Rohrersville man describes life as Vietnam POW

Marine spent time in camp with John McCain

Marine spent time in camp with John McCain

November 10, 2009|By DAN DEARTH

ROHRERSVILLE -- On Friday, Oct. 13, 1967, navigator James Warner and his pilot took to the air on a bombing raid over North Vietnam.

Warner, 68, said their objective was to destroy a Soviet-made cannon that the North Vietnamese Army was using to shell villages south of the demilitarized zone.

But as the two Marines flew north in their F-4 Phantom, the pilot broke off from his flight path to attack a tracked vehicle.

"We dropped six bombs," said Warner, of Rohrersville. "We were hit when we pulled up ... I knew we were going to go down."


Warner said he was captured about 20 minutes after he ejected from the plane, and he spent the next 5 1/2 years in captivity. During that time, Warner said, he endured beatings, long periods of solitary confinement and a bout with beriberi that permanently damaged his nerves.

Warner said his six-week trek north to the infamous Hanoi Hilton was made worse when he was forced to leave a truck and walk. It was then, Warner said, that he had to carry his pilot, who broke an ankle after ejecting from the plane.

Warner said the North Vietnamese interrogators didn't seem interested in him at first and concentrated on the pilot.

Warner spent the next several weeks adjusting to life as a prisoner of war, eating rice and moldy bread full of rat droppings. He also ate a strange type of boiled greens.

"I have no idea what they were," Warner said. "Everyone referred to them as sewer greens."

He said the paltry diet caused his weight to drop from 210 to 140 pounds.

Warner said he was transferred in 1969 to Son Tay, a prison camp about 20 miles west of Hanoi.

It was at Son Tay, Warner said, that he made up a lie to appease his interrogators after they became convinced he was trying to escape.

Warner told the North Vietnamese the plot included stealing an entrenching tool and knocking loose ceiling tiles over his cell. When the time was right, Warner told the interrogators, he planned to climb out through the roof.

Warner said, by pure coincidence, two American prisoners from another camp used the same method to escape. As a result, the guards at Son Tay assumed Warner was communicating with prisoners at other camps.

He said he was beaten when he refused to talk further.

"I just laid back and thought I was going to die," he said. "They were absolutely convinced I knew."

Warner said in addition to the beatings, he was deprived of sleep and forced to sit in uncomfortable positions for four months. He said he also was placed in leg irons that caused his ankles to swell.

"They had to dig them out when they took them off," he said.

Warner said the torture lessened in September 1969 when Ho Chi Minh died.

"He was a bad guy," Warner said.

Warner did several things as a prisoner of war to keep his mind active.

He said he learned how to speak French and wrote a book about mathematics on paper from packs of Vietnamese cigarettes. During a 13-month stint in solitary confinement, Warner tried to remember the content of books that he had read.

Warner said he was transferred back to the Hanoi Hilton in 1970.

It was in the aftermath of a riot there, Warner said, that he met former Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Starting in January 1971, the North Vietnamese passed a rule that prohibited prisoners from praying or doing anything religious.

Warner said he was in a cell with about 60 other prisoners, and McCain was in a similar situation next door.

The North Vietnamese removed high-ranking American POWs from both cells, which left McCain in command. On March 19, 1971, Warner said McCain led the prisoners in singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The singing prompted the guards to remove the prisoners from the cells at gunpoint and line them up against a wall, where they were tied up and blindfolded.

The prisoners thought they would be executed.

Warner said McCain told him not to worry because the guards, who the prisoners believed were incompetent, "would screw things up and miss when they started shooting."

He said he was released in March 1973 after the Paris Peace Agreement was signed by American and North Vietnamese officials.

After the war, Warner returned to the United States and earned a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1978. He was discharged from the inactive reserves as a major in 1979.

Warner said that, at McCain's urging, he came to Washington, D.C., in 1984 to work as an attorney for the Veterans Administration. A year later, he was recruited by the Reagan White House to be a domestic policy adviser. It was during this time, Warner said, that he fought to repeal the 55-mph speed limit.

He said he became an attorney for the National Rifle Association in 1989 and retired in 2005.

Warner said he traveled about 5,000 miles to campaign for McCain during last year's presidential election.

One of the most talked-about issues of the campaign was the use of torture by the United States to extract information from captured al-Qaida operatives.

Warner said he wasn't persuaded that waterboarding was an effective technique to extract information.

He said he believed the government should have asked former American POWs to define torture.

"I can't understand why we weren't brought into it," Warner said.

He said he isn't concerned about what happens to terrorists who kill innocent people.

"Under international law, they are enemies of humanity," Warner said. "They have no rights under international law. I think they should be treated that way."

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