As dawn broke over the Gulf of Tonkin that early October morning in 1967, the rising sun revealed the faint outline of the USS Oriskany (CVA-34) on “Yankee Station," off the coast of North Vietnam. In the hangar maintenance deck below activity was at a near-frantic level as aircraft were hastily made ready. Aviation Chief Petty Officers (CPOs) barked orders at their subordinates, who scurried about with wrenches and rags in hand while the smell of jet fuel, hydraulic fluid and oil hung heavy in the stale, humid air. As the aircraft were made ready they were carefully towed onto the massive elevator that hoisted them up to the flight deck, which was being carefully inspected for any damage or debris prior to launching aircraft.
Below deck, in the Ready Room of attack squadron VA-163 Saints, A-4 Skyhawk pilot Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) John McCain paid close attention to the briefings by the squadron commander and intelligence officer. He had not been scheduled to fly that day, but when the mission and crew roster was posted in the squadron ready room he pleaded with the operations officer to be included in the strike. Though the operations officer felt he did not have enough experience for such an important target, he relented and McCain got his way.
The day’s mission would be an Alpha Strike on the Hanoi Thermal Power Plant (TPP) in Yên Phú on the east side of Trúc Bạch Lake, one of the most heavily-defended targets in North Vietnam. Alpha Strikes were intended to deliver tons of ordinance on a specific target using numerous aircraft in a single strike. Once in range of the target F-4 Phantoms or other fighter aircraft would fly ahead of the attack squadrons to take out any Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) and Surface-to-Air (SAM) missile sites, then provide Barrier Air Protection (BARCAP) against North Vietnamese Air Force (NVAF) MiGs trying to prey on the vulnerable A-4s.
The TPP had already been hit by VA-163 six weeks prior to McCain’s arrival to the squadron, though the North Vietnamese had since repaired the damage. This made McCain and the other men of Saints all the more eager to get strapped into their Douglas A-4E Skyhawks and on their way. This time, they were determined that there would be nothing left of the TPP to repair. Accompanying VA-163 to their target would be F-4 Phantoms of VF-162 Hunters. In all, a total of 20 aircraft would be flying off the Oriskany to take part in the strike.
Catapulting off the carrier late that morning, the strike group formed up over the Gulf of Tonkin and headed toward the coast of Vietnam. Once they were “feet dry” over land, AAA and SAM fire erupted around them. Around 20 SAMs were fired at the strike group without a single hit, a testimony to the evasive tactics the American pilots had developed in response to the 35 foot-long “flying telephone poles." Undaunted, the strike group continued inland, eventually turning north and heading “Downtown” as American pilots called the metropolitan Hanoi area.
Once near the target McCain recognized the TPP situated next to Trúc Bạch Lake from the intelligence photographs he had studied in the briefing that morning. Decades later in his autobiography Faith of My Fathers he wrote “I dove in on it just as the tone went off signaling that a SAM was flying toward me. I knew I should roll out and fly evasive maneuvers. But I was just about to release my bombs when the tone sounded, and had I started jinking (maneuvering to evade the SAM) I would have never had the time nor, probably, the nerve to go back in once I had lost the SAM. So, at about 3,500 feet, I released my bombs, then pulled back the stick to begin a steep climb to a safer attitude. In the instant before my plane reacted, a SAM blew my right wing off. I was killed.”
Though other pilots in the mission that day claim McCain was hit by AAA and not a SAM, the damage to the aircraft was nevertheless mortal. To make matters worse, in the moment of crisis when he hastily ejected from the crippled A-4 both his arms and one of his legs were badly broken as the ejection seat left the aircraft, which was hurdling towards the ground at over 500 miles per hour. The violence of the ejection also knocked him unconscious.
Landing in Trúc Bạch Lake, McCain came to. Unable to stay afloat due to his broken limbs, entanglement in parachute cords and the fifty pounds of survival gear attached to his harness, he struggled to release himself from the encumbrances. He pulled his life preserver inflation cord with his mouth, which brought him to the surface, where he once again lost consciousness. When he came to again he was being dragged to the shore by North Vietnamese civilians who swam out to rescue him.
