Sen. John McCain, Vietnam veteran and former POW dies at 81

Jonathan Kaupanger
August 25, 2018 - 8:53 am

Photo by Pete Marovich/MCT/Sipa USA

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John Sidney McCain, III - Senator, Republican nominee for President, Representative for Arizona’s 1st District,  a Navy pilot, Prisoner of War, and of course “Maverick,” died today, he was 81-years-old.

McCain was born on August 29, 1936, at Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone.  Just like his father and grandfather, both 4-star admirals, McCain went to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis.  He graduated from the Academy in 1958.

Having a reputation as a partier early on in his navy career, McCain started aviation training in Pensacola, Florida.  After finishing flight school in 1960 he was part of the A-1 Skyraider squadrons on both the USS Intrepid and USS Enterprise aircraft carriers. 

While stationed in Florida, McCain met his first wife, Carol Shepp.  They married in 1965.

His next assignment was onboard the carrier USS Forrestal flying A-4 Skyhawks.  While engaging in combat operations in the Gulf of Tonkin, McCain narrowly escaped death when a fire broke out on the carrier.  Managing to escape from his burning jet, McCain was helping another pilot when a bomb exploded and he was hit by fragments in the chest and legs. 

He volunteered next to the USS Oriskany, another aircraft carrier, and took part in Operation Rolling Thunder which was a sustained aerial bombardment campaign during the Vietnam War.  During this time he was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal and the Bronze Star for missions flown over North Vietnam.

On October 26, 1967, while flying his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam, his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down by a missile.  Fracturing both arms and a leg when he ejected from the plane, he nearly drowned after parachuting into a lake.  North Vietnamese pulled him to shore, then crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt and stabbed him with a bayonet.  He was then sent to Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton.

McCain only received treatment for his injuries after the North Vietnamese found out his father was an admiral.  He spent weeks in the hospital, and by December of that year, he was moved to a cell with two other Americans.  They didn’t think he would live for more than a week.  He did and by March of the next year he was put into solitary confinement and would remain there for the next two years.

In the summer of 1968, when McCain’s father was named Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command, he was offered early release by the North Vietnamese.  He refused and later wrote, “I just knew it wasn’t the right thing to do.  I knew that they wouldn’t have offered it to me if I hadn’t been the son of an admiral.  I just didn’t think it was the honorable thing to do.”  

In August, his captors began to torture McCain every two hours.  Later he would write, “I had learned what we all learned over there, every man has a breaking point.  I had reached mine.”  He made an attempt to commit suicide and was put on suicide watch.  Soon he would be tied to a stool and was beaten into confessing that he was a “black criminal” and an “air pirate.”

McCain was a prisoner of war for five and a half years.  Released on March 14, 1973, his injuries left him permanently incapable of raising his arms above his head.  He endured months of physical therapy and treatment for his injuries.  By late 1974 his flight status was reinstated and in 1976 was given command of a training squadron in Florida.  Under his leadership, the unit received its first ever Meritorious Unit Commendation.

With their marriage failing, something that McCain took compete responsibility for, he and Carol divorced in early 1980.  He married his second wife, Cindy on May 17, 1980. 

McCain retired from the Navy as a Captain in 1981.  His military decorations and awards include the Silver Star, two Legion of Merits, Distinguished Flying Cross, three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendations and a Prisoner of War medal.

The next fight for McCain was for an open seat in Arizona’s 1st congressional district.  As a new resident in the state, he was often seen as a carpetbagger.  Once when responding to a voter who was making that charge, McCain said, “Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy.  My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world.  I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things.  As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”

He won the primary and easily won the general election and his Senate career started in 1987.  He became a member of the Armed Services, Commerce and the Indian Affairs committees. 

In the 90’s, the public saw McCain exercising his independence and his reputation for being a “maverick” began.  He fought for campaign finance reform, opposed military operations in Somalia, pork barrel spending by Congress has always been a favorite target and supported the Line Item Veto Act of 1996.  He took on the tobacco industry in 1998 by proposing legislation that would increase taxes on cigarettes, something that was opposed by most other Republicans.

September 1999, McCain announced his candidacy for president, and it was an ugly primary. He withdrew from the race in March 2000 and endorsed Bush two months later. 

With political capital he gained on his presidential bid, McCain became one of the country’s most influential members of the Senate.  The following year, his greatest legislative achievement was signed into law, officially called the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, the McCain-Feingold bill sought to keep soft money out of politics. 

McCain’s second run for president kicked off on April 25, 2007.  He said, “I’m not running for president to be somebody, but to do something; to do the hard but necessary things, not the easy and needless things.”

Originally considered the front-runner for his party’s nomination, McCain started the race in second place and as the year progressed he found himself running in third and fourth place, often with less than 15 percent support. 

McCain restructured his internal campaign structure and fought back to win the New Hampshire primary in January 2008 and by March had a majority of the delegates and became the presumptive Republican nominee.  In August, McCain shocked the political world by picking unknown Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate.  He was the first Republican to choose a woman to be on the ticket. 

McCain lost the race to Barack Obama. He would regain his footing and help lead the GOP opposition to the Obama economic stimulus package in 2009.  

January 2015 brought along a longtime goal for McCain as became chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  As chair, he tried to maintain a bipartisan approach and kept good relationships with the democrat ranking member.  In April he announced that he would run for a sixth term, and at 80 years old he secured a sixth term as United States Senator from Arizona.

McCain had surgery to remove a blood clot above his left eye in July 2017.  Later it was announced that he had a very aggressive brain tumor.  McCain survived previous bouts with cancer, including melanoma.  Two weeks after surgery to remove the brain cancer, McCain returned to the Senate floor and gave a speech criticizing the party-line voting process and urged a “return to regular order.” A couple days later he cast the deciding vote against the Republican effort to repeal “Obamacare.”

McCain was diagnosed with a brain tumor in July of 2017 and recently elected to stop recieving treatment.

McCain is survived by his mother, Roberta, and his wife Cindy and their children Douglas, Andrew, Sidney, Meghan, John, James and Bridget.