Lt. Cmdr. John McCain was killed on Oct. 26, 1967.
"That's what we called it, the day we were shot down: 'the day we were killed,'" he says. We're standing in a lounge in Los Angeles International Airport, a few minutes away from a 14-hour flight to Hong Kong, followed by a quick hop to Hanoi, Vietnam.
About 33 years ago, on his 23rd mission, McCain was "killed" when, over Hanoi, a Russian-made surface-to-air missile blew the right wing off his A-4 Skyhawk dive bomber, sending his plane into "an almost straight-down spin," as he wrote for U.S. News & World Report in May 1973.
He's returning this week to participate in ceremonies commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
Considering that he's returning to a place where he spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war -- tortured and beaten, years in solitary confinement -- McCain's mood is downright jocular. He drinks a V-8, munches on little shortbread cakes, rapping with the half-dozen reporters on the trip. His wife, Cindy, buzzes about while son Jack, 13, stares off into space listening to his portable CD player.
He has been back maybe seven times since his release in 1973 -- once in 1974, with former cellmate Air Force Maj. George "Bud" Day, and then not until 1985 in a dreary televised trip with CBS newsman Walter Cronkite. Since then, he's been back as part of his official duties on the Senate Special Committee on POW/MIAs and as part of the lifting of the embargo on Vietnam in 1994 and the granting of diplomatic recognition to Vietnam in 1995.
But the last time? He thinks that was November 1998, but he's not sure. His wife concurs; it was November 1998.
Mark Salter, McCain's Senate chief of staff and the co-author of his bestselling "Faith of My Fathers," ambles over. "When were we last over there, Mark?" McCain asks. Salter says it was November 1998. Cindy raises her hands.
"See?" she says. "Why don't you ever believe me?" she jokes.
"Trust but verify," McCain jokes back.
He wrote a detailed description of the day he crashed in 1967 in his U.S. News article:
I pulled the ejection handle, and was knocked unconscious by the force of the ejection -- the air speed was about 500 knots ... I regained consciousness just before I landed by parachute in a lake right in the center of Hanoi, one they called the Western Lake. My helmet and my oxygen mask had been blown off. I hit the water and sank to the bottom. I think the lake is about 15 feet deep, maybe 20. I kicked off the bottom.
I did not feel any pain at the time, and was able to rise to the surface. I took a breath of air and started sinking again. Of course, I was wearing 50 pounds, at least, of equipment and gear. I went down and managed to kick up to the surface once more. I couldn't understand why I couldn't use my right leg or my arm. I was in a dazed condition. I went up to the top again and sank back down. This time I couldn't get back to the surface. I was wearing an inflatable life-preserver-type thing that looked like water wings. I reached down with my mouth and got the toggle between my teeth and inflated the preserver and finally floated to the top.
As he bubbled to the surface of Truc Bach Lake, maybe two dozen Vietnamese dragged him to shore, where they beat him and stabbed him in the ankle and groin. Then he was taken into the custody of the North Vietnamese army.
"We had smoother landings on our later trips," McCain jokes, referring to his subsequent visits to Vietnam.
McCain didn't have to be at the Hanoi Hilton -- or the other prison camp, "the Plantation" -- for five and a half years. The North Vietnamese had offered him early release as soon as they learned his father was an admiral. They knew the propaganda value of releasing "the crown prince" -- as they called McCain -- immediately, and out of the order in which the prisoners were captured. That would have been a violation of the Code of Conduct for American Fighting Men, the rules developed after a few American POWs during the Korean War cooperated with the enemy.
McCain didn't take the early leave. But by early 1968, there were more than 300 American soldiers in North Vietnamese prison camps. As Robert Timberg, in "The Nightingale's Song," wrote: "With certain exceptions, accepting a release under any other conditions [other than the Code of Conduct] was tantamount to breaking faith with other prisoners."
During McCain's losing presidential quest earlier this year, former POWs turned out in full force to cheer on their man. There was former Marine fighter pilot Orson Swindle, whom McCain consistently introduced to the crowd as "the ugliest guy in the room." There was Bud Day, of course. And there was Navy Lt. Everett Alvarez, the longest-held POW in the North (from 1964 to 1973).
How could McCain accept early release when poor Ev had been there since Aug. 5, 1964?
Not that the POWs were always so preoccupied with Ev. At LAX, McCain recounts for me a story of four POWs sitting in a huddle at the Hanoi Hilton, bemoaning how much they wanted to go home, finding company in their misery.
"Yeah, but think of poor Ev. Poor Ev's been here since '64," said one.
"Yeah, yeah, poor Ev," they all agreed. Minutes pass.
"Fuck Ev," one finally joked, "I want to go home!"