Once pulled onto land he was beaten and stabbed by a mob of angry locals who were no doubt furious at the bombing of their city and collateral civilian casualties. His rescuers chased them away, most likely saving his life in the process. The police eventually arrived, put the barely conscious and suffering POW on a stretcher and took him just a few miles to the main prison in Hanoi. Here he lay on the floor, lapsing in and out of consciousness for four days. Thus, his hellish odyssey as a POW of the North Vietnamese began.
McCain being rescued from Trúc Bach Lake in Hanoi.
John Sidney McCain III was born in 1936 at Coco Solo Naval Air Station (NAS) in the Panama Canal Zone to a young Navy officer, Lieutenant (LT) John McCain Jr. and his wife Roberta. During his four years at the United States Naval Academy (USNA) the junior McCain had gained a reputation as a hard drinker, a rebel and unabashed challenger of academy authority. Graduating in 1931, he finished 423rd out of his class of 441. Two years later, he took his fiancee Roberta to Mexico to get married when he was unable to gain the approval of her parents. Upon his return to San Diego he was reprimanded for leaving for five days without informing his command of his absence.
The patriarch of the family, John McCain Sr. was also a graduate of the USNA, gaining his commission in 1906. Like his son, his performance at USNA was anything but stellar. He was stubborn, preferred to do things his own way, and once failed a critical physical exam due to deficiencies in his hearing. Refusing to accept the consequences, he doggedly obtained a waiver allowing him to continue his studies. Upon graduation in 1906 he finished 79th out of a class of 116. His fellow midshipmen labeled him the “skeleton in the closet” of the class.
Despite their lackluster performances at the academy and habitual disregard for regulation and authority, the two men went on to become highly-decorated combat veterans and the only father and son to achieve four-star Admiral ranks in Navy history.
John McCain Sr. played a key command role in major battles of the Pacific campaign in World War II, including the Battle of Guadalcanal, Battle of the Philippine Sea, Battle of Leyte Gulf and the crucial battle for Okinawa, He earned a Navy Cross and three Navy Distinguished Service Medals (DSM). After witnessing the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship Missouri (BB-63) in Tokyo Bay, he returned home to San Diego on September 6, 1945 to a hero’s welcome. He passed away from a massive heart attack that same day while attending his own party.
John McCain Jr. became a prodigious submarine commander during World War II, most notably in the Pacific theatre. He eventually rose to Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Command (CINCPAC) from 1968 to 1972, during the years his son John was a Prisoner of War (POW) in Hanoi. It is said that when possible he would travel as far as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) allowed, gaze to the north, and ponder the fate of his imprisoned son. When he retired in 1972 he had accumulated two Navy DSMs, a Silver Star, three Legions of Merit (LOM) and a Bronze Star. He passed away from a heart attack aboard a military transport plane above the North Atlantic on March 22, 198.
(L-R) Admiral John McCain Sr., Admiral John McCain Jr., Midshipman John McCain III.
As the son and grandson of U.S. Navy four-star admirals, John McCain’s entry in the U.S. Naval Academy was pre-ordained, and he accepted his fate with reluctant resignation. While he had high regard for his family tradition of military service and the Naval Academy as an institution, the extreme rule-based regimentation of life as a Midshipman was in constant conflict with John’s notorious “maverick” personality. He had no tolerance for hazing and abuse by upper classmen and was frequently reprimanded for violating standards of conduct and decorum. While he did well in some academic subjects that interested him such as history, his performance in the core engineering and scientific disciplines was marginal at best. John graduated from the Naval Academy in June 1958. His generally poor academic performance, compounded by his rebellious nature and disregard for authority, earned him a rank near the bottom of his graduating class (894th of 899).
