Known in recent years before his death in 2018 as a 'maverick' politician, the late  Arizona senator was a U.S. Navy pilot whose five-and-a-half year struggle as a POW in North Vietnam became legendary. John Sidney McCain III was born on 29 August 1936, in the Panama Canal Zone. Growing up in a military family, he was exposed to the navy life at an early age. McCain's father and grandfather were both four-star admirals in the U.S. Navy, and he followed their footsteps to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, where he graduated in 1958. His father John S. McCain Jr. reached the rank of admiral and served in World War II, Korean War, and the Vietnam War. His grandfather, John S. McCain Sr. served in both World War I and II.

During the Vietnam War, he volunteered for combat duty and served as a ground-attack pilot. In this role, he flew low-altitude bombing runs on the North Vietnamese. McCain's bravery and skill in the air were put to the test in July of 1967 when he narrowly escaped death. While sitting in his jet aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin, a rocket from another aircraft accidentally fired. The missile struck a nearby plane, triggering a massive blaze that resulted in the tragic death of 134 sailors. With the USS Forrestal out of commission, McCain was reassigned and flew from the USS Oriskany.

On 26 October 1967, McCain was shot down on his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam, and became of one of many long-held prisoners of war. His plane was hit by missiles, and McCain had to eject from the aircraft, breaking both his arms and a leg in the process. He landed in Truc Bạch Lake in Hanoi, where he was beaten and bayoneted by his initial rescuers before being taken to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison. His captors refused to treat him, and he was beaten and interrogated to get information.

McCain spent six weeks in the hospital, where he received marginal care. He had lost 50 pounds, he was in a chest cast, and his gray hair had turned white. McCain was sent to a different camp on the outskirts of Hanoi. In December 1967, McCain was placed in a cell with two other Americans, who did not expect him to live more than a week. In March 1968, McCain was placed into solitary confinement, where he remained for two years. During this time, McCain's captors repeatedly tortured him and other prisoners to extract information and propaganda statements. However, McCain remained defiant, refusing to give in to his captors' demands. His fellow prisoners admired his courage and resilience in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Top right: Lieutenant John McCain (O3) with his squadron. This United States Congress image is in the public domain. This may be because it was taken by an employee of the Congress as part of that person’s official duties, or because it has been released into the public domain and posted on the official websites of a member of Congress. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.

Bottom right: A badly injured Lieutenant Commander John McCain (O4) is pulled out of Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi by North Vietnamese army soldiers and civilians on 26 October 1967. Library of Congress; Public Domain. Click to enlarge both photographs.

In mid-1968, McCain's father was named commander of all U.S. forces in the Vietnam theater, and the North Vietnamese offered McCain early release because they wanted to appear merciful for propaganda purposes. However, McCain refused repatriation unless every man taken in before him was also released. To prevent the enemy from using prisoners for propaganda, officers were to agree to be released in the order in which they were captured.


Beginning in August 1968, McCain was subjected to a program of severe torture. He was bound and beaten every two hours; this punishment occurred at the same time that he was suffering from heat exhaustion and dysentery. Further injuries brought McCain to "the point of suicide," but his preparations were interrupted by guards. Eventually, McCain made an anti-U.S. propaganda "confession." He had always felt that his statement was dishonorable, but as he later wrote, "I had learned what we all learned over there: every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine."

Many U.S. POWs were tortured and maltreated to extract "confessions" and propaganda statements; virtually all of them eventually yielded something to their captors. McCain received two to three beatings weekly because of his continued refusal to sign additional statements.

As a prisoner of war, McCain encountered several attempts at exploitations by his Vietnamese captors for propaganda purposes. Brought out for propaganda interviews and visits by senior communist officials, McCain remained an incapacitated celebrity in squalid conditions. In late December, guards moved McCain out of Hỏa Lò to another prison camp on Hanoi’s outskirts nicknamed “the Plantation.” Despite his weakened condition, McCain continued to resist his captors and refused to meet various anti-war groups seeking peace in Hanoi, wanting to give neither them nor the North Vietnamese a propaganda victory.

From late 1969, treatment of McCain and many of the other POWs became more tolerable, while McCain continued to resist the camp authorities. McCain and other prisoners cheered the U.S. "Christmas Bombing" campaign of December 1972, viewing it as a forceful measure to push North Vietnam to terms.

After five-and-a-half years as a POW, McCain was released on 14 March 1973, and he returned home with honor. Despite the physical toll of his captivity, McCain remained committed to public service and went on to serve in the United States Senate for over 30 years. 



"John S. McCain, III Collection." The Library of Congress. Accessed September 21, 2023. https://www.loc.gov/item/afc2001001.07736/.

"John S. McCain Vietnam War POW Documents." PaperlessArchives.com. Accessed September 22, 2023. https://downloads.paperlessarchives.com/p/o4mm/.

"Senator John McCain (August 29, 1936 - August 25, 2018) | Richard Nixon Museum and Library." Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum | Richard Nixon Museum and Library. Accessed September 22, 2023. https://www.nixonlibrary.gov/news/senator-john-mccain-august-29-1936-august-25-2018.


AP video of McCain's POW release: 

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