Magazine article Sea Classics

THE ORDEAL OF JOHN McCAIN: The Right Stuff in the Wrong War

Magazine article Sea Classics

THE ORDEAL OF JOHN McCAIN: The Right Stuff in the Wrong War

Article excerpt

Naval flyer John McCain proved he was made of the "Right Stuff" after being shot down and made a POW during the Vietnam War

John Sidney McCain, of Phoenix, Arizona, born 29 August 1936 in the then-US Canal Zone, graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1958 and from the National War College in 1974. What most people remember about him, however, is that, as a Communist Prisoner-of-War, he suffered two broken arms, a broken shoulder and a broken leg, plus a bayonet wound in the groin and years of enemy beatings and other bodily torture - all in the service of his country and the American people. He is a hero par excellence.

On 26 October 1967, he climbed into his Douglas A-4E Skyhawk aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany and took off as part of a 20-plane mission to bomb a power plant in Hanoi, the capital city of enemy North Vietnam during the middle years of that war in far-off Southeast Asia.

What happened next propelled him into the history books of the Vietnam War as its most-famous American POW, to the US House of Representatives and Senate and then on to the race for the Presidency in 2000.

According to author Robert Timberg, "Hanoi was now more heavily defended against air attack than any city in history." McCain was about to learn what that meant. "Closing on the target, he weaved through air bursts and hurtled past Surface-to-Air (SAM) missiles that looked like airborne telephone poles. His instrument panel lit up, telling him a SAM had locked onto his aircraft. He punched out some chafe to confuse the missile's guidance system, then rolled in and released his bombs. He was pulling out of his dive when a SAM took off his right wing, sending his plane into a violent downward spiral."

The Soviet-built SAMs were first used in Vietnam on 24 July 1965 against a flight of four US Air Force F4C aircraft. Notes Patrick K. Parker, "Codenamed the SA-2 Guideline by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and known to the Soviets as the S-75, this missile ushered in a new era in air combat." SA-2 missiles carried a high-explosive warhead of approximately 300-lbs. This missile could reach speeds up to Mach 3.5, but not until it was well over 25,000-ft in altitude ... By 1972, the DRVs SAM system was one of the most sophisticated and formidable in the world. Through 1968 alone, it was partially responsible for the downing of 922 fixed-wing aircraft over the DRV.

"The system also forced the United States to respond by developing an equally sophisticated method of aerial attack. This method, which included new aircraft, early precision guided munitions, and substantial improvements in electronic warfare, did slow the rate of US losses, but it never completely overcame the threat posed by DRV SAMs."

Here is how then-Lt. McCain recalled what happened next: "I knew I was hit. ... I radioed Tm hit,' reached up and pulled the ejection seat handle. I struck part of the airplane, breaking my left arm, my right arm in three places, and my right knee, and I was briefly knocked unconscious by the force of the ejection. Witnesses said my chute had barely opened when I plunged into the shallow water of True Bach Lake. I landed in the middle of the lake, in the middle of the city, in the middle of the day." He adds wryly, "An escape attempt would have been challenging."

He recalls regaining consciousness when he broke the surface of the water, but, dragged down by 50-lbs of gear, rapidly touched bottom before he could kick off with his still undamaged one leg. Unable to pull the toggle on his life vest, he sank a second time to the bottom, then again reached the surface, and succeeded in inflating the vest with his teeth before blacking out.

Hauled to the shore by a crowd of 20 North Vietnamese, he was beaten, stabbed, kicked, spit on, stripped and struck - and had his shoulder broken by the fierce buttstrike of a rifle. He was saved by a woman who "applied bamboo splints to [his] leg and right arm. …

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