National Security & Defense

For His Heroism at the Hanoi Hilton, McCain’s Navy Peers Have Been Quick to Salute Him

In the spring of 1977, I was a very new under secretary of the Navy, when the admiral in charge of congressional relations for the Navy Department asked to speak privately with me and the Secretary, Graham Claytor, after our morning staff meeting. He said that his deputy for Senate relations was retiring and that he had an idea for his replacement. “Old Admiral McCain’s son,” he said, “has been out of prison for several years. He’s doing a great job as a squadron leader but I think he might have some political talents and I’d like to offer him the Senate job that’s opening up.”

Claytor said, “Probably okay but, Jim, ask around first and see what you can learn about him.”

So I proceeded to get together one-on-one with people who might know him, mainly contemporary naval officers. A number of these men had been in the Hanoi Hilton with McCain, and when I met with them I heard stories that all had a common theme. One fellow aviator who had been in prison with McCain said, “Well, I’ve had a lot of arguments with John. The last time we played poker, we damned near got in a fight. But, I love him like a brother and I’d follow him anywhere.”

As I explored McCain’s past, I frequently heard descriptions of how he dealt with the North Vietnamese’s demand that he write his father, who had been appointed Pacific Fleet Commander, and that he sign a request to be released early. They wanted McCain to be a poster figure for favoritism, and McCain absolutely refused to comply.

So the North Vietnamese would drag McCain each day to and from the interrogation and torture room while he fought them as hard as his injuries allowed, shouting obscenities as a way of letting his fellow prisoners in nearby cells know that he was not capitulating to the North Vietnamese demands. As his friends heard his shouts they had no doubt that their fellow imprisoned officer was turning down, to put it mildly, his chance for early release.

President Nixon greets McCain after his release in May 1973.

This went on for months. Eventually the North Vietnamese realized that they would never secure McCain’s signature on a request for early release.

I went back to Secretary Claytor and told him what I had learned from McCain’s fellow prisoners and others. He said, “It sounds like this is the guy we want. I’ll give this hero a call right now. Get me his number.”

R. James WoolseyRobert James Woolsey is a national security and energy specialist and a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

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