Upon graduation from the Naval Academy, John McCain received his commission as an Ensign and began training as a naval aviator. Paralleling his rather dismal record as a USNA Midshipman, McCain’s initial development as an aviator was unimpressive. During basic flight training at NAS Pensacola, he demonstrated a singular lack of discipline in mastering the training curriculum and squandered much of his energy on parties, women, fast cars, gambling and alcohol. Despite his marginal performance as a trainee, he received a promotion to Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG), and was assigned to specialized training as an attack pilot at NAS Corpus Christie, Texas.
During his early career as a pilot, John earned a well-deserved reputation for taking risks and pushing the limits of both his aircraft and flying skills. He also began to exhibit a remarkable capacity for survival and resilience in the face of adversity that would sustain him through a series of horrific events and near-death experiences in combat. While on a training mission in a Douglas AD-6 Skyraider in March 1960, McCain crashed his aircraft in Corpus Christie Bay and it immediately sank to the bottom. He was initially knocked unconscious by the impact but managed to escape to the surface and was rescued without injury. After further training at NAS Oceana in Virginia, McCain joined Attack Squadron VA-65 aboard USS Intrepid and participated in several deployments to the Mediterranean. His flying skills had improved considerably, but his proclivity for mishaps persisted. During one sortie over Southern Spain, he collided with power lines while flying below the briefed minimum altitude. The collision caused a local power outage to thousands of homes and businesses, but McCain managed to return his damaged Skyraider to Intrepid.
VA-65 was assigned to USS Enterprise for its first operational deployment in1962. McCain was promoted to Lieutenant (LT) and served on alert status during the Cuban Missile Crisis, enforcing a quarantine on Soviet vessels transporting offensive weapons. Returning to shore duty in November 1963, he served as an instructor with training units at NAS Pensacola Florida and NAS Meridian, Mississippi. In November 1965, McCain survived yet another brush with death when he was forced to bail out of a T-2 Buckeye jet trainer due to engine failure. He ejected successfully before the aircraft was destroyed. McCain then requested a combat assignment and was transferred to Replacement Air Group (RAG) VA-44 Hornets for training in the A-4 Skyhawk.
Deadly fire on USS Forrestal July 19, 1967.
Promoted to LCDR, he joined attack squadron VA-46 Clansmen for a deployment to southeast Asia aboard USS Forrestal. In July 1967, Forrestal arrived at “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin and began combat operations against North Vietnam as part of “Operation Rolling Thunder." The air wing flew frequent, large-scale strike missions against strategic targets that were heavily defended by Soviet and Chinese anti-aircraft systems including deadly SA-75 Davina/SA-2 missiles, MiG-17/21 interceptors, radar-directed anti-aircraft artillery and an array of automatic weapons and small arms. LCDR McCain flew five combat missions with the Clansmen, recovering safely from each one aboard Forrestal. While preparing to launch on his sixth mission, he barely escaped with his life when an unguided Zuni air-to-ground rocket was accidentally fired from an F-4 Phantom, flying across the flight deck before striking fully fueled and armed aircraft getting ready to launch for combat operations. The explosion ruptured McCain’s external fuel tank and his Skyhawk was engulfed in flames. Exiting the cockpit, he climbed over the nose and dropped to the deck from the Skyhawk’s refueling probe, rolling clear of the flames with his flight suit ablaze. After extinguishing the fire, he went to the aid of another pilot but was blown off his feet as a bomb detonated. Despite injuries from bomb fragments, McCain went on to help other crewmen clear unexploded ordnance from the flight deck. A total of 134 officers and enlisted men died in the fire.
When Forrestal and its devastated air wing were withdrawn from service, LCDR McCain volunteered to serve in another attack squadron, VA-163 aboard USS Oriskany. The Saints of VA-163 had been heavily engaged in “Operation Rolling Thunder” for some time and had sustained heavy losses. Joining Saints in September 1967, McCain entered the fray with his trademark enthusiasm and general disregard for the formidable hazards encountered over the heavily defended cities of Hanoi and Haiphong. He flew a total of 22 successful combat missions with VA-163 and was twice decorated for his role in taking out difficult targets. On October 26, 1967 he catapulted off Oriskany for his 23rd mission. His luck, already pushed to the limit, ran out over “Downtown” Hanoi.
