Politics & Policy

A Trip Downtown

Forty years of leadership.

Forty years ago today, a young Naval Officer, John McCain, was assigned to a dangerous mission. He and the others in his flight were to fly “downtown,” to the center of Hanoi, and bomb the thermal power plant.

At the time, Hanoi was the most heavily defended city in the world. It was ringed with guided-missile emplacements and a range of conventional antiaircraft guns. Few targets in the Hanoi area were subject to attack by U.S. forces because of self-imposed restrictions on bombing operations. And the North Vietnamese were well aware. The route to Hanoi was over the Red River Delta, well guarded with both gun emplacements and radar. There was no possibility of surprise. The radar reached out to the sea and could spot incoming attacks. Into this maelstrom flew John McCain and many American pilots in the summer and fall of 1967.

The pilots on these perilous raids had no illusions about their chances of being captured or killed. What little information that had come from Hanoi regarding the fate of downed pilots was gruesome. In the two and a half years of the air war, the U.S. had seen substantial losses. Though many pilots had been captured by the fall of 1967, there had been virtually no mail and no list of the captured from Hanoi. We were among those held in crude cells hoping that despite the risks to ourselves and the pilots, the air attacks would continue. That summer was a low point for all of us and our only satisfaction came in watching the guards tremble as American bombs fell.

Few pilots volunteered for assignments to the Tonkin Gulf as carrier pilots. Most flew their missions with grim determination — counting the days until they could rotate back to their homes and families. They accepted the risks as their duty, and suffered in silence. John McCain had been to Vietnam before on the USS Forrestal, barely surviving the disastrous fire that nearly caused the loss of the ship. He then volunteered to be assigned to another squadron, a squadron on its way to Vietnam.

On the raid on the Hanoi power plant, John’s luck took a turn for the worse. An SA-2 missile, a 30-foot long supersonic rocket tipped with a 500 pound warhead, had his name on it. He ejected and came crashing into downtown Hanoi, severely wounded and defenseless. He was captured immediately. His captors did not expect him to live. They threw him into a cell with a fellow American POW, who they assumed would preside over his death. USAF Col. George “Bud” Day knew John had no intention of dying and nursed him back to stable condition.

Prisoners of war in Hanoi faced a grim reality. Torture and deprivation were the norm, but some were singled out for further torment. Senior officers were likely to spend years in solitary confinement in an effort to deter them from leading their fellow prisoners. Those injured suffered gravely. Broken bones — never set — were left to heal at peculiar angles. Wounds festered for years without dressings or antibiotics. While all prisoners were tortured to obtain statements to be used as propaganda, prominent prisoners received extra attention. As an officer with serious injuries, and with his father serving as the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Command, John McCain qualified — three-fold — for additional, unwanted attention from our captors.

Despite this treatment, John turned down an offer to be released early because of father’s position in military command. He knew well that the Vietnamese wanted to use him as a propaganda tool and refused to accept early release until those captured ahead of him were freed. It took great self-discipline and courage for a severely injured man to refuse the chance to leave that hellhole. John McCain passed that test and emerged from his experience as a POW with the respect of his comrades in arms.

Those of us who have seen war know it for the truly terrible thing it is. We also know that war is not the worst of things. War brings great heartache and great heroism. John jokes that it takes no unique talent to intercept an SA-2 missile guided to you. Those of us who know him, and have shared some of his experiences, know better. He is a man of great courage. He has faced vicious enemies, armed with nothing but his character and determination.

Throughout his life, John has fought for what he believes is right for the United States. He lives to serve causes greater than himself. He is running for president not to be somebody, but to do something.

That is courage. That is leadership.

John McCain is battle tested — in combat and in Washington. We served with John and know the truth: There is no better man to lead us through the challenging times our nation faces today and on to our best days that lie ahead.

Michael Cronin, a Navy pilot, was a prisoner of war for six years and two months. He retired from the Naval Reserve as captain, and was awarded two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, a Distinguished Flying Cross, four Bronze Stars, 15 Air Medals, two Purple Hearts, and two Navy commendation medals. George (Bud) Day, an Air Force pilot, was a POW for five years and seven months. He retired from the Air Force as a colonel after serving in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He is the Air Force’s most highly decorated officer, earning a Congressional Medal of Honor, an Air Force Cross, a Legion of Merit, a Distinguished Flying Cross, two Bronze Stars, nine Air Medals, and three Purple Hearts, among other honors. Ralph Gaither, a Navy pilot, was a POW for seven years and five months. He retired from the Navy as a commander, was awarded two Silver Stars, two Legion of Merits, four Bronze Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross, six Air medals, two Purple Hearts, and the Navy Commendation medal. Paul Galanti, a Navy pilot, was a POW for six years and eight months. He retired from the Navy as a commander, and was awarded the Silver Star, two Legion of Merits, the Bronze Star, nine Air Medals, and two Purple Hearts. Wesley Schierman, an Air Force pilot and POW for seven years and six months. He retired from the Air Force as a major,was awarded the Silver Star, two Legion of Merits, two Bronze Stars, six Air medals, and two Purple Hearts. Orson Swindle, a Marine pilot, was a POW for six years and four months. He retired from the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel, awarded two Silver Stars, two Legion of Merits, two Bronze Stars, thirteen Air Medals and two Purple Hearts.

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