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County man once POW along with Senator McCain

March 11, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

ROHRERSVILLE - By now, you probably know the story: A young American fighter pilot is shot down over enemy territory in Vietnam, is captured and endures 5 1/2 years of unspeakable torture.

The tale became folklore as Arizona Sen. John McCain made the rounds in his Republican presidential bid.

It was already familiar to family and acquaintances of a Washington County man who had a remarkably similar experience.

Like McCain, James H. Warner, a lawyer for the National Rifle Association who lives in southern Washington County, volunteered for service in Vietnam. Both men could have chosen a safer path.

Warner dropped out of the University of Michigan and enlisted in the Navy in March 1964.

"I believed in the cause," he said, "and I still do."

The Michigan native was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines in 1966, which he chose because it guaranteed he would be sent to Vietnam.

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Warner, who likes to joke that he missed the 1960s because he was in a North Vietnamese POW camp, has never had second thoughts.

"In the 20th century, there have been two great movements threatening the human race," he said, "fascism and socialism."

Failed mission

In the fall of 1967 Warner, now 59, had been in Southeast Asia for seven months, making about 175 bombing runs over Communist North Vietnam in his two-man F-4 Phantom fighter jet.

Then on Oct. 13 - Friday the 13th - Warner said his pilot made two fateful errors just north of the demilitarized zone.

The first was dipping below 3,000 feet, the altitude mandated by the military. The plane fell as low as 1,300 feet and was damaged by enemy ground fire.

Then the pilot made his second mistake, Warner said. Military procedure dictated he should have turned the plane out to sea and bailed. They almost surely would have been rescued; Warner said he could see U.S. warships as the plane went down.

But the pilot went in for a second pass.

The plane crashed.

North Vietnamese troops swarmed the wreckage and took Warner and the pilot prisoner. The subsequent 450-mile trip to Hanoi was made at night, part of it on foot. Warner carried the pilot, whose ankle was broken.

Meet John McCain

About two weeks after Warner's plane went down, the North Vietnamese shot down a plane piloted by another young American - McCain.

McCain would spend the next 5 1/2 years off and on imprisoned with Warner and several hundred other Americans.

Warner said he shares many of the same traits that propelled McCain during his presidential run: Doggedness, toughness, perseverance.

Later, Warner applied that persistence to his struggle to raise the 55 mph federal speed limit when he was a domestic policy adviser in the Reagan administration. Although his efforts failed, he said he takes some measure of pride that the law ultimately was repealed.

After years of staring down death, perhaps Warner also does not feel constrained by the need to conform.

He is clearly conservative, from the "Who killed Vince Foster?" bumper sticker on the pickup truck parked outside his house on Bent Willow Road to the philosophy that has shaped his life.

Today Warner works as a patent lawyer for the National Rifle Association.

But Warner does not fit neatly between ideological lines. He won an award for an opinion column in The Washington Post in 1989 arguing against a constitutional ban against flag burning.

"I got in trouble with all my friends," he said.

Lasting impact

Orson Swindle, a former Marine who spent time in POW camps with Warner, said the experience had a lasting impact on the men.

"It focuses you. We as a group - with a few exceptions - we live life to the fullest," he said. "We're very deep thinkers. We're serious about making a difference and giving something back to our country."

Swindle, now a federal trade commissioner in Washington, said his plane was shot down in 1966 on what was to have been his last mission before returning home. Like Warner, Swindle was a Marine.

"It was nice to have Jim come and join me. There were not too many of us," he said.

Both ended up at another POW camp in Son Tay in 1968. They communicated by code, tapping through the walls that separated their prison cells.

"I started tapping through the wall to him, and I've known him ever since. Even tapping through walls, you get to know a person pretty well."

About two years after arriving at Son Tay, Warner was transferred to Hao Lo Prison, the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

'Starved for information'

Warner said that in a POW camp boredom often rules. As a result, he said prisoners latched on to knowledge - knowledge about the war effort, or knowledge in general.

The men spoke on subjects they knew. Swindle and McCain taught a course on the evolution of English and American novelists.

Another POW gave a course on how to butcher a cow.

Warner's specialty was history. Those who served with him said Warner was exceptionally well-read and had fantastic knowledge of history and philosophers.

The importance of those exchanges cannot be underestimated, Warner said.

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