But, McCain has written, no matter how many times they asked him if he would go home, he said no.
"That is your final answer?" one of his interrogators, nicknamed the "Cat," asked McCain on July 3, 1968 -- not coincidentally the very day McCain's father, John Sidney "Jack" McCain Jr., was named commander of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific.
"That is my final answer," McCain said.
"They taught you too well," said an irate Cat. "They taught you too well."
Added another interrogator, the "Rabbit": "Now, McCain, it will be very bad for you."
And it was. One of his captors, the one they called "Slopehead," told McCain, "You're a black criminal. You must confess your crimes."
McCain demurred. "Fuck you," he said.
"Why do you treat your guards so disrespectfully?" Slopehead asked.
"Because they treat me like an animal," McCain replied.
"When I said that," McCain wrote in U.S. News, "the guards, who were all in the room -- about 10 of them -- really laid into me. They bounced me from pillar to post, kicking and laughing and scratching. After a few hours of that, ropes were put on me and I sat that night bound with ropes ... For the next four days, I was beaten every two or three hours by different guards. My left arm was broken again and my ribs were cracked."
On the third night, as McCain would later write in "Faith of My Fathers," he was beaten so badly he almost committed suicide before "confessing" his war crimes:
I lay in my own blood and waste, so tired and hurt that I could not move. The Prick [another captor] came in with two other guards, lifted me to my feet, and gave me the worst beating I had yet experienced ... Despairing of any relief from pain and further torture, and fearing the close reproach of my moment of dishonor, I tried to take my life. I doubt I really intended to kill myself. But I couldn't fight anymore, and I remember deciding that the last thing I could do to make them believe I was still resisting, that I wouldn't break, was to attempt suicide.
McCain took off his shirt. He turned over the waste bucket and stepped on it. He looped his shirt through a shutter. But before he could act, the Prick ran in and beat him up.
One day later, McCain signed a confession admitting to war crimes. He would remain a POW for almost five more years, until March 15, 1973. His injuries are still with him; he cannot raise his arms above his shoulders; he still has a slight limp.
McCain will return to the Hanoi Hilton Tuesday afternoon, after an MIA ceremony and lunch at the home of U.S. Ambassador Pete Peterson, another former POW. On Wednesday he will return to Truc Bach Lake, where a memorial stands in honor of the missiles that brought down "air pirate" McCain. There will be meetings with various North Vietnamese officials, some footage taken for NBC's "Today," which is paying for his trip. On Thursday, he will travel to Ho Chi Minh City, where he will meet up with "Today" host Matt Lauer and tape interviews to be used during Friday's broadcast.
He says he's looking forward to the trip, to seeing the recent economic improvements. Vietnam is 11 hours ahead of the U.S., but decades behind, and McCain is anxious to help the Vietnamese people whom, after all, he was captured fighting for, whatever your opinion of the method or the means. He's concerned about how corrupt Vietnam is these days. "It's like China," he says, "only 10 times worse."
On the plane to Hong Kong, he reads Robert Templer's "Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam," and he points out a passage to me. An attempt to open a small guesthouse in Ho Chi Minh City requires submitting 40 different documents, getting 83 official stamps, communicating with 26 different government offices and the signatures of 107 bureaucrats. "At almost every step, officials would demand a 'fee,'" Templer writes. McCain shakes his head.
But McCain seems to have found a remarkable peace with Vietnam. Salter tells the story of a McCain visit during the negotiations over POW/MIA affairs, when a Vietnamese government official told Salter that one of the many bureaucrats at a banquet was reportedly one of McCain's guards. Salter didn't know what to do. Finally he told McCain. McCain looked up.
"Don't recognize him," he said, and returned to his meal.
McCain has never run into the "Bug" or the "Prick" or the "Rabbit" or any of the others. Sitting in the lounge of the Hong Kong airport, he says he doesn't know what he would say to any of them if he met them now.
"On the other hand," he observes. "I've been able to go on and have a wonderful life, and they've had to stay in Vietnam." In terms of both the larger conflict and his own personal experience in Vietnam, "They won the war but lost the peace."
He smiles. Cindy is dialing on her new international cellphone while Jack eats a pastry. They are little more than an hour's plane ride to Hanoi.
"I have often maintained that I left Vietnam behind me when I arrived at Clark" Air Force Base in 1973, McCain writes at the conclusion of "Faith of My Fathers."
"That is an exaggeration. But I did not want my experiences in Vietnam to be the leitmotif of the rest of my life ... Vietnam did not answer all of life's questions, but I believe it answered many of the most important ones. In my youth, I had doubted time's great haste. But in Vietnam I had come to understand how brief a moment a life is ... I held on to the memory, left the bad behind, and moved on."