order in which they were captured," McCain says he replied.

"What is your final answer?"

"My final answer is No."

Then, he recalls, his captors angrily told him, "It is going to be very bad for you now, McCain."

And it was. Eight or 10 prison guards piled into him, howling with laughter, trying to outdo each other, pounding his face and his slowly mending limbs, battering him.

That was followed by several days of steady torture.

RTR1XWQ3 A tourist points at an undated black and white picture which shows a Vietnamese army doctor giving treatment to John McCain at Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi March 4, 2008. Kham/Reuters

Somehow, John McCain gutted it out, survived. He spent five years in Hoa Lo for refusing to cooperate with his country's enemy. He would never again be able to lift either arm above his shoulders. But he became one of the inspirational leaders of the hundreds of POWs who made it through. He came home and so far has given more than 40 more years of his life to the service of his country, in the Navy, as a member of both Houses of Congress and as the Republican nominee for the Presidency and again in Congress.

Donald Trump called him a "loser," but to me, John McCain sounds much more like someone American kids once read about in history books, someone like Nathan Hale, who is remembered as one of the American Revolution's great heroes because on September 22, 1776, as his British captors prepared to hang him, he regretted that he had only one life to give for his country.

John Hubbell, a roving editor at Reader's Digest, is the author of P.O.W.: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner-of-War Experience in Vietnam, 1964-1973