After his capture he spent nearly six years as a POW in several camps around Hanoi, including the infamous “Hanoi Hilton." Beaten, tortured, starved, denied medical treatment and kept in squalid isolation for years at a time, American pilots such as John McCain endured a literal hell on earth. Their treatment was gruesome, inhumane and barbaric.
Though initially giving only his name, rank and date of birth, he eventually broke under physical and mental torture. However, nothing should be taken away from him for this. Few men were able to fully resist, and those who did often died in the process. Every prisoner had a breaking point, and the North Vietnamese and their handlers were experts at finding it.
When the North Vietnamese found out who his father was (by that time about to become CINCPAC) they offered McCain early release for propaganda purposes. Refusing to cooperate, he followed the code of conduct amongst POWs, only agreeing to release if those taken captive before him were released first.
He was eventually given marginal medical treatment, then nursed back from the brink of death by his two cellmates United States Air Force (USAF) Major George “Bud” Day (a future Medal of Honor recipient) and USAF Major Norris Overly. Though all three were injured, particularly Day with his arm broken in three places, they nevertheless bathed, fed and rendered medical care for each other the best they could. The prisoners at the camps also developed ways of communicating with each other beyond the isolation of their cells. One was by tapping code on the walls separating them, which they used to relay messages of unity and support. It was pure humanity amongst sheer brutality.
In 1969 the prisoners started getting better treatment as a result of the international indignation when word got out about the horrid conditions they had endured. Afforded more food rations, allowed communications with their families as well as with other prisoners, McCain’s health and mental state improved. However, the torture he had endured left him with a lifetime of lingering disabilities.
On March 14, 1973 LCDR John McCain was released from captivity as part of Operation Homecoming. A USAF C-141 Starlifter flew him and other freed American POWs from Hanoi’s Gia Lam Airport to USAF Clark Field in the Philippines. A total of 591 Americans were released over a period of several months, the vast majority of them being pilots or aircrew.
Returning home after nearly six years as a POW.
He was eventually reunited with his wife and three children at NAS Jacksonville, and began a journey of healing from the painful emotional and physical scars he sustained while in captivity. Though the majority of those returned during Operation Homecoming chose to leave the service upon their repatriation, John McCain opted to continue his Navy career. After months of grueling therapy, he was able to regain his flight status and in 1974 became Commanding Officer (CO) of a training squadron at NAS Pensacola. In 1977 he became the Navy’s liaison to congress, where his hard-fought battles for a bigger naval budget predictably brought him new friends and foes. Never fully comfortable with the rigamarole of Navy bureaucracy and protocol, he retired in 1981 at the rank of Captain.
Retirement from the Navy led McCain to a career in politics, where he served in the United States Congress for 35 years, representing the state of Arizona first in the House and then Senate. His fiery personality changed little during his life as a politician; his unmistakable presence becoming a staple in the halls of the nation’s Capitol and television news screens around the world. His political career culminated with a bid for President in 2008, a campaign that while hard-fought, ended in a rare defeat for McCain.
Captain John Sidney McCain III United States Navy (Ret.) passed away at his Arizona home on August 25, 2018 after a battle with brain cancer. Interred at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis he is now at peace and flying free amongst the heavens.
Today the Navy destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) roams the oceans of the Pacific with the motto "Fortune Favors the Brave." It is indeed a fitting tribute to the three generations of men who, in trademark McCain fashion, made indelible marks on the world through both war and peace. Lives dedicated to the service of their country, resolute in their causes, courage in the face of adversity. That is the heritage John S. McCain carried with pride throughout his life and the magnificent legacy he left for America.
Article Written by Dan Heller and Jeff Erickson