Before he was a senator, John McCain was a war hero and POW

Aug 25, 2018, 5:41 PM | Updated: 8:17 pm
(AP Photo)...
(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

PHOENIX — U.S. Sen John McCain passed away in Arizona on Saturday evening at the age of 81.

Before McCain went into politics, he was a young man flying fighter planes over Vietnam, where he was shot down and kept as a prisoner of war for more than five years.

By the end of his military service, McCain was decorated 18 times. He was given 11 medals, including the Silver Star.

But that came at a cost. He was released from North Vietnamese custody when he was 36 years old. He had been severely injured, tortured and, because of his injuries, was unable to raise either arm above his shoulder.

Here is a look back at McCain’s time in the military, from his time in the Naval Academy to leaving the service:


John McCain, left, stands in his United States Naval Academy uniform, next to his father, Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., in this undated file photo (ca. 1955). (AP Photo/file)

McCain’s time in the military began 13 years prior to Oct. 26, 1967, the date he was taken captive by North Vietnamese soldiers.

The son and grandson of two decorated Navy officers, McCain entered the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 1954.

Despite his family’s illustrious careers and proud military history, McCain was something of a rebel. He earned himself about 100 demerits each year for failing to follow some of the more minute rules — shoes must be polished, rooms must be kept neat, etc. — set forth by the academy.

He also became one of the school’s better boxers, even though he only stood about 5-foot-8 and weighed about 130 pounds.

When he wasn’t studying — which seemed often, as McCain became famed for his cramming skills — the future senator was organizing off-campus trips with a group he called the “Bad Bunch.”

The semi-bad boy graduated from the academy in 1958. He was fifth from the bottom in his class.


(AP Photo)

McCain was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy and completed his early training in Florida.

Full military enlistment didn’t conquer his rebellious spirit. He drove a Corvette, dated an exotic dancer and, in his words, “generally misused my good health and youth.”

He met his first wife, swimwear and runway model Carol Shepp, while training in Pensacola.

By the time McCain sailed to Vietnam aboard the U.S.S. Forrestal, he had trained on multiple types of fighter aircraft. He crashed two of them and crippled another after flying dangerously low in Spain.


Navy Pilot John McCain, right, with members of his squadron in an undated photo. (ca. 1965) (AP Photo/file)

The young aviator went to war in southeast Asia when he a 30-year-old lieutenant commander.

He bombed arms depots, factories and bridges as part of Operation Rolling Thunder. He later wrote that:

“The target list was so restricted that we had to go back and hit the same targets over and over again… Most of our pilots flying the missions believed that our targets were virtually worthless. In all candor, we thought our civilian commanders were complete idiots who didn’t have the least notion of what it took to win the war.

McCain was nearly killed in 1967, but he wasn’t flying. A rocket was accidentally fired across the Forrestal’s deck and hit either McCain’s plane or the one next to it.

He escaped the subsequent blaze by stepping on a refueling pipe and jumping to relative safety. He attempted to help another pilot, but was tossed back by one of the plane’s bombs exploding.

More than 130 sailors died.

When the Forrestal went in for repairs, McCain asked to be and was transferred to the U.S.S. Oriskany, whose VA-163 Saints squadron was known for flying daring — but costly — missions.

He was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal with the Saints after he guided his squadron through heavy fire during a 1967 attack on the Lac Trai shipyard.

A week later, he was awarded the Air Medal for launching a successful attack on the Phuc Yen Air Base north of Hanoi which, at that point, had the strongest air defenses of the war.


This Oct 26 1967, file photo provided by the Library of Congress shows Navy fighter pilot John McCain, center, being captured by Vietnamese civilians in Truc Bach Lake near Hanoi Vietnam. McCain’s A-4E Skyhawk had been shot down – he landed in the lake with both of his arms and one leg broken. Once he was ashore, a crowd attacked him, and he was further injured with a rifle butt and bayonet. (Photo/Library of Congress)

One day after his daring attack on Phuc Yen, McCain was shot down immediately after bombing the Yen Phu power plant.

He was able to bail out of the plane, which was in a vertical inverted spin. The force of the ejection broke both his arms, his right leg and left him unconscious.

He nearly drowned in a lake but was able to use his teeth to inflate his life vest. After he was dragged from the lake, he was beaten, spat on and stabbed in both the foot and abdomen by a mob.

McCain was taken to Hoa Lo Prison, which was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by American prisoners.

His imprisonment was front-page news in the United States. He was given some medical care while in prison, though some of his injuries went untreated.

McCain was interviewed by at least two major news outlets while imprisoned.

In late 1967, McCain was transferred to “The Plantation,” a different POW camp outside of Hanoi. It was there he was placed in solitary confinement for two years after rejecting a chance to be released early because of his father’s lofty rank in the Navy.

He was extensively tortured in 1968 and 1969. At one point, he broke and gave a written statement admitting to a variety of crimes.

“I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine,” he wrote.

After his confession — which McCain deeply regretted — his captors allowed him to rest and heal. Though he was treated miserably for several more years, he said that time gave him enough strength to not break again.

On Christmas Eve 1968, McCain and other prisoners were put into a staged church service that was filmed and photographed. He flipped off the camera and yelled obscenities anytime he got the chance.

In 1969, McCain was transferred back to the Hanoi Hilton amid international pressure about the treatment of American POWs. He was kept in solitary confinement until March 1970.

He was released from captivity March 14, 1973.


John McCain is greeted by President Richard Nixon, left, in Washington, May 25, 1973. McCain spent more than five years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp before he was released in March of 1973. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)

McCain became somewhat of a celebrity when he returned to the United States and was a frequent dinner guest of then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan. He had several surgeries and underwent physical therapy to help repair the damage done by both battle and his captors.

He was made a commander and, in 1974, took over the Replacement Air Group VA-174 in Jacksonville, Florida — the largest aviation squadron in the Navy.

He led the squad to great success — and was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation — but his marriage began to fall apart. McCain attributed the eventual split to his own selfishness and immaturity, though he met his second wife, Cindy Lou Hensley, after reunited with Carol for a short time.


Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., holds up an article from the Washington Times on Capitol Hill, June 24, 1992, during a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the committee said during that as many as 133 U.S. servicemen may have been left behind in captivity when the Vietnam War ended. McCain was a POW in North Vietnam. (AP Photo/John Duricka)

McCain began to take an intense interest in politics in the late 1970s and worked to support Reagan’s presidential run. After his time with VA-174 ended, he took a job in the Senate Liaison Office within the Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs, a job once held by his father.

McCain considered the job his “real entry into the world of politics and the beginning of my second career as a public servant.”

In 1979, McCain was promoted to captain and took control of the Senate Liaison Office. His political career would only grow from there.

He also met Hensley the same year and the pair began dating. McCain and Carol divorced in 1980 but remained on good terms.


John McCain, R-Ariz shown Friday, Jan. 11, 1985 in his Capitol Hill office holds a photo of a monument that the Vietnamese have erected in Hanoi in regard to his capture there during the Vietnam War. McCain will return to Vietnam to take part in a special telecast for the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. (AP Photo/John Duricka)

McCain officially left the Navy in April 1981. He had not been given a major sea command and was physically unable to pass required flight tests.

He was told he was on track to be a one-star rear admiral but felt he could do more in politics.

He did not see himself moving much further up the ranks and was excited to start his new career that would lead to decades in the Senate, a run for president and a lasting legacy in Washington, D.C.

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Before he was a senator, John McCain was a war hero and POW