What America Looked Like: John McCain Released From North Vietnam

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Thirty-nine years ago today, John McCain was released from a Vietnamese prison. He had been held there -- often in solitary confinement -- for five-and-a-half years. In this image from the National Archives, McCain (pictured center) leads a group of other just-freed American prisoners of war on March 14, 1973.  

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The very next month, McCain wrote about his ordeal in an issue of US News and World Report. In nearly 12,000 words, he tells the tale of how, after being shot down by enemy fire, he teetered on the edge of death and then endured solitary confinement. Perhaps the only reason he lived at all was because his father was an admiral in the navy and the Vietnamese thought he could be a valuable prisoner. The experience weighed heavily on him; he was beaten on the whims of his captures, and wrote that at one point he contemplated suicide. 

But when he returned to the United States, he reported, his sense of optimism was restored. He had missed out on a great deal of recent U.S. history -- the death of Martin Luther King, the moon landing -- but his experience as a prisoner allowed him to observe American life with a sharp acumen. He wrote, "I think America is a better country now because we have been through a sort of purging process, a re-evaluation of ourselves. Now I see more of an appreciation of our way of life. There is more patriotism. The flag is all over the place. I hear new values being stressed-the concern for environment is a case in point."

If his story wasn't true, it would seem like a synopsis of a war movie. In McCains own words:

The date was Oct. 26, 1967. I was on my 23rd mission, flying right over the heart of Hanoi in a dive at about 4,500 feet, when a Russian missile the size of a telephone came up-the sky was full of them-and blew the right wing off my Skyhawk dive bomber. It went into an inverted, a most straight-down spin.

I pulled the ejection handle, and was knocked unconscious by the force of the ejection-the air speed was about 500 knots. I didn't realize it at the moment, but I had broken my right leg around the knee, my right arm in three places, and my left arm. I regained consciousness just I landed by parachute in a lake right in the center of Hanoi, one they called the Western Lake. My helmet and my oxygen had been blown off.

I hit the water and sank to the bottom. I think the lake was about 15 feet deep, maybe 20. I kicked off the bottom I did not feel any pain at the time, and vas able to rise to the surface. I took a breath of air and started sinking again....

Some North Vietnamese swam out and pulled me to the side of the lake and immediately started stripping me, which is their standard procedure. Of course, this being in the center of town, a huge crowd of people gathered, and they were all hollering and screaming and cursing and spitting and kicking at me.

When they, had most of my clothes off, I felt a twinge in my right knee. I sat up and looked at it, and my right foot was resting next to my left knee, just in a 90-degree position. I said, "My God-my leg!"

That seemed to enrage them I 'don't know why, One of them slammed a rifle butt down on my shoulder, and smashed it pretty badly. Another stuck a bayonet in my foot. The mob was really getting up-tight...

Read "John McCain, Prisoner of War: A First-Person Account"at US News and World Report.

Image via National Archives/Today's Document

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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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