McCain's bravery, as seen by one man imprisoned with him

July 19, 2008

"Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president." That was retired Gen. Wesley Clark's condescending assessment of John McCain's military service. Clark's words have great weight because he was speaking as a key political/military advisor to Barack Obama.

If Gen. Clark had been talking about me, his remarks might be true. After all, I rode in a fighter plane and got shot down over North Vietnam. In no way do Clark's words apply to McCain. I know, because I was a firsthand witness to his singular leadership and courage. In the years I spent as a POW in North Vietnam, I saw McCain inspire and lead under trying circumstances that Gen. Clark has not the imagination to understand.

As for the role of a president, I was fortunate enough to serve as a domestic policy advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Seeing him in action, and seeing John McCain in action, I know they are equals in character, ability and political courage.


I met John McCain in a POW camp in Vietnam. He told me his father and grandfather read history every evening. Since our release, I have done the same. From my study of history I know what we need in a leader.

Great leaders have an undefinable quality: Call it charisma. Young Winston Churchill once wrote to his mother, "We are all worms, but I am a glowworm." And so it proved. John McCain, too, is a "glowworm." You cannot help but notice him.

Gen. George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff during World War II, said, "The first thing a leader needs is courage." Churchill had courage. As a cavalry officer in the British army, Churchill left garrison duty to go where the action was. During his army career he was several times under hostile fire and conducted two daring and famous rescues. The second rescue came when he was a war correspondent covering the Boer War in 1899. It led to his capture as a prisoner of war. He escaped and after several adventures reached safety in Portuguese Mozambique. The story made him a world-wide hero and helped get him elected to Parliament.

When he became Prime Minister in World War II, all looked bleak. After the surrender of France there were some who thought that Britain could not carry on alone and should negotiate a peace with Hitler. But Churchill would not quit. He fought on until, as he said, "In God's good time, the new world comes to the rescue of the old."

McCain, like Churchill, has courage. McCain, like Churchill, stood strong when all looked bleak. My friend, Col. Jack Van Loan, was in a cell from which he could see several senior Communist officers, along with an interpreter and men with a stretcher, enter McCain's cell. He knew that John was immobilized by his wounds. He heard them offer McCain early release and heard John answer that he would go home when we all go home.

He heard the voices of the officers rising until they were shouting angrily at McCain and threatening him. This was followed by a stream of obscenities from McCain and the rapid exit of the senior officers. John told them never again to try to get him to accept early release. He was defiant at a time that he was physically helpless, unable even to crawl on his own.

In the spring of 1971, I personally witnessed John McCain's courage. After the attempted rescue of POWs at the camp at Son Tay, in November of 1970, almost all Americans were moved to Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, the infamous "Hanoi Hilton." The communists felt so threatened by the raid that, for the first time, they concentrated us in large cells, with as many as 60 men to a cell.

One of the first things we did was to institute regular religious services in our cells. On Jan. 1, 1971, we were told that all religious activity was forbidden. This led to a long series of increasingly hostile confrontations that someone has labeled "the Church Riots." I was in a cell next to McCain's. In early March, the four senior men in his cell were removed and for some time we lost contact with them. Then the four senior men in my cell were removed, and we lost contact with them, also. The confrontations rapidly escalated. On the evening of March 18 there was a confrontation that almost descended to guards shooting mutinous POWs. The communists were now afraid of losing control.

The Herald-Mail